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Predawn parade: In late June, Clark County’s early risers can catch all the planets

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
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This image made available by NASA shows the planet Venus made with data produced by the Magellan spacecraft and Pioneer Venus Orbiter from 1990 to 1994.
This image made available by NASA shows the planet Venus made with data produced by the Magellan spacecraft and Pioneer Venus Orbiter from 1990 to 1994. (NASA) Photo Gallery

Parade season is underway for the first time in several pandemic years, with the Hazel Dell Parade and Portland’s many Rose Festival parades returning public celebrations to local streets.

Celestial parade season is getting underway too, with a grand procession of planets preparing a predawn march above the eastern horizon later this month.

Remarkably, this parade will include every one of our planetary neighbors — all seven planets in the solar system besides Earth. (That’s a total of eight. The former ninth, Pluto, was demoted in 2006 from bona fide planet to “dwarf planet” because its gravity is so weak.)

Of course, the planet parade visible from Earth will be a kind of optical illusion. The planets of our solar system are spread vastly far apart from one another, chasing different orbits around the sun at different speeds.

But because they all do move within the same narrow plane, it’s not that unusual for at least some of the planets to appear to line up and march together before they slowly separate again.

Planet parades of different sizes get different names. Mini parades of three aren’t especially rare, often occurring several times per year. Next come four-planet small parades and five- and six-planet large parades. The upcoming late June parade will be truly great: all seven other planets.

But just five of them will likely be visible without binoculars or a telescope. With optical assistance, though, you might be able to add the solar system’s really distant giants, Uranus and Neptune, to your planet checklist.

Early

Here’s the tough part: To enjoy this parade, you must start looking eastward about an hour before sunrise, because it’s all over when the sky brightens.

As of Saturday, four planets will be rising in a surprisingly straight line that climbs diagonally up the sky toward the south. Low over the east-northeast horizon will be gleaming Venus; higher to the right is rusty Mars; higher still along the same plane are bright Jupiter and dimmer Saturn.

Mercury joins the march beginning June 20, rising to the lower left of Venus and forming up a parade of five.

Yes, they’re all there and even conveniently arranged in familiar order of distance from the sun: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. Plus, a waning moon will march to its own parade drummer as it passes from planet to planet, shrinking to a sliver as it goes.

Get out powerful binoculars or a telescope to spot the solar system’s outermost planets, which are there too — huge and colorful but so far away they’re nearly impossible to spot without help. Greenish Uranus lurks between Venus and Mars in late June, while blue speck Neptune hides between Jupiter and Saturn.

If you do have binoculars, don’t miss Jupiter’s four largest moons as they race around the planet, changing position daily.

June supermoon

What else is up in June? On June 14, the mild-mannered moon throws off its humble disguise and becomes … supermoon!

“Supermoon” means the moon has reached the closest point to Earth in its elongated orbit. At its farthest point — the apogee — the moon is approximately 251,000 miles away from Earth. But the upcoming June 14 close approach — the perigee — will see the moon draw within 222,238 miles of Earth.

The result for our sky-watching eyes is a moon that can appear up to 15 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than average.

There are often three or four supermoons per year. Because of what’s sprouting on Earth, the June supermoon is also called the strawberry moon.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com

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