July is named after Julius Caesar. According to the Roman calendar, March was the first month of the year (because it starts the spring) and July was the fifth. For us in the northern hemisphere, this is the first full month of summer. The days already are getting shorter and the nights longer. If you can deal with the bugs, there will be plenty of exciting events to witness this month.

They include Jupiter being up nearly all night; the opposition of Saturn on the 9th; the opposition of Pluto on the 14th; some nice conjunctions of the moon with Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus; not one but two eclipses, a total solar and a lunar, neither of which we can see from here; the 50th anniversary of landing a man on the moon; and a good meteor shower called the Delta Aquarids on the 29th.

Jupiter reached opposition early last month but still shines brightly all this month, dominating the night sky at minus 2.6 magnitude. It’s still in retrograde or westward motion toward Antares in Scorpius this month. Look for all four of its large Galilean moons with a good pair of binoculars. You can see this anytime, not just when Jupiter is at its best for the year. Though it will fade toward the end of the month, it still will be brighter than usual for the whole summer.

Then we have Saturn reaching opposition on the 9th.  Since it’s nearly a billion miles away, twice as far as Jupiter, it will only reach zero magnitude, or about 10 times fainter than Jupiter. Saturn also is moving in retrograde motion in Sagittarius, one constellation to the east of Jupiter.

A little asterism, or a recognizable group of stars that’s not a whole constellation, is just to the left of the main part of Sagittarius, which is shaped like a teapot. That asterism is called the teaspoon, and Saturn now looks like a gleaming golden droplet of celestial tea dropping from this imaginary teaspoon back into the teapot. Sometimