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: Triangulum

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

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

I remember my first foray into Constellation memorization, still the first thing I recommend for anyone beginning in amateur astronomy (primarily for using these imagined creations to memorize the locations of far dimmer objects when you graduate up to binoculars or small scopes, but also simply to develop a sense of, well, the space between these creations as you jump between objects).

Orion, yeah yeah… Scorpius, O.K. obvious… The body of Sagittarius looks like a teapot, that's not bad… Cassiopeia is the great big "W" Jonathan Winters discovered in "It's a Mad … Mad World"… The "Dippers" are dippers… Canis Minor is composed of two stars, and they happen to be in a straight line! At least it contains a bit of animal lore and the great Procyon. That should be easy to find.

Ah! Triangulum. A famed triangle of stars. Named after the famed shape called "The Triangle," and believed to be the last Constellation drawn out by Ptolemy as one of the original 48 Constellations of Antiquity. It bet it was supposed to be "The Great Northern Spearhead," but Ptolemy must have been a pacifist. It is believed he committed it to papyrus at 4:50 p.m. on a Friday before the scribes began copying the first edition Monday morning.

I have to admit, this Constellation seemed like an odd member of the original series, if for no other reason than the seemingly minimal amount of work (or so I thought) that must have gone into its creation. As I hope to convey to you in the next few paragraphs, this little Constellation has stood the test of time for a few good reasons.

To begin, the heart of Triangulum dates back all the way to the Babylonians (which means it likely also dates back further into pre-recorded history) who, with the inclusion of what we now know as γ-Andromeda, called this Constellation MUL.APIN, or "The Plough." With this simple extension added in red in the image above, I hope the resemblance is now obvious. To my technologically-biased mind, the nondescript triangle of the modern sky instantaneously becomes the (seemingly) everlasting testament to the power of agriculture and the shining reminder to all of the simple tool responsible for the creation of a commodity we know today as "surplus." I don't think that's going too overboard in the description.

You are here.

We have these "organic farming" discussions where people ask you "Where do you think your food comes from?" It has been quite a recent phenomenon in the long history of this little sphere Carl Sagan referred to as a "Pale Blue Dot" (that's you at right) that the members of a society have been relieved of the strain of producing for themselves by technology that improves efficiency and, more importantly, vastly increases quantity. If I take the comparison to the extreme, the Constellations that represented tools or deities have been replaced in many societies by the gigantic billboards that celebrate the financial well-being of companies continuing their crusade to relieve you of your currency, an economic reality impossible in a society where everyone's working entirely to maintain a base subsistence level. The world remains in transition towards a time when all are at the same technological level as the First World countries (and it is only a matter of time), meaning something as simple to many of you reading this as an animal-driven plough remains a vital key to survival in other parts of the world.

I vote we re-designate the "Summer Triangle" as the "Summer Plough!"

While it may have been a signal for a Late-Summer party at the very beginning of some harvest, the Babylonians used the presence of their Triangulum to mark the "Way of Enlil," the apparent path of the Sun after the Summer Solstice. In a society that used the Heavens as their Calendar, this simple Constellation took on a wholly more significant meaning.

Thanks to wikipedia, I know that a more recent attribution (to only the Triangle, not the Plough) of this Constellation is to the goddess Ceres, who successfully convinced the god Jupiter to add the island of Sicily (at left, the football that the boot of Italy appears to be kicking towards the U.S.) to the Night Sky (perhaps a preferred way to leave your mark in history, esp. given the alternative taken by Atlantis).

Sicily, featuring an active Mount Etna (Image by Jacques Descloitres, NASA MODIS Land Rapid Response Team).

Given this most interesting history, is there anything to actually do with a pair of eyes or an eyepiece in this part of the sky? I'm pleased to report that this part of the sky is actually quite busy (the Star Map at this beginning of this article is about as busy as one can get without looking at Sagittarius), with Triangulum serving as a useful anchor for finding a number of objects in our Eastern sky this month.

M33, the Triangulum Galaxy. Photo by Hunter Wilson.

As it happens, one of the precious few naked eye galaxies (provided ideal viewing conditions) in the Northern Sky lies just to the South (to the right as you're looking at it) of α-Tri. M33 (at right), appropriately named the "Triangulum Galaxy," is a member of the Local Group of galaxies (the most famous member being our Milky Way, the second most famous being the Andromeda Galaxy) and, at 2.9 million light years away, lies (by some estimates) 700,000 light years farther from us than the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) AND, according to measurements using the Very Long Baseline Array, is moving at 190 km/second relative to us and towards M31 (the demolition derby will not be pleasant for M33, given it contains only 4% of the stars of M31 (how many mopeds are there in a semi-rig?). It is still under debate as to whether or not M33 is a companion galaxy to the more massive M31 (they do share proximity), but it certainly stands on its own as a spectacle in a good telescope on a dark night. This first recorded observation (it all comes down to paper) is attributed to Giovanni Battista Hodierna around 1650 (above at left), the most famous recorded observation (it all comes down to publication) can be given to Charles Messier (above at right) on August 25-26, 1764 (now that's bookkeeping!).

Giovanni Battista Hodierna (left) and Charles Messier (right).

All of the other objects in the boundaries of Triangulum are dim (10>th order or dimmer), making your time spent with moderate optics in this area short compared to the time you'd likely spend just on M31 alone. As a good practice for the next Messier Marathon, you can use M33 (*1) and M31 (*2) to mark the Southern side of a rectangle composed of M33, M31, M34 (*3) and M76 (*4, these last two are right on the Perseus-Andromeda border). As M33 will give you M32 and M101, that's a quick-six to check off as you plough your way through the list of 110.

Comet Hartley 2 and NGC 457 (the E.T. Cluster). Photo by SAS member Stu Forster.

AND, as long as were in this neck of the woods (and the tree line in this part of the sky at Darling Hill is now just becoming more bearable to the impatient observer with the falling of leaves), we can use the Babylonian form of Triangulum to quickly point our way to M76, then slowly walk the Telrad to the North (left) until we reach the Southern Double of the famed Double-Double, which then puts into view both members of the Perseus Double-Double Cluster (NGC 884 and NGC 869) and Comet Hartley 2, which is working its way through our neighborhood. Our own Stu Forster managed to capture Hartley (green glow at left) as it passed through the local neighborhood of NGC 457, more commonly known as the Owl or E.T. Cluster (yes. tha E.T., the two bright eyes work for both).

Clear skies, Damian