Exploring Our Night Sky - July 2020

Image courtesy of Steven Marshall Photography www.smarshall.photography

It’s after the Solstice, the nights are getting dark again and you can find your way around the constellations using the stars of the Summer Triangle, Vega, Altair and Deneb. Through July, the Milky Way becomes more visible and, by the end, you’ll be able to see its cloudy band passing through Deneb and between Vega and Altair. Jupiter is at its closest to Earth on 14 July, so will be shining at its brightest. It will be so bright that it’ll dominate the night sky as it blazes low down in the southern sky.

The Constellations

It’s beginning to get dark at night again, but as it is still light until quite late, this month’s star charts are for midnight. With sunset at around 10:00 pm, you should see the constellations emerging from about 11:00 pm onwards. Also, at this time of year, we begin to see the Milky Way again and at the end of the month, this home to 200 billion stars will be visible from around 11:00 pm as it starts to make its way above the southern horizon.

The best way to navigate your way around the sky to find the Milky Way and the constellations is to use the Summer Triangle. The Triangle is made up of the three bright stars of Vega, Altair and Deneb. Start off by finding Vega, a really bright white star, which will be the only bright star above you. Next is Altair, which you will find halfway between Vega and the south-east horizon. Finally, there is Deneb, which is over to the east, way above Altair and across from Vega. By the end of the month, you should be able to see part of the Milky Way as a cloudy band passing through Deneb and in-between Vega and Altair.

You can still see the spring constellations of Hercules, Corona Borealis (the Northern Crown) and Boötes (the Herdsman) in the west, off to the right of Vega and if you look way down on the southern horizon, you’ll see the constellation of Scorpius (the Scorpion) with its brightest star, Antares shining with a slightly orange tinge. Above Scorpius, you will find Ophiuchus (the Serpent-Bearer), the large constellation, which straddles the celestial equator.

To the east of Scorpius, and just above the horizon, you will find the constellation Sagittarius (the Archer). This is not a particularly bright constellation, so you’ll need a good, clear night and be far away from any light pollution to see it. However, this year it will be easier than normal to find because the planet Jupiter will be shining bright just up and to the left of it. If you do spot the stars of Sagittarius, you will see that they form a sort of teapot shape. The handle of the teapot represents the upper body of the Archer, while the curve of three stars to the right are his bent elbow. The spout of the teapot is the point of an arrow which is aimed at Scorpius, the fearsome celestial scorpion.

Sagittarius is rich in star clusters and nebulae, some of which you can see with binoculars on a night when the southern horizon is really clear. Above the spout is the Lagoon Nebula, a giant interstellar cloud that’s visible to the naked eye. Near to it and visible with a telescope is the three-lobed Trifid Nebula, while above Sagittarius and in the Milky Way, you will find a bright patch of stars called the Sagittarius Star Cloud (M24). Above this, is the Omega Nebula, which is considered to be one of the brightest and most massive star-forming regions of our galaxy.

Going back up to Vega, you’ll see the constellation of Lyra (the Lyre), of which Vega is its brightest star. Below Vega, you will see the constellation’s 4 other main stars, which form a small parallelogram. To its upper left is an interesting double star, Epsilon Lyrae. Some people can see this as a double star with the naked eye, but binoculars show it well. And a telescope larger than about 75 mm aperture reveals that each of the two stars are themselves double stars. For this reason, some people refer to Epsilon Lyrae as the “Double Double”.

The Moon

At the start of the month, the moon is just after its first quarter, so we will have a half Moon. Then, on 5 July, we have this month’s full Moon. This full Moon was called by some, the Buck Moon to signify the new antlers that emerge on deer buck's foreheads around this time. It is also known as the Thunder Moon, Wort Moon, and Hay Moon.

The last quarter Moon (a half moon) is on 12 July and there is a new Moon (no moon) on 20 July. So, if it’s clear on the 22 July, a couple of days later, you will see a very thin crescent moon in the north-west about an hour after sunset. The month ends with a first quarter moon on 27 July and the next full Moon is on 3 August.

The Planets

We have already mentioned that Jupiter will be low down on the southern horizon after dark. However, you will also see Saturn close to it and, as the year progresses, they will get closer and closer until just before Christmas when they will almost merge together. Jupiter will be in opposition on 14 July, meaning that it will be at its closest point to Earth. This means that it will be shining at its brightest. You will see it all night long, blazing low in the southern sky, next to the constellation of Sagittarius.

If you take a look at Jupiter through binoculars, you will see some tiny starry objects on either side of it. These are its brightest moons. There are four of them, though you might not see all of them because they might be in front of or behind the planet itself. If you use a small telescope you will be able to see the disc of the planet, and if you look carefully you should see two or more of its dark belts crossing the planet.

Just to the left of Jupiter, you will find Saturn and, even though it will be ten times fainter, it will also be visible all night long. It reaches opposition on 20 July and because it will be at its closest to Earth, you should be able to see its famous rings using a reasonably good small telescope with a magnification of about 50 or more.

Mars rises in the east around midnight. However, it will be best viewed just before dawn when it will be in the south-east. The red of this planet will be noticeable and it will get brighter and brighter for the remainder of the year as it moves closer to Earth.

Venus is now rising in the north-east from about 3 am to make its appearance as the ‘Morning Star’. If you look for it at just before dawn on the morning of 17 July, you will find it just below a thin crescent moon as it rises above the horizon. Mercury also rises just before the dawn. It will be below and to the left of Venus, but it won’t be all that easy to see.

Meteor Showers

July sees the number of meteors increasing and it may be possible to spot some shooting stars from the Alpha Capricornids and the Delta Aquarids meteor showers. They will appear to come from the south-east, but they will be difficult to see as the Moon will be quite bright around the time they are at their maximum of activity. In reality, we need to wait until the Perseid Meteor Shower in August for our next good show. It will peak on the night of 11-12 August. Although it will be marred a little by the light from a last quarter moon, we should be able to see the brighter Perseids as they will most likely overcome the moonlit glare.

This monthly summary first appeared on https://www.rockpoolhouse.co.uk/july-stargazing.html.

It was written by Steven Marshall, owner of Steven Marshall Photography and Rockpool House Holiday Apartment. He offers landscape and night photography tuition to visitors on the Peninsulas and has various photographic prints, calendars, cards and other merchandise for sale at his studio at Rockpool House. He also enjoys taking his guests at Rockpool House on a tour of the night sky.

If you’d like to share what you love about the area on our website, please feel free to get in touch by email at web@westhighlandpeninsulas.com.

Posted on 2nd July 2020, by Steven Marshall.

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