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July Starwatch

Two of the most delightful constellations reach their highest point in the south this month.

After nightfall the slithery, S-shaped form of Scorpius comes out, scraping the horizon and raising its claws toward Libra, the scales. The scorpion's heart is Antares, a star classified as a red supergiant, with a diameter about 850 times that of the sun. Burning 10,000 times brighter than the sun, Antares is swathed in a yellowish cloud of gas and it glares at us from a distance of about 550 light-years.

Directly east of Scorpius, the Teapot of Sagittarius resembles an actual teapot with a spout poised over the scorpion's tail. Above its handle hangs the little teaspoon of stars. Sagittarius, the archer, is home to the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Hidden behind a curtain of dust, it is believed to harbor a super-massive black hole with a mass some 4 million times that of the sun.

At our latitude Scorpius and the Teapot only get a short stint in the evening sky, and they never get very high, so enjoy them while summer lasts.

In the west, Venus is an evening "star," outshining everything else. Approaching Venus from the east and north is the bright star Regulus, in Leo, a spring constellation that now is sinking toward the sun's afterglow. On the 10th, look about 40 minutes after sunset to see a thin crescent moon below and between the planet and the star. The next night, the moon will have passed below Regulus. On the 21st, Regulus slips by Venus and appears just to the planet's lower left.

The next morning, Mars and Jupiter have a similar close encounter in the east-northeast, low above the horizon. Look 50 minutes to an hour before sunrise to see faint Mars just to Jupiter's upper left. Together, Mars and Jupiter will form one point of an almost equilateral triangle with the bright stars Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, to the northwest and Capella, in Auriga, above and slightly east.

If you have binoculars, it's a good idea to use them to see Mars and Regulus; both will have a little trouble standing out against the sun's glare.

If you're watching Mars and Jupiter on the 22nd, take a gander to the west to see a nearly full moon close to setting. The moon becomes precisely full later in the day, at 1:15 p.m., but we won't get to see it for several more hours, when the next moonrise occurs. Algonquin Indians called July's full moon the buck moon, for the velvety antlers sprouting from the foreheads of male deer. It was also known as the thunder moon, as thunderstorms are now so frequent.

Earth reaches aphelion, its most distant point from the sun, on the 5th. At that point we'll be about 3.4 percent farther away than at our closest approach, in January.

The University of Minnesota offers public viewings of the night sky at its Duluth campus. For more information and viewing schedules, see: Duluth, Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium: