Here are the monthly sky watch highlights. Each month, we share the wonders of the universe to help you explore the night sky from your own backyard. (Note: Times listed below are ET.)
by Bob Berman, as featured in
The Old Farmer's Almanac
Demoted ex-planet Pluto reaches opposition at a hopeless magnitude of 14.1 on the 4th. The Moon displays two superbly tight conjunctions this month. First, it floats just below zero-magnitude Mars on the 5th, with blue Spica close by on the left; the grouping is best seen at nightfall. Then, on the 7th, it’s very close to Saturn, with the pair highest at nightfall in the south. Mercury hovers below Venus low in the eastern morning sky on the 17th; the innermost planet is magnitude 0 but struggles against the twilight glow. Venus, fading further to –3.8, stands to the left of the Moon low in eastern twilight on the 24th. Jupiter finally vanishes into solar glare as it crosses into Cancer and passes the Sun in a conjunction on the 24th.
Sky Map July 2014
Astronomer Jeff DeTray has created the sky map below to help you navigate the heavens!
Visit Jeff's site at AstronomyBoy.com
This month's highlight: The Summer Triangle.
As always, our Sky Map is drawn for mid-northern latitudes, including most of the United States and southern Canada, all of Europe, and much of central Asia. Unless otherwise noted, the map is useful for the entire month.
Warm July nights are very pleasant for star gazing. The heat of the day has waned, and you can comfortably stay outdoors for as long as you wish. So apply some mosquito repellant and look to the East.
By late evening, the Summer Triangle has risen well above the horizon and dominates the Eastern sky. The Summer Triangle is comprised of three bright stars: Vega, Altair, and Deneb. They are the 5th, 12th, and 20th brightest stars in the night sky.
Vega is in the small constellation Lyra, the Lyre. Vega is noticeably brighter than Altair and more than twice as bright as Deneb. Compared to our own Sun, Vega is 40 times as luminous. In recent years, evidence has accumulated that one or more planets may be in orbit around Vega. So it is possible that when we look at Vega, someone is looking back at us! If so, their view of our Sun is anything but spectacular. From the viewpoint of Vega, our Sun is merely a faint dot in the sky. In Carl Sagan's popular book “Contact,” later made into a film starring Jodie Foster, mankind's first message from an extraterrestrial intelligence comes from the region of Vega.
Altair, located in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle, also starred in the movies. The classic 1956 science fiction film “Forbidden Planet” takes place on Altair 4, a planet circling Altair. So far as we know, there are no planets orbiting the real-life Altair, but astronomers are constantly finding new planets around distant stars, so perhaps Altair has a planet or two that have not yet been discovered.
Deneb marks the tail feathers of Cygnus, the Swan. Its name means “tail” in Arabic. Cygnus is one of those rare constellations that actually resembles its namesake. While Deneb is the Swan's tail, Albireo is its beak. Albireo is Arabic for “the hen's beak.” Other stars in the constellation form easily recognized wings. To my eyes, Cygnus clearly resembles a graceful Swan.
High above the Summer Triangle is pattern of stars known as the “Keystone,” because it resembles the shape of the keystone of a stone arch. The “Keystone” is an example of an asterism—a recognizable pattern of stars within a constellation. The four stars of the “Keystone” lie at the center of the sprawling constellation Hercules, the Hero. The four stars of the “Keystone” aren't particularly bright, but the shape of the “Keystone” is quite distinctive.
And now a challenge. If you live in a truly dark location AND have excellent vision, try to see M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules. M13 lies along the upper side of the “Keystone.” If you can see it at all, M13 will resemble a faint star. In actuality, M13 is a gigantic, dense cluster containing about 300,000 stars. But it is very far away and visible with the unaided eye only from extremely dark locations. Forget about seeing M13 from the suburbs; you'll have no chance unless to go to a remote rural location far, far away from any manmade light.
Sky map produced using Chris Marriott's Skymap Pro
Explore the sky night from your own backyard. A printable black and white map is provided below!
Click for Printable JULY Sky Map (PDF)
Just click, print, and bring outside!