It’s an unfair world. All through the winter and spring the nights have been dark but it’s been sooo cold. Now that the weather is getting warmer what happens? It hardly ever gets dark, particularly in Britain. You have to wait up till at least 10.30 in July to see any stars at all. And then you can hardly recognise any of them because they have changed totally since winter.
Use our easy-to-follow sky guide and you’ll be out there stargazing in no time. You will need a star map, and you will need to know how it works. This may seem obvious, but there is a knack to understanding these things. Here’s our map for this month:
Wrong way round?
Now don’t write in and tell us that we have the points of the compass all wrong. This is a map of the sky, so you have to hold it over your head. When you do this, east and west will be the right way round.
It shows the whole sky, so the scale is quite small. Normally you turn to see different parts of it, so to see the view looking north, for example, hold the map upside down with north at the bottom.
The map shows the sky in mid July at about 10.30 pm, at the start of the month at 11.30 pm, or by the end of the month at 9.30 pm, though at this time of year the sky is too light to see anything at that time. All times are BST.
|TIP If you aren’t sure of the direction of north from your location, click here for a page on Getting Your Bearings.|
Making sense of the stars
This being summer, the best way to find your way around the sky is to use the Summer Triangle. Actually this is not as obvious as it seems, because this triangle still remains visible well into the autumn and even the winter, but the fact is that it’s a key feature of the summer skies so we might as well stick with the name.
Find it by looking right overhead to find a really bright white star, Vega. It’s the only bright star close to being overhead, so ignore all other stars and look really high up. The next star of the triangle, Altair, is halfway between Vega and the horizon. Altair has a fainter star on either side of it – look at the map to get the idea. The other star is Deneb, which is a bit lower down towards the eastern horizon than Vega. If you can’t spot these three stars straight away, remember that the map above is on quite a small scale, so think big and you should spot it.
Many people recognise The Plough, which if you want to get your bearings is quite high up in the northwest. We’ve picked it out on the map. If you think of the Plough as a saucepan, then follow its handle round towards the horizon, you come to a bright star called Arcturus, which is about the same brightness as Vega but lower in the western sky. It’s also slightly yellowish, and if you thought all stars were white, compare it with Vega to see the difference.
Now use the map below to find more patterns nearby, but don’t expect to see those convenient lines helping you to see the patterns. If you do see them, consult an optician or give back those glasses your friends gave you on 1 April. All maps produced using Stellarium software.
Other constellations to look for
This is the time of year to look way down on the southern horizon for the constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius. Look for Scorpius’s brightest star Antares, which has a slightly orange tinge to it, and has fainter stars on either side. If there’s a bit of haze, or don’t have a good southern horizon you might have trouble spotting it. From the UK we don’t see the whole of Scorpius, just the top bit, with the curve of stars marking its sting always below the horizon. You really must resist the temptation to call it Scorpio – only astrologers do that.
This year there’s a good signpost to Sagittarius – the planet Jupiter. just to its left. It rather outshines the actual stars of Sagittarius, which are still rising at the time the map shows and are not particularly bright. They form a sort of teapot shape, but unless you have a good, clear night and are well away from city lights, you might not see the stars at all well.
Above Scorpius are the stars of Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer. And above that is Hercules, whose most obvious feature is a parallelogram of stars called the Keystone, though it isn’t particularly bright.
The map shows the Milky Way as a pale band crossing the sky. This is a good time of year to look for it, though you won’t see it from light-polluted areas. The best chance of seeing it is high up in Cygnus, but if you go on holiday to a dark-sky area it can appear so bright you will wonder why you can’t see it at home. There are plenty of nebulae and clusters visible with binoculars in this part of the sky, so check out our guide to them.
If you want a map with all the constellation names on it, click here. This month we have a video made under the actual sky with real stars for you to view. It was made on 22 June so it will be a bit out of date by the end of July, but the same stars will be visible at about 10:30 pm instead of 11 pm when the video was made. Because it was actually recorded at night it’s best viewed in dim conditions, and the stars show up best on a reasonable sized monitor, so you won’t get the best results watching it while lying on the beach….
