It’s July and after the summer solstice, so the night sky is beginning to get dark again and you’ll be able to find your way around it using the Summer Triangle, which is made up of the three bright stars, Vega, Altair and Deneb. 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 in between Vega and Altair. We have the largest and brightest full moon of the year, this month’s Buck Supermoon and Saturn leads the procession of the five Bright Planets when it rises shortly before midnight, with the last and brightest planet, Venus, rising about 4 hours later. Finally, you may be lucky enough to spot noctilucent clouds, ghostly whispers of light shimmering in the all-night twilight in the hours after sunset.
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 because of 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 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 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 will show it well. If you use a telescope with an aperture larger than about 75 mm, you will be able to see that each of the two stars are themselves double stars. For this reason, some people refer to Epsilon Lyrae as the “Double Double”.
We start the month with little or no Moon as the new Moon was on 29 June. On 2 July and 3 July, looking through binoculars towards the western horizon at nightfall will reveal a narrow crescent moon sitting close to Regulus brightest star in the constellation Leo.
The first quarter Moon (a half moon) is on 7 July. You will find it over in the south-western sky as darkness falls, sitting above and slightly to the left of Spica, the brightest star in the constellation of Virgo.
This full Moon is 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. It will be the third of 4 Supermoons this year, making it at Buck Supermoon. As it will be only 222,089 miles from Earth, its closest approach of the year, it will appear as the largest and brightest full moon of the year.
The last quarter Moon is on 20 July, when you will see it traversing the night sky about halfway between Jupiter and Mars. It will be closer to Jupiter on 19 July and closer to Mars on 21 July.
There is a new Moon (no moon) on 28 July and in the early hours of 26 and 27 July, you may be able to pick out the thinnest of crescent moons sitting close to Venus when they both rise in the northeast in twilight before sunrise.
This month the planets begin to appear in the night sky a little before midnight, with Saturn leading the parade. Just look over in the southeast to see it rise above the horizon with Jupiter following about an hour later. If you look about halfway between the two with a telescope, you may be able to pick out a very faint Neptune in the space between the constellations of Aquarius and Pisces.
Mars follows Jupiter about half an hour later, shining a little bit brighter than it did last month. It will be followed about 2 hours later by Venus, which will rise in the northeast at a little after 3:00 am. Venus spends the whole month as a glorious “Morning Star”, shining much brighter than anything else in the sky. In contrast, a dim Uranus will only be visible using a telescope and can be found about halfway between Mars and Venus.
Mercury is too close to the Sun the be visible this month.
July sees the number of meteors increasing and it may be possible to spot some shooting stars from the alpha Capricornid and the delta Aquarid meteor showers. They peak around 30 July, two days after a new Moon, when there will be next to no moonlight to drown them out. The best time to watch for them will be from about 2:00 am and looking in the sky at a point about 45 degrees away from the radiant will maximise your chances of spotting them.
However, both of these July meteor showers are not terribly strong, so it might be best to wait until the Perseid Meteor Shower in August for the 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 the thin crescent Moon then will have set by early-to-mid evening. This will guarantee a dark sky for this year’s show, so fingers crossed for a clear night.
In the 8 or so weeks either side of the Summer Solstice, which was on 21 June, the Sun gets to no more than 10-15 degrees below the horizon and full darkness does not occur at any point during the night. During this time you may be lucky enough to spot noctilucent, or “night-shining” clouds.
These clouds become visible in the north to north-west sky as darkness falls and just as the brightest stars become visible. They have the appearance of ghostly whispers of light shimmering in the all-night twilight and are usually set against a pearly-blue sky.
Forming in the middle atmosphere, or mesosphere, roughly 80 kilometres (50 miles) above Earth's surface, they are thought to be made of ice crystals that form on fine dust particles from meteors and volcanic activity. These ice coated dust particles then reflect the light that the sun projects high up into the sky, when it is between 6 to 16 degrees below the horizon, to create an illuminated cloudy veil in the northern sky at latitudes between ±50° and ±70°.
They are first known to have been observed in 1885, two years after the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, but it remains unclear as to whether their appearance had anything to do with the volcanic eruption or whether their discovery was due to more people observing the spectacular sunsets caused by the volcanic debris in the atmosphere.