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ATLANTIC SKIES: Learn about the dolphin in the skies

The constellation of Delphinus (Latin for dolphin) is easily identified by its four-star, lozenge-shape (representing the dolphin's body) with another star below (for the dolphin's tail).
The constellation of Delphinus (Latin for dolphin) is easily identified by its four-star, lozenge-shape (representing the dolphin's body) with another star below (for the dolphin's tail).

A few years after I moved to Prince Edward Island from Nova Scotia in 1987, I had an encounter with some dolphins.

I had become a member of an Island-based animal rescue organization dedicated to rescuing animals in distress. One summer day, we got a call that there was a large pod of more than 30 white-sided dolphins stranded on the beach at the mouth of the Dunk River, east of Summerside. We responded and, in time, eventually got all but one of the dolphins (sadly, one died) safely back into the water, whereupon they swam away. CBC TV came and filmed us tending the dolphins (I still have an old DVD copy of the CBC program somewhere).

I also encountered some dolphins while free-diving off the Island's north shore one summer several years ago. The four, white-sided dolphins approached me underwater (in about 20 feet of water), more out of curiosity I think than anything else, wondering what this strange creature was swimming around in their domain. After swimming a few circles around me, and one close pass (I did get to stroke the side of one dolphin), they disappeared into the distant, murky depths.

For those of you drawn to the sea, our summer night sky has a dolphin in it - the constellation of Delphinus (Latin for dolphin). Located to the left of and between the constellations of Cygnus - the Swan and Aquila - the Eagle in the eastern sky as darkness falls, Delphinus is easily identified by its four-star lozenge-shape (representing the dolphin's body) with another star below (for the dolphin's tail).

To the ancient Greeks, this constellation represented the dolphin that Poseidon, the god of the ocean, sent to find and bring back the nereid (a sea-nymph) named Amphitrite, who, in order to avoid Poseidon's advances, had fled and gone into hiding. Delphinus eventually located the sea-nymph and convinced her to return to Poseidon's underwater palace, where she eventually married the god of the ocean. To show his gratitude, Poseidon placed the dolphin in the night sky.

Another story has Delphinus representing the dolphin that saved the life of the legendary 7th century Greek poet and musician, Arion. While returning home by ship from a very successful concert he had given in Sicily, Arion was attacked by the ship's crew, who intended to rob him of his concert money and murder him. He managed to convince the crew to grant him one last request: to sing a dirge (a funeral song). Arion sat on the ship's gunwale, singing and strumming his lyre. His music attracted a number of dolphins to the side of the ship, and Arion, seeing his chance at escape, threw himself overboard into the sea, whereupon he was rescued by one of the dolphins and carried safely to shore. Apollo, the Greek god of poetry and music, who much favoured Arion and his music, placed the dolphin in the night sky as a reward for its bravery and kindness. This version of the story has Arion's lyre being placed in the heavens as Lyra - the Lyre (as opposed to it being the lyre of the mythical Orpheus).

This week's sky

You might catch a glimpse of Mercury, our solar system's smallest planet, when it rises in the east shortly after 4 a.m., though you will probably need a clear sky and an unobstructed horizon. By dawn, Mercury (magnitude +0.1) will sit only five degrees (half a hand's width at arm's length) above the horizon. Things will improve for viewing Mercury by July 27. On that date, it reaches its highest point (14 degrees) in the eastern sky by sunrise. Mercury reaches its greatest western elongation (angular separation from the sun as seen from Earth) on July 22.

Venus (magnitude -4.47) rises shortly before 3 a.m., reaching 23 degrees above the eastern horizon before fading from view around 5:20 a.m.

Mars (magnitude -0.75) rises a few minutes before midnight, and is visible in the pre-dawn sky, where it reaches a height of 43 degrees above the southern horizon before being lost from sight around 5:30 a.m.

Having passed opposition July 14, Jupiter (magnitude -2.73) makes its grand appearance eight degrees above the southeast horizon around 9:30 p.m., remaining visible until about 4:15 a.m., when it disappears in the southwest dawn sky.

Ringed Saturn (magnitude +0.14) is at opposition (opposite the sun in the sky as seen from Earth), and at perigee (closest approach to the Earth) on July 20. Visible at nine degrees above the southeast horizon a few minutes after 10 p.m.(about 9:45 p.m. by July 26), Saturn remains visible throughout the night, only fading from view 10 degrees above the southwest horizon around 4:30 a.m. (shortly after 4 a.m. by July 26).

Both Jupiter and Saturn (to the left of Jupiter) are at their highest point, side by side, in the southern sky around midnight.

Comet visible

Now an evening object, Comet NEOWISE, though fading, should still be visible this coming week. Look for the comet with binoculars or a telescope in the constellation of Lynx - the Lynx, low above the northern horizon as the sky darkens, with clear weather and an unobstructed northern horizon being your best chance of finding the comet.

Be sure to check online for the comet's latest update and finder charts before heading outdoors, so you aren't wasting time looking in the wrong area of the sky. While you're online, look for information about Comet A/2019 U6 in the constellation of Virgo - the Maiden; it may be more readily visible than NEOWISE.

You might start to see a few early Perseid meteors streaking from the northeast in the post-midnight sky this coming week. Although the peak of this famous meteor shower isn't until Aug. 12, you may glimpse a few on a clear night under a dark sky. Don't forget to look for the Summer Triangle.

Until next week, clear skies.

Events:

  • July 20 - New moon and Saturn at opposition and perigee
  • July 22 - Mercury at greatest western elongation
  • July 25 - Moon at perigee
  • July 27 - Mercury at the highest point in eastern sky at sunrise

Glenn K. Roberts lives in Stratford, P.E.I., and has been an avid amateur astronomer since he was a small child. He welcomes comments from readers at glennkroberts@gmail.com.

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