As Earth moves around the Sun, our star slowly treks through the background of distant stars — a journey that takes precisely one solar year to complete. The path the Sun follows for this journey is the ecliptic. And early this evening, that path is staked out by an array of bright objects that show us where the Sun will travel over the next few months.
The first marker is low in the west shortly after sunset, before the sky gets dark: the planet Mercury. It looks like a fairly bright star, but it’s so low in the sky that it’s tough to see. Those in the southern states will have a better view of the little planet than those in the north.
Well to the upper left of Mercury, look for Regulus, the brightest star of Leo. The Sun will scoot past Regulus in late August, then spend several more weeks transiting the rest of the constellation.
Even higher along the Mercury-to-Regulus line, look for the orange planet Mars. It’s much fainter than it was just a few months ago, but it’s still a pretty sight, and easy to pick out as well.
Well to the left of Mars, and a little higher in the sky, are two objects that flank the ecliptic — the planet Saturn, and the star Spica below it. The ecliptic runs directly between them.
Finally, arc down to the southeast for the gibbous Moon, which is passing through Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer. Because the constellation lies along the ecliptic, the Sun will pass through its borders as well — in early December.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.