Author's Note: The "Upstate New York Stargazing" series ran on the newyorkupstate.com and syracuse.com websites (and limited use in-print) from 2016 to 2018. For the full list of articles, see the Upstate New York Stargazing page.
Night sky-gazing in Upstate NY: What to look for in July
Updated: Mar. 21, 2019, 5:33 p.m. | Published: Jul. 07, 2016, 3:24 p.m.
(Special to Syracuse.com)
By Damian Allis | Contributing writer
Upstate New York has had a rare recent run of some excellent clear nights. Those taking the extra hour past sunset to take in some of the nighttime sky have not been disappointed, with the three bright planets Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn making ideal targets for good binoculars and small telescopes. With the Summer Solstice just past us, amateur astronomers are now adding up the extra minute-or-so of dark sky each evening, while the younger astrophiles (and their parents) are able to return to observing free from worries of sleeping through morning classes with the end of the school year.
July is also the month when the band of our Milky Way galaxy – the original “late night TV” for most of human history, returns in all of its cloud band-like glory to suburban and darker skies during reasonable observing hours (that is, before midnight for most of us).
Your First Steps Outside:
Items and events listed below assume you’re outside and observing between 9:00 p.m. and midnight throughout July anywhere in New York State. The longer you’re outside and away from indoor or bright lights, the better your dark adaption will be. If you have to use your smartphone, find a red light app or piece of red acetate, else set your brightness as low as possible.
If you walk outside around 9 p.m., you’ll not be able to miss Jupiter beaming bright to the West/Southwest. It will be the first “star” visible after sunset and is easily confused as being a distant plane. Through the first-half of July you’ll be able to find the bright star Regulus in Leo the Lion to Jupiter’s right, then Leo’s tail star Denebola (not as bright as Regulus, but still an easy find) above Jupiter. Sweeping left from Jupiter along the red line above, your first bright stopping point is the star Spica in Virgo. Move your eyes a similar distance to the left to land on the very bright and red-orange Mars, now sitting in Libra the Scales. Mars is second only to Jupiter in brightness right now – if you can see Jupiter before dusk, Mars will also be visible to the South, in which case test your eyes with finding the bright star Spica near their middle. Star hop to the left of Mars and you next land on Antares, a red-orange supergiant that is the heart of Scorpius. Leaving the line above, the planet Saturn lies just above, and brighter than, Antares.
Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are three of the five “Superior Planets” in our Solar System – which simply means they are on the outside of Earth’s orbit with respect to the Sun (Venus and Mercury then referred to as “Inferior Planets” – and, to temper our planet’s ego, we’re an Inferior Planet to all the Superior Planets). Uranus and Neptune, the remaining two Superior Planets, can be tough catches that require some decently dark skies (and, especially for Neptune, magnification).
ISS And Other Bright Flyovers:
Satellite flyovers are commonplace (several bright passes per hour, dozens hourly once you know what to look for), yet a thrill to new observers of all ages. Few scheduled flyovers compare in brightness or interest to the International Space Station. The flyovers of the football-sized craft with its massive solar panel arrays can be predicted to within several seconds, with these flyovers taking several minutes to complete. The Top-10 brightest July flyovers for Upstate NY (in terms of pre-midnight timing and peak brightness) are listed below (predictions courtesy of heavens-above.com). Due to its orbit, we won’t see pre-midnight flyovers until later this month, then we’ll have many bright flyovers in August. Simply go out a few minutes before the start time, orient yourself, and look for what will first seem like a distant plane (the difference being that satellites don’t have flashing lights at their wingtips – or wingtips, for that matter).
|Approximate Start Time
|Approximate End Time
Predictions courtesy of heavens-above.com.
This Month’s Moon:
New Moon – July 5th
First Quarter – July 12th
Full Moon (the Full Buck Moon) – July 19th
Third-Quarter – July 26th
Your first thin Crescent Moon appears close to sunset on July 6th and is in the pre-Midnight sky until July 25nd. The Moon’s increasing brightness as Full Moon approaches washes out fainter stars and celestial objects – this is bad for most observing, but excellent for new observers, as only the brightest stars (those that mark the major constellations) and planets remain visible for your easy identification. If you’ve never tried it, the Moon is a wonderful binocular object.
This Month’s Planets:
Jupiter: The king of the planets lies to the West/Southwest, biting at the hind feet of the constellation Leo the Lion. It is the brightest object in the nighttime sky after the Moon right now and appears early after sunset. Over the next few days, you will hopefully see news and updates about NASA’s Juno Mission as it begins its Jupiter survey on July 4th – we’ve still many questions about this planet despite (and because of) many previous missions.
Through good binoculars, Jupiter is a bright disc circled by its four Galilean Moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto). You can continue the tradition begun by Galileo himself by observing these moons and, over the course of an hour or less, see their positions change even with low-power binoculars.
Mars: We made our closest approach to the bright red-orange Mars in late May and it continues to be prominent in the Southeast/South sky, balanced between the scales of the constellation Libra. Jupiter and Saturn, being much farther away, seem to move very little against the backdrop of stars. Mars, on the other hand, will reduce its distance to the bright star Antares by half from July 1st to 31st. On August 23/24, Mars will delight observers and astrophotographers as it passes between Antares and Saturn.
Saturn: Off to the East of Mars lies Saturn. While currently in the constellation Ophiuchus, you might more easily find it by looking for a bright pair of stars – one of them will be the red-orange star Antares in the constellation Scorpius, and Saturn will be the other bright “star” above it. These two will be a pair for as long as we can see them this year. In good binoculars, Saturn and its rings appear as a small oval. With big binos or a small telescope, you should be able to distinguish between the planet and its rings, and maybe even see the dark Cassini Division within the rings.
Learn A Constellation: Saturn And Antares Take The Sting Out Of Finding Scorpius
If you’re brand new to observing, your quickest route to picking out the constellations is to start bright – working your way from the most easily seen stars down to the dimmer ones, playing celestial connect-the-dots until the mythological characters reveal themselves. Saturn and Scorpius’ heart-star Antares provide a bright pair to your South that will help mark the constellation out. The Rey’s Diagram for Scorpius (just one of many possible representations you might come across that all still contain the hooked tail) is shown below, with shortened claws attempting to pinch Mars to their West, and its curved tail dipping South (likely below the horizon) before curling back up again to the East with the bright stinger star Shaula. If you can make this shape out, consider yourself yet another in a long line of observers who, starting with (at least) the Babylonians, have seen this scorpion in the sky for (at least) 5,000 years.