It’s July and after the Summer Solstice, so the sky is beginning to get dark again. If you stay up late, you’ll be able to find your way around the constellations using the Summer Triangle, which is made up of the three bright stars, Vega, Altair and Deneb. As the month progresses, the Milky Way will become more and more visible and, by the end of the month, you should be able to see its cloudy band passing through Deneb and between Vega and Altair. Venus will be the first thing you spot in the night sky when it’s getting dark and just before it dips below the western horizon. Meanwhile Saturn will be rising in the south-east and will be followed by Jupiter, Neptune and finally Uranus.
It’s now after the Summer Solstice so it will begin to get dark at night again and with sunset at around 10:00 pm, you should see the constellations emerging from about 11:00 pm onwards. Also, at this time of year, we begin to see the Milky Way again and at the end of the month, this home to 200 billion stars will be visible from around 11:00 pm because it’s cloudy core will be above the southern horizon then.
Above Ophiuchus look for a quadrilateral of stars known as the Keystone, from its shape. This is the most recognisable part of the Constellation of Hercules, named after the Roman mythological figure who was known for his strength and numerous far-ranging adventures. The constellation is best known for its great globular cluster of stars, M13, and has a a lesser globular cluster, M92, nearby.
At one time, the globular cluster M13 was known as ‘The Great Hercules Cluster’. It is the brightest globular cluster in the northern hemisphere and is visible to both the naked eye and binoculars. It contains more than 300,000 stars and is 25,200 light-years from Earth and to find it, look about two thirds of the way up the right-hand side of the Keystone. It will look like a circular misty patch through a small telescope, but larger telescopes will start to show the individual stars.
To the east of Scorpius, and just above the horizon, you will find the constellation Sagittarius (the Archer). This is not a particularly bright constellation, so you’ll need a good, clear night and be far away from any light pollution to see it. If you do spot the stars of Sagittarius, you will see that they form a sort of teapot shape. The handle of the teapot represents the upper body of the Archer, while the curve of three stars to the right are his bent elbow. The spout of the teapot is the point of an arrow which is aimed at Scorpius, the fearsome celestial scorpion.
Sagittarius is rich in star clusters and nebulae, some of which you can see with binoculars on a night when the southern horizon is really clear. Above the spout is the Lagoon Nebula, a giant interstellar cloud that’s visible to the naked eye. Near to it and visible with a telescope is the three-lobed Trifid Nebula, while above Sagittarius and in the Milky Way, you will find a bright patch of stars called the Sagittarius Star Cloud (M24). Above this, is the Omega Nebula, which is considered to be one of the brightest and most massive star-forming regions of our galaxy.
Going back up to Vega, you’ll see the constellation of Lyra (the Lyre), of which Vega is its brightest star. Below Vega, you will see the constellation’s 4 other main stars, which form a small parallelogram. To its upper left is an interesting double star, Epsilon Lyrae. Some people can see this as a double star with the naked eye, but binoculars show it well. And a telescope larger than about 75 mm aperture reveals that each of the two stars are themselves double stars. For this reason, some people refer to Epsilon Lyrae as the “Double Double”.
The first quarter Moon (a half moon) is on 17 July and you will see a half-Moon sitting near Spica, the brightest star in the constellation of Virgo. A week later, on 24 July, the full Moon will rise in the south-east at around 11:00 pm with Saturn sitting above it. This full Moon was called by some, the Buck Moon to signify the new antlers that emerge on deer buck's foreheads around this time. It is also known as the Thunder Moon, Wort Moon, and Hay Moon.
As it gets dark, the first thing you spot will be Venus, low on the western horizon in the dusk twilight, just before it sets at around 10:30 pm. Mars will be close to it but it will be difficult to see as it is almost 200 times fainter than the “Evening Star”. From July 12, the two planets will begin to move apart, with Venus moving off to the left at a quicker pace than Mars.
Over the course of the last month, Saturn has been rising earlier and earlier each night and now appears at around 11:00 pm with Jupiter following it about half an hour later, rising above the horizon at a point below and to the left of Saturn. Half an hour after that, a very faint Neptune follows Jupiter with a slightly brighter Uranus following about an hour and a half later.
July sees the number of meteors increasing and it may be possible to spot some shooting stars from the Alpha Capricornids and the Delta Aquarids meteor showers. They will appear to come from the south-east, but they will be difficult to see as the Moon will be quite bright at the end of the month, which is around the time they are at their maximum of activity. In reality, we need to wait until the Perseid Meteor Shower in August for our next good show. It will peak on the night of 12-13 August and there will be little or no moon to mar the show because a thin crescent Moon will have set by early-to-mid evening. That guarantees a dark sky for this year’s Perseid meteors, so fingers crossed for a clear night.
Hi, I’m Steven Marshall, a Scottish landscape photographer based at Rockpool House in the heart of the beautiful West Highland Peninsulas of Sunart, Morvern, Moidart, Ardgour and Ardnamurchan. Get in touch for photography tuition, tours and print sales.