Upstate New York Stargazing – July, 2016

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

The Milky Way is visible in this 2013 photo shot in California (Don Bartletti | Los Angeles Times). Click the image for a larger size.

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.

The view looking Southwest at 10:00 p.m. on July 15th (except for the changing Moon position, this mid-month view is accurate for all of July). Image made with Stellarium. Click the image for a larger size.

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).

  DateApproximate Start TimeStarting DirectionApproximate End TimeEnding Direction
Tue, 269:30 p.m.S-SW9:36 p.m.E-NE
Tue, 2611:06 p.m.W11:12 p.m.NE
Wed, 2711:50 p.m.W-NW11:56 p.m.NE
Thu, 2810:57 p.m.W11:03 p.m.NE
Fri, 2910:04 p.m.W10:10 p.m.NE
Fri, 2911:41 p.m.NW11:46 p.m.NE
Sat, 309:10 p.m.W-SW9:17 p.m.NE
Sat, 3010:48 p.m.W-NW10:53 p.m.NE
Sun, 319:55 p.m.W-NW10:00 p.m.NE
Sun, 3111:32 p.m.NW11:36 p.m.N-NE

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.

The view looking South at 10:00 p.m. on July 15th (except for the changing Moon position, this mid-month view is accurate for all of July). Use the bright Mars, Saturn, and Antares to find the rest of Scorpius’ body. Image made with Stellarium. Click the image for a larger size.

Damian G. Allis, Ph.D. is the director of CNY Observers (www.cnyo.org) and a NASA Solar System Ambassador.

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Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Sagittarius

As first appeared in the July 2009 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Image generated with Starry Night Pro 6, www.starrynight.com.

The Constellations, for all of their mythological, mystical, and ceremonial significance throughout human history, are also the bases for much of the scientific discovery (the Zodiac was a calendar long before it was ever used to identify the other kind of dates, and the backdrop of the unchanging Heavens served as the guide against which the motions of the planets were first tracked) that fueled our understanding of the universe before Edwin Hubble first exposed its true vastness by identifying the "Andromeda Nebula" as, in fact, a galaxy far outside of the Milky Way. The constellations have also served in a far more pragmatic capacity throughout human history as seasonal sign posts, simply marking times and locations for those on land and sea. Perhaps the most famous example of this in American History is the use of the Big Dipper as the marker by freed slaves traveling North along the Underground Railroad. The song "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd" is not simply a series of verses, but is instead a set of instructions, with the "Drinkin' Gourd" being the Big Dipper, the most easily recognizable asterism in the Northern Hemisphere (amateur astronomer or not) and pointer (by drawing an arrow from Merak to Dubhe) to the North Star Polaris, itself the most famous star of the Little Dipper (also known as Ursa Minor), an otherwise somewhat unimpressive constellation (certainly not as prominent in the North as the Big Dipper or the Cassiopeia "W" and, therefore, not as useful a sign post).

The Little Dipper is not the most prominent constellation in the Night Sky, but it serves as an important terrestrial marker because it includes Polaris among its member stars. Just as the Big Dipper is a prominent asterism that directs you to the Little Dipper, the Summer constellation Scorpius (which has been recognized specifically as a scorpion by many cultures for several millennia) can draw you to a slightly less prominent constellation to its West that is a sign post to a far more impressive marker than Polaris.

Sagittarius is an astronomy instructor's dream constellation, as it wraps up a number of interesting topics of discussion in one easy-to-find location. To begin, the Centaur, a half-human/half-horse hybrid, is the perfect bridge between the fantastical world of mythology in all of its seeming ridiculousness and, well, the shining example of what might even be ridiculously possible as scientists learn more about DNA and biological engineering (as of this past May, we now can make monkeys that glow in the dark. That's right, in the dark).

