Tuesday, July 1, 2014

July 2014: Month at a Glance

With the arrival of July, the Summer Solstice is still a recent memory, which means that the Sun won't be going anywhere soon. Result: those short nights are going to be sticking around, making for short, but good times under the stars as the summer sky is, more than any other season, a cosmic picture book.

Cool Constellations
With the arrival of July, the summer sky is at its peak for viewing as all the major sights are now visible without having to stay up half the night. First of all, spring leftovers Hydra (or at least its head end), Corvus, Cancer, Leo, and Crater will be disappearing for the year. Virgo, highlighted by bright Spica, is also getting very low in the Southwest. Also, the Big Dipper signpost is now obsolete as the last two stops in the chain are gone with only Arcturus (alpha Bootes ) and Spica (alpha Virgo ) still remaining in the sky. Back to the Dipper, it's now pointing downward come nightfall. Onto the summer sky and the cosmic picture book. First up, Corona the crown, with a little imagination, looks like its namesake, or at least a tiara. Moving over, mythological hero Hercules looks somewhat human. Continuing into the Summer Triangle, Lyra looks vaguely like an ancient lyre. Going down, Cygnus is very swan-like
and Aquila, with a little imagination, looks like an eagle. The mini constellations Delphinus and Saggita? Yes, they look like their namesakes, too. Now, moving to the South, Libra, though dim, does look like an ancient string scale. Scorpius? Well, using your imagination, the profile can resemble a scorpion. Finally, Sagittarius, one look at it instantly reveals why it is nicknamed the Teapot. Also, there is the Milky Way, which arches high overhead on summer nights and serves as a good measure of how good (or bad) your sky is when it comes to light pollution. By the time the sky starts to brighten, a fall preview in the form of Pegasus, both Pisces, Cetus, Andromeda, Aries, Capricorn, Aquarius, and even Perseus is on tap, too.

Planetary Perceptions
On the planet front, July is shaping to be a pretty good month for planet viewing. First of all, there's Jupiter, the king of the planets, which is rapidly disappearing into the dusk twilight. At the start of the month, Jupiter sets only about an hour after the Sun. Needless to say, the time to view Jupiter is very limited. Moving to around the 5th, elusive Mercury will start to appear in the predawn sky, peaking in height around mid-month. Don't wait, though, the little planet won't be visible for long! Moving into the evening, July also presents the last chance to catch Mars under truly dark skies. Moving into the night, Saturn is still visible most of the night, the only bad news is that it is rather low thanks to the time of year and the low ecliptic plane, which means that telescopic viewing might be rather problematic thanks to having to look through a lot of atmosphere. Moving to the morning, Venus, third brightest object in the sky, is visible in the hours before sunrise all month.

Tonight's Sky for July 1: Hercules Reaches Zenith at Midnight
Want to see the constellation of Hercules but have no idea where to look? Well, early July is the perfect time to spot the mythological strongman as Hercules is directly overhead (or very near so) at the mid-Northern latitudes come early July. However, for people new to astronomy expecting an Orion-like stellar signpost, forget it as the stars that make up the constellation are anything but strong, with most being somewhere in the 3rd magnitude. 

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