Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off at 11:29 a.m. EST on July 8, 2011, to begin the STS-135 mission, the last of the shuttle program.
Early Thursday morning offers a picture-perfect scene, with Venus, Mars, and the crescent moon rising as a trio on your East horizon, in the hours just before sunrise. Look a little higher, to your SSE horizon, and there you’ll find bright Jupiter with three of its four Galilean moons.
You’ll need binoculars to see those moons leading W from Jupiter. Left to right, they are Io, Ganymede, and Callisto. The fourth moon, Europa, will be lost in Jupiter’s shadow as it begins its pass behind the giant planet. That bright star just above the three moons will be Mu Capricorni, a 5th magnitude star more than 90 LY away. For a real challenge, look just NE of Jupiter to see if you can distinguish the much more distant, and very faint, Neptune from the surrounding background stars.
While you’re skywatching, check the Heavens Above website to see if Space Shuttle Atlantis will be passing over your region as that crew heads home from NASA’s final Hubble servicing mission. Atlantis will appear as a distant moving star, brightening slightly near its highest point and fading again as it disappears back into the horizon.