Jul 10, 2001

Morning Coffee and Planets




Beginning Friday the 13th, four planets, the Moon, and a giant red star will rouse early-rising sky watchers.


Marshall Space Flight Center


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July 10, 2001: For some of us, waking up before dawn can be a challenge, especially during northern summer when the Sun seems to rise so ... prematurely. Often it can be done only with the aid of strong coffee. But next week there's an alternative, a caffeine-free way to rise before the Sun. Simply look out the window. Four bright planets, a giant star, and the delicate crescent Moon are going to put on a show that will startle awake even the drowsiest astronomer.


"This is a good week to wake up early and see the planets," agrees astronomy professor George Lebo. "Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn are all emerging from the Sun's glare in the eastern morning sky, and they're about to form some outrageous groupings."

Above: Artist Duane Hilton's rendering of Venus, Saturn and the slender crescent Moon on July 17, 2001, when the three will gather together in the eastern pre-dawn sky.

The show begins on Friday the 13th -- a lucky day for stargazers -- and continues for a week with can't-miss highlights on July 15th, 17th and 18th.

Around 4:30 a.m. local time on Friday, July 13th, Venus, Saturn, and the red star Aldebaran will form a compact equilateral triangle hovering 25 degrees above the eastern horizon. How high is that? If you hold your clenched fist at arm's length it spans an angle about 10 degrees wide. So, you can find the celestial threesome about two and a half "fists" above the horizon.


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Left: The eastern sky before dawn on July 13th as viewed from mid-northern latitudes. Click to .

The brightest member of the grouping, Venus, is so brilliant it's often mistaken for an airplane or a UFO. But if you stare at Venus for a few moments you'll see it doesn't blink, twinkle, or move abruptly like a spacecraft -- it really is a planet! Venus glares so because it's close to Earth and its global clouds reflect much of the sunlight that falls on them. Yellow-hued Saturn is 10 times wider than Venus, but 50 times dimmer in Earth's night sky because Saturn lies in the outer solar system. Aldebaran, even more distant at 71 light years, is a giant reddish-colored star 40 times wider than the Sun that could swallow 40 billion Venus-sized planets.

If you're a parent showing giant Aldebaran to your kids, you might wish to mention that the fiery-red eye of the constellation Taurus is also a far-out tourist destination. NASA's venerable Pioneer 10 spacecraft is headed in the general direction of Aldebaran -- and due to arrive in that part of the Galaxy two hundred thousand years from now.




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Also on Friday the 13th, Jupiter and Mercury -- both lying low near the eastern horizon -- will pass less than two degrees from one another. That close encounter will take place in the glow of dawn, and you'll need a clear view of the horizon to see it.

Before sunrise on Sunday, July 15th, Venus and Saturn will have a close encounter of their own. The pair will be separated by just 0.7 degrees -- about the width of a pinky finger held at arm's length. It will be a spectacular sight with or without magnification. View the planets through a modest telescope and you'll see that their globes are both 17 arcseconds wide. Venus will appear as a bloated half-planet (like our Moon, Venus has phases), while Saturn with its rings tilted alluringly toward Earth will provoke exclamations of pleasure from first-time telescope viewers.


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July 13th and 15th will be delightful, but the best day for stargazing this month is surely Tuesday, July 17th. Before the Sun rises that morning Venus, Saturn, and an exquisite crescent Moon will appear gathered together in a patch of sky less than 2 degrees wide. "It should be a breathtaking sight above the eastern horizon," says Lebo. Even city-dwellers will be able to spot the dazzling trio as they shine right through urban light pollution.

Left: The eastern sky before dawn on July 17th as viewed from mid-northern latitudes. Click to


Dark-sky observers will see something that day that their city cousins won't: cradled in the arms of the crescent Moon will appear the ghostly outline of the full Moon, a dim glow that astronomers call "Earthshine." Earthshine is sunlight that bounces off our planet and then falls on the Moon, gently illuminating its night side. A crescent Moon with Earthshine is regarded as one of the most delicate and beautiful sights in the night sky.


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Next, on Wednesday morning July 18th, Mercury, Jupiter, the Moon, Venus and Saturn will form a nearly-straight line cleaving the eastern sky. This is a good day to find Mercury if you haven't already. Simply draw an imaginary line downward from Saturn through Venus and Jupiter. At the end lies pink-colored Mercury, close to the horizon and the rising Sun.

Right: The eastern sky before dawn on July 18th as viewed from mid-northern latitudes. Click to



Spotting Mercury on July 18th is good practice for July 19th, when sky watchers with an unobstructed horizon can see something truly extraordinary, but only if they know where to look. On that morning, even as the sky begins to glow with the rising Sun, Mercury and the whisker-thin crescent Moon will converge and seem to touch.

What a sight!

And what better way to begin the day? The coffee drinkers among us might still fire up the coffee pot after the Sun rises. But before dawn, you can't beat waking up with a dose of dazzling planets!



Editor's note: This story was written with northern hemisphere sky-watchers in mind, but the planets will put on a show in the southern hemisphere, too. If you live south of the equator, turn the star charts in this story upside down and keep an eye on the eastern sky before local dawn. The planets will be just as dazzling in your part of the world.




Morning Coffee and Planets
July 10, 2001

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 Thursday's Classroom

These lessons and activities for 6th to 12th grade classrooms are based on the Science@NASA news story "Morning Coffee and Planets"
  • Discussion Questions: These lively questions might inspire your students to wake up before dawn. [lesson plan] [activity sheet]
  • Hands Up!: One of the most useful tools for navigating the sky is right by your side -- your hands! In this activity students will explore the daytime horizon, measuring the angular size of features they see there. It's great preparation for a night of stargazing. [lesson plan] [activity sheet: for older kids or for younger kids] [A Handy Hand-out]
  • Sky Orienteering: OK, so the planets are putting on a show...where should you look? This simple lesson introduces kids to the cardinal directions around their house so they'll know how to find the planets in mid-July. [lesson plan]


Use this button to download the story with lessons and activities in printer-friendly Adobe PDF format:
Web Links


Jupiter - Learn more about the biggest planet in our solar system.

Saturn - the second-largest planet orbiting the Sun is arguably the most beautiful. Even a small telescope reveals its enchanting rings.

Mercury - Fiery Mercury never strays very far from the Sun.

Venus - Venus isn't the biggest planet, but it is the brightest thanks to its sunlight-reflecting clouds.

Aldebaran -Find out a little more about the brightest star in the constellation Taurus.


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