Second, Sagittarius provides its viewer another shining example of the difference between a constellation and an asterism. A constellation is, simply, a specific grouping of stars that everyone has agreed are, in fact, assigned to that particular constellation. This circular definition was finally laid flat by the International Astronomical Union in its defining of Constellation Boundaries, solidifying star groupings that go as far back as antiquity and as far forward as 1763 (the exploration of the Southern Hemisphere was not limited to the land and the sea). An asterism is, simply, a convenient grouping of stars that are NOT one of the 88 Official Constellations, with some asterisms being only fragments of a full Constellation (such as the Big Dipper, the most famous asterism in the Constellation Ursa Major) and some asterisms composed of parts of multiple Constellations (such as the Summer Triangle, composed of the stars Deneb (Cygnus), Altair (Aquila), and Vega (Lyra). At our latitude (Syracuse and Tully), we cannot even see the entire Constellation of Sagittarius, but have an excellent view during the Summer of one of the most modern of conveniences in the form of a Tea Pot (see below). We may seem a little ridiculous pointing out the tea pot, short and stout, with its handle (on the left or to the West) and its spout (on the right or to the East) at Darling Hill on a dark night, but you will not forget this asterism after it jumps out at you the first time. An important thing to remember is that any grouping of stars in the sky that helps YOU find what you are looking for is as significant an asterism as one you might find in any book. If an otherwise unlabeled grouping jumps out at you that helps you find your place in the Night Sky, put those informal naming rights to good use.

Image generated with Starry Night Pro 6, www.starrynight.com.

Third, the billowing steam from the spout of this tea pot marks a most important location to all 100 billion or more stars in our galaxy. The small darkened oval in the picture above marks the exact location of the center of the Milky Way galaxy (the tiny, fuzzy spec at its middle), meaning we are looking into the most dense region of the galaxy when we set our gazes at this region. Unfortunately, the city lights from Cortland wash the density of the Milky Way band at our South when we observe in Tully, although the full band of the Milky Way is prominent above us during the Summer.

Images from ircamera.as.arizona.edu.

Fourth, because we are looking into the heart of the Milky Way when we see the spout of the tea pot (as the image at right tries to show), we are looking into the densest region of stars we can see from Earth. As a result, this tea pot marks the location of a variety of Messier Objects and fainter nebulae far more numerous than even the largest variety pack the other Celestial Seasonings (pardon the tea pun) has to offer. The Trifid Nebula (M20), Lagoon Nebula (M8), Sagittarius Cluster (M22), Omega Nebula (M17), Black Swan Nebula (M18), M25, M23, M55, M54, M70, M28, M21, and M75 all reside within the Sagittarius boundary, while M6, M7, M16, and a host of other deep sky objects surround its borders in neighboring Scorpius, Ophiuchus, and Serpens Cauda.

When we observe during the Summer, I often recommend to new visitors with binoculars to simply point to the South, aim for the tea pot, and slowly scan. If your binoculars or telescope are anywhere near focused, you are guaranteed to find something within your field of view.

Mildly thirsty just thinking about it,
Damian

www.syracuse-astro.org
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constellation
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zodiac
www.match.com
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planets
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_Hubble
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andromeda_Galaxy
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milky_Way
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_History
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Dipper
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_Railroad
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Follow_the_Drinkin%27_Gourd
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Hemisphere
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beta_Ursae_Majoris
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dubhe
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polaris
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Dipper
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassiopeia_(constellation)
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scorpius
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagittarius_(constellation)
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centaur
www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/05/27/glowing-baby-monkeys-marm_n_208296.html
www.engr.wisc.edu/wiscengr/feb02/monkey.shtml
www.examiner.com/x-9343-Denver-Health-Examiner~y2009m5d29-Monkeys-that-glow-in-the-dark
www.iau.org
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_constellations
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_Hemisphere
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asterism_(astronomy)
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summer_Triangle
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deneb
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altair
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vega
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagittarius_(constellation)
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_20
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_8
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_22
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_17
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_18
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_25
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_23
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_55
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_54
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_70
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_28
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_21
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_75
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_6
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_7
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_16
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scorpius
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ophiuchus
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serpens_Cauda