The July Sky

Are you new to astronomy and looking for things to look at in the night sky? Maybe you want to see a planet, or learn a constellation. Maybe you have a new telescope and want to check out a galaxy or a globular cluster. Here are a few things to look for during July and August. For a complete map of the night sky, you can download a free map from SkyMaps.

Comet Neowise

Comet Neowise

The big object this month is the comet Neowise. This comet survived its trip around the sun and is now visible in our skies. Currently, it's visible just before dawn, with it showing up in the evenings later this month. For example, on the 21st it will be visible at 9pm just above the northwestern horizon. Don't wait on it though - it's always possible the comet could break up or dim before it's visible in the evening. This is worth getting up early for.

In early-mid July, the comet is visible against the predawn sky, along with the Moon, Venus and Mars. The comet has a magnitude of 1 to 2, but comets are dimmer than stars. Technically, the comet is a naked eye object, but it might be hard to see in the pre-dawn sky, so grab your binoculars. This thing is beautiful in binoculars, with comparisons made to the Hale-Bopp comet.

To see it yourself on the 11th, use Capella as a guide star, and the comet is almost directly "down" and "left" from it. As the days increase, the comet will get further and further away from Capella until the comet itself is visible in the evening.

Jupiter & Saturn

Jupiter and Saturn

Jupiter and Saturn are starting to rise at decent times for night viewing. This month, the planets are above the horizon around 10pm, rising higher and earlier every day. The picture above is what they will look like on July 15 at 10pm, but they are visible any time this month. Before July 15, they will be lower in the sky at 10pm. After July 15, they will slowly get a little higher and more west each night. These planets will be viewable for quite some time throughout the summer. A fun beginner project is tracking their position at the same time every night as they rise higher and higher in the sky.

Both Jupiter and Saturn can be seen as "stars" with the naked eye. A little detail can be made out with binoculars. The real beauty of these planets can be seen with a telescope with a little bit of power. The bands of Jupiter can be picked out, and you can even see the red spot if it is facing the Earth at the time of viewing. Saturn's rings are pretty easily seen, with higher and higher power telescopes showing them with greater clarity. For both planets, any bright spots you see surrounding them while viewing through binoculars or a telescope are not stars, but moons. Jupiter's four "Jovian" moons - Io, Ganymeade, Europa and Callisto - are always visible in some combination, but they have an annoying habit of sometimes crossing in front of or behind the planet. See how many you can spot!

The Moon, Mars, Venus & Uranus

The Moon, Mars, Venus and Uranus

For the early risers among us, and for those of us looking at the Neowise coment, an additional three planets can be seen as the moon rises. As the month continues, the Moon, Mars, Venus and Uranus will be lost in the dawn light sooner and sooner, so see these before they are gone! This chart is from July 15 at 5am.

With Venus and the Moon, you have the two brightest non-solar objects in the sky. Obviously both are naked-eye objects, but the moon is also fantastic to look at with binocular or a telescope. Viewing the moon with a bit of power reveals close ups of the various lakes and craters that make up the lunar surface. Venus really needs a telescope to view, and don't expect to see much detail, but the benefit of viewing Venus is that it, like the moon, goes through phases. Looking at Venus through a telescope and tracking it throughout the months lets you track the planet as it goes from full to waxing and waning, just like the moon. The moon moves quickly across the sky, so don't expect it to be right next to Venus unless you're looking exactly on the 15th at 5am.

Mars is a fun one. With the naked eye, it does look red. With a telescope, you can see it in more detail and can even make out the polar caps of the red planet. For Uranus, well, you're going to need a pretty good telescope to see anything. Uranus is so far away that viewing it is difficult, but if you're on a quest to visually observe all the planets in our solar system (and Pluto), don't miss this opportunity.

Constellations to Find

We did these last month, but they are still very relevant to July! These summer constellations and objects are very important to learning the sky, so if you missed out last month, be sure to check them out this month.

If you're just starting out, one of the best things to know about is the Summer Triangle, composed of the stars Vega, Altair and Deneb. These stars are located in the constellations Lyra, Cygnus and Aquila, respectively. You can use the locations of these stars to find your way around the sky. If you can find Vega, for example, you can use it to then "walk" to Hercules. These will rise earlier and earlier every night throughout the summer, but in mid-June they are rising in the eastern sky around 10pm, with Vega coming up first.

The constellations that these three stars are contained within also contain some wonderful deep-sky targets for those of you with a telescope.

The Ring Nebula

The Ring NebulaOpposite Vega, within the constellation Lyra, lies the Ring Nebula. This is a small target, but a telescope and a dark sky should be able to make it out. It's also really easy to find. Just put your telescope halfway between the "bottom" two stars of the constellation and it will pop right out at you.

The Ring Nebula is part of the Messierr catalogue at number 57. The Ring is a planetary nebula, meaning it is formed from the remnants of a dying, sun-like star. The Ring is about 2,000 light-years away from Earth.

If you want to learn more about the makeup and details of The Ring, check out this NASA article.

Albireo - The Double Star

Alberio sits at the head of the swan in the constellation Cygnus. To some, Cygnus also looks like a giant cross in the sky, which would make Alberio sit at the "bottom."

Alberio is a great target no matter what equipment you have. Just naked eye, the star is beautiful. With some high powered binoculars, you can just barely make out that Alberio is not one star, but two! With a telescope, you can see that the two stars are very different colors. One star is a bright gold, the other is a dark blue. Additionally, but not really viewable - the yellow star of the two is itself part of a double star system that is very tightly wound together. However, the double-star of Alberio is a true double-star system in that the stars orbit a common center of mass, and their alignment is not just due to the stars being close to each other based on their perspective from the Earth.

Step Up the Difficulty - The Dumbbell Nebula

Find the Dumbbell Nebula

The Dumbbell is a good target to go for once you're more confident with your scope. If you can find Deneb and Altair, you can figure out where the Dumbbell Nebula is by star-hopping to a location nearly right between the two. Learning how to do this well will be key to finding targets yourself and without go-to.

If you can find it, the Dumbbell is one of the most famous nebulas in the sky. This one, like The Ring, is also a planetary nebula and is just over 1,200 light-years from Earth. The Dumbbell is also part of the Messier catalogue of deep sky objects, coming in at number 27.

Check out this article from NASA: Dumbbell Nebula, for more on what gives this thing it's bright colors and unique shape.

That's it for this month! Good luck, get outside, and look at the stars!

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