Your planets this month
We’ve already mentioned the two bright planets in the sky, Jupiter and Saturn. They are really obvious this year, being really close together, and as the year goes on they will get closer and closer until just before Christmas they will almost merge together.
Take a look at Jupiter through binoculars and you’ll see some tiny starry objects on either side of it, which 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. With a small telescope you can see the disc of the planet, and if you look carefully you should see two or more of its dark belts crossing the planet.
Saturn is the object that everyone wants to see because of its famous rings. You don’t need a super-colossal telescope to see them – any reasonably good small telescope should show them using a magnification of 50 or more. If it doesn’t, it isn’t (reasonably good, that is). However, with Saturn being so low in the sky as seen from the UK, our turbulent atmosphere will probably smear out any fine details no matter how good a telescope you’ve got.
Mars rises around midnight, in the east, and is best viewed just before dawn in the south-east, looking noticeably red in colour. That’s why they call it the Red Planet, of course. Later on this year it will be quite close to Earth so that’s when we’ll get our best view of it.
Venus rises before the Sun, looking like a very bright star in the dawn twilight over in the east. Mercury also rises just before the Sun, but it won’t be all that easy to spot from the UK, below and to the left of Venus.
For a detailed list of things happening in the sky, click here. And bear in mind that members of the SPA get more info about what planets are in the sky and how to observe them. Find out more here and join the society here!
July shooting stars
Around this time of year the number of shooting stars – or meteors as astronomers prefer to call them – is on the increase. You may have heard of meteor showers, but these are more like meteor dribbles, really, with just fairly modest numbers – no more than a few per hour. They are known as the Alpha Capricornids and the Delta Aquarids, and they appear to come from the south-east part of the sky, but you could see meteors from these sources more or less anywhere in the sky towards the end of the month. This year, however, the Moon will be quite bright around the time they are at their maximum of activity. Read more here. And there are are general background meteors, called sporadics, as well. Great for just gazing up on a warm summer evening and admiring the Milky Way, while shooting stars just zoom over your head. Well, that’s the theory, anyway.
And maybe a comet
Sssh! There’s a comet about. Don’t let on that we’ve noticed it, because comets have a habit of getting very shy and then fading away, or even totally breaking up, to avoid being seen. Or at least that’s what it seems like, because there have been two comets that were intially full of promise so far this year, but totally let us down when they should have been at their brightest. So we are not going to shout about Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE in case it takes fright. As of the beginning of July it is too close to the Sun to be seen, but it seems to be brightening up and might just be worth looking at in the evening sky from the middle of the month, or if you are really keen about 3 am after the first week of the month. Keep an eye on our Comet News page for the latest info and charts of where to look.
View the International Space Station
From the middle of July, the ISS will be making some evening passes over the UK. It’s well worth looking out for, so check out our page telling you how to get predictions from where you live, and what to look for.
What about the Moon, then?
At the very start of the month the Moon is just after first quarter (which is a half Moon), which was on 28 June, then full Moon is on the 5th. Last quarter is on the 12th, and new Moon is on the 20th. The month ends with first quarter, on the 27th, then the next full Moon is on 3 August. If it’s clear on the 22nd take a look low in the west about half an hour after sunset and you might spot the very thin crescent Moon. It’ll be easier to see on the 23rd. Sorry, no eclipses this month.
We also have a whole section of this site about the Moon and what to observe, so do take a look.
Get more helpful info
OK, you’ve read all this for nothing, now comes the plug. This page is brought to you by the Society for Popular Astronomy, which is a really great society to join. It’s based in the UK but there are members in other countries as well. It doesn’t cost much to join, and there is a special rate for Young Stargazers. At least take a look at what we have to offer and maybe take the plunge and join now!
Text by Robin Scagell