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: Libra

As first appeared in the May 2010 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

It is only fitting that, as we approach Summer and the unbelievable wealth of binocular and telescope objects that reside within the central region of the Milky Way, we spend at least one article on an otherwise mundane (to the amateur astronomer, anyway) Constellation. We endeavor this act of balance in the presentation of night sky viewing (and in the interest of accounting for all of the sky by the time these articles are done) by featuring Libra, The Scales.

The history of Libra in Western culture is one of science, religion, theft, imminent domain, here-say, and whatever existed as copyright in the Roman days (it is tough to make a Constellation associated with the Law interesting enough for prime time TV, as the only thing there is to murder is the presentation of any historical interpretation attributed to it). The reference to this collection of stars as a balance is reported to go as far back as the Sumerians (approximately 2000 B.C.), where this collection was known as "ZIBBA AN-NA", or the "balance of heaven." It is of particularly humorous irony this month that the Greeks were responsible for the disappearance of "the balance" from the night sky in favor of over-inflating the magnitude of the already important constellation Scorpius (for historical perspective, this article is being written as Greek economic infrastructure is falling apart faster than the Parthenon during the Siege of Athens in 1687 by Francesco Morosini, the Doge of Venice [as a good Greek, I shake my fist at the Gods in anger]).

The Romans saw fit to either return to the Sumerian tradition or simply declaw Scorpius, as Libra once again became a set of Scales. It is fate that the pinchers of an arthropod would be returned to the type of covering for reptiles. With the first publications of Libra-friendly star groupings and names upon the demotion of the now more diminutive Scorpius, one might even argue that the pen is mightier than the claws.

When not being visually accosted by rock n' roll advertisements for lawyers behind cheap bookcase backdrops offering beaucoup bucks for your injury settlements, the legal profession often seems quite dull and arcane in its own right (sorry, Ray). Libra is equally subdued in its presentation, offering no Messier Objects within its official borders and no other really "interesting" things observable through binoculars or small telescopes. Perhaps the most interesting aspect about the constellation itself is its identification as the only inanimate object of the Zodiac, the ring of Constellations that encompass the ecliptic, or the apparent path of the Sun throughout the year.

That is not, however, to say that there isn't anything worth its weight in hydrogen residing within the Libra boundaries. If we perform a considerable zooming in just above Zubeneschamali (phew! That translates to the "northern claw," just as its counterpart Zubenelgenubi translates to the "southern claw." These names would indicate that Arab astronomers opted to use both Greek and Roman sources despite the obvious conflict in the star groupings), we can see (with very good scopes) the star Gliese 581 (shown below), home of one of the most populated planetary systems yet discovered (although it is important to remember that this number is only of those planets we can detect, which means those with significant gravitational influence on their stellar anchor). This is marked "1" in the opening image. To date, there are four detected stars around Gliese 581 (note that the star name is always first, followed by a letter designation), including Gliese 581 b, a Neptune-sized object with a 5.4 day orbit, c, a rocky Earth-like planet within the Gliese 581 Habitable Zone 1.5 times wider and 5 times more dense than our own, d, a planet 1/2 as massive as Uranus and still within in the Habitable Zone, and e, a planet 1.6 times as massive as Earth and the smallest yet identified. the star Gliese 581 not only represents a feat of mathematical prowess on the part of Terran researchers, but is also of specific interest because of the number of planets within its Habitable Zone, the region within which conditions are believed to be similar to our own (specifically, liquid water on the surface). Some even refer to this as the "Goldilocks Zone," where it's not too cold and not too hot. One might say that this region is where a proper balance of hot and cold is reached…

Gliese 581

Of all of the asterisms (groups of stars that are not designated as Constellations but that still have specific meaning. For instance, the Big Dipper is an asterism within the Constellation Ursa Major) that have jumped out at me during my binocular viewing adventures, the one marked by the "2" is perhaps the one that most stood out to my eyes. It is one of the most perfect isosceles triangles in the nighttime sky and is reasonably clear around it such that only this shape stands out in low-power optics. When it's out, I always look for this small golden nugget residing within the Zubeneschamali-side of the scales, tipping the balance towards the arrival of the Summer constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius, the pair that mark the inside of our own galaxy and where a disproportionate number of Messier riches abound.