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Mars and Jupiter team up for a sweet dawn conjunction; Venus meets Regulus

If you like the TV show Dancing with the Stars you can watch a planetary version of the same this week in the dawn sky. While most of us have been sleeping, Mars and Jupiter have been busy climbing from the horizon haze;...

If you like the TV show Dancing with the Stars you can watch a planetary version of the same this week in the dawn sky. While most of us have been sleeping, Mars and Jupiter have been busy climbing from the horizon haze; they're finally in view again about the time the first birds sing. Watch this week as the two draw ever closer.

Come July 21-22 the two planets will be in conjunction less than one degree apart, the width of your little finger held up to the sky. Watch for them beginning 90 minutes to an hour before sunrise. I was pleasantly surprised this morning how easy Jupiter was to see with the naked eye. It cleared my local treeline around 4:15 a.m. Mars was considerably fainter than old Jove and took a determined effort to spot. Binoculars gave a great view of both.

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If you need additional motivation to get up a dawn, the International Space Station is back in a pass-making mood, zipping across the sky from west to east and occasionally cruising by Mars and Jupiter before disappearing over the eastern horizon.

Below are times when it will be visible in Duluth, Minn. and region. For times for your city, click over to Heavens Above or Spaceweather's Satellite Flybys page and enter your zip code. The ISS looks like a brilliant, unblinking yellow-tinted "star" as it slides from west to east:

* Friday July 19 starting at 4:54 a.m. across the southern sky in morning twilight. Max. altitude: 43 degrees.

* Sat. July 20 at 4:07 a.m. in the south-southeast 28 degrees

* Sun. July 21 at 4:54 a.m. straight across the top of sky 85 deg. Brilliant!

* Mon. July 22 at 4:07 a.m. high in the south 65 deg. Brilliant!

* Tues. July 23 at 3:20 a.m. in the southeast. 41 deg. Second pass at 4:54 a.m. across the north 48 deg.

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Mornings not your thing? Venus and Regulus, the brightest star in Leo the Lion, will pair up for an evening conjunction also on July 21-22. At closest, the planet and star will be a hair more than one degree apart.

All these alignments occur because the planets, which orbit the sun in the  flat plane of the solar system, occasionally lie along the same line of sight and appear to almost touch. Sure it's just a parlor game, but many of us, myself included, look forward to these special shows every time.

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