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What our forefathers saw

By Vernon Whetstone
Amateur Astronomer

First of all, Happy 236th Birthday to the Good Old U.S. of A. On the hot, steamy, almost overbearing summer afternoon of July 3, 1776, the men who sat in the chamber of the Continental Congress agreed on a document that would declare that the colonies (which would be called the “United States” were free of control from England.
The next day the document was read and, well, you know the rest of the story.
Being the curious type that I am, I set the planetarium software in my computer (or as I like to call it, my “Wayback Machine”) to July 4, 1776, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, just to see what the sky looked like to those men as they went out into the night to celebrate what they had created.
A just-past-full moon rose in the east at about 11 p.m., the Summer Triangle was about halfway up the sky in the east, Scorpius and Sagittarius were in the south, Leo was setting in the west and the Big Dipper was hanging in the north.
In other words, the founding fathers were looking at a sky that looked almost identical–with the exception of a couple of planets—to the one we will see tonight, except for the moon being just one day past full and rising at about 9:30 p.m. MDT which will be just in time for all the fireworks.
A lot has changed in our country since 1776, but not much in the sky has changed.
Speaking of fireworks, the celestial fireworks this week are in the morning sky in the east about an hour before sunrise.
The planets Jupiter and Venus, which entertained us with their close conjunctions all last winter, are now in the morning sky and are doing it again. Just not as close this time.
They will be joined this time by a bright star and two star clusters.
Look at about 4:30 a.m. MDT for the star Aldebaran in Taurus, the Bull close to the horizon. It will be easy to find because it is just below very bright Venus.
If you have a pair of binoculars, look at the “V” shape of the constellation, this is the Hyades star cluster and can be seen all around Aldebaran. Up above the pair is the other bright object in our group, the planet Jupiter.
Above it is another very well known star cluster, the Pleiades, which also looks good in a binocular viewing.
This little group will continue together for the next couple of weeks and will be joined on July 14 and 15 by a slender crescent moon which scoots past the Pleiades and lands right between Jupiter and Venus.
With the exception of the Moon and Aldebaran, this group will continue in the morning skies through the end of the month.
At the end of July there will be another surprise creeping over the eastern horizon—the constellation Orion, the King of Winter. Yep, even here in the middle of summer, we can see in the arrangement of the stars what is coming.
No wonder the people in ancient times paid so much attention to the stars and their movements, it was their calendar.
SKY WATCH: Full moon on July 3. Wednesday, July 4, Earth is at aphelion, its greatest distance from the Sun for the whole year.