A young reader asked how many constellations there are and which is the oldest. The International Astronomical Union today recognizes 88 official constellations although in the past there were well over a hundred.
The oldest is hard to designate as many, such as Pisces, were known back to classical Greek and earlier times. However, if one theory is to believed, Ursa Major or the “Big Bear” dates far earlier than any other. This is known to most as “The Big Dipper” although that is just part of the entire constellation making it what is called an asterism.
Tales of the Big Dipper are remarkably similar throughout the world with the four stars of the bowl being the bear while the three in the handle represent hunters. This tale is found throughout Eurasia but also among the native tribes of North America from one coast to the other.
The odds of a common myth of a bear being found throughout North America when it looks nothing like one is nearly inconceivable so the theory is that the tale traveled from Asia to North America during migration across the Bering land bridge some 14,000 years ago. If so, the tale of the “Big Bear” is between 14,000 to 20,000 years old making it easily the oldest constellation myth in the world.
Focus on the planets
Planets occupy both the evening and morning skies in July but are up for only a short time or otherwise difficult to see.
Mercury will not appear until the final week of July when it will be barely visible low in the northeast at morning twilight.
Venus is low in the west and sets about an hour and a half after sunset all month. A slender crescent moon joins Venus on July 10.
Mars rises in the northeast only a half hour before sunrise making it difficult to spot. On July 6, the crescent moon can be used as a guide as Mars is located to its upper left.
Jupiter rises in the northeast at dawn lying to the lower left of Mars. Jupiter is so close to the horizon that it will be difficult to see early in July but climbs higher each day so, by month’s end, its moons and surface details should be visible by telescope.
Saturn is halfway up on the western horizon at nightfall where it will remain for the month. Saturn sets around midnight so observe as early as possible as the rings are still tilted to 17 degrees making it well worth seeing.
Uranus rises in Pisces high in the southeast well before dawn where its blue-green disk should be visible by telescope.
Neptune rises on the southern horizon in Aquarius around midnight and is recognizable as a blue-gray disk. Both Uranus and Neptune can be found with the aid of the maps published by Sky & Telescope magazine at www.skypub.com/urnep.
1 Sunrise, 4:53 a.m.; sunset, 8:25 p.m.
2 The midpoint of the year occurs at 1:00 p.m. EDT.
5 Aldebaran, the “red eye” of Taurus the Bull, is close to the right of the moon just before sunrise. The Earth is at aphelion or farthest distance from the sun today. It is 3.4 percent farther from the sun than it is at perihelion that occurred on Jan. 2 of this year.
6 A very thin crescent moon lies in the east-northeast at dawn with Mars to its upper left and Jupiter to its lower left.
7 The moon is at apogee or farthest distance from Earth not only for July but for the year.
8 New moon, 3:15 a.m.
11 Looking to the west about an hour after sunset will reveal Venus almost directly to the moon’s right with the bright star Regulus to the moon’s upper right.
16 Moon in first quarter, 11:19 p.m. Saturn lies to the upper right of the moon at nightfall.
20 The sun enters Cancer on the ecliptic.
21 The moon is at perigee or closest approach to Earth today. As perigee occurs less than a day before the full moon higher than normal tides can be expected.
22 The sun enters the astrological sign of Leo however astronomically has just entered Cancer. Full moon, 2:15 p.m. The full moon of July is known variously as the Buck Moon, Thunder Moon, or Hay Moon. About an before dawn today look to the east-northeast for a very close conjunction of Mars and Jupiter. An hour after sunset reveals Venus on the western horizon directly above the bright star Regulus.
29 Moon in last quarter, 3:44 a.m.
30 This is the peak night for the Delta Aquarid meteor shower that radiates from Aquarius. Look for a maximum of 15 – 20 per hour of faint yellow, slower meteors with a few leaving persistent trains.
31 Looking to the east-northeast an hour before sunrise will reveal an ascending line of Mercury nearest the horizon with Mars in the middle and Jupiter at the highest point. Castor and Pollux lie far to the trio’s left. Sunrise, 5:19 a.m.; sunset, 8:03 p.m.
Send astronomical queries to Clair Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org or care of the Bangor Daily News, Style Desk, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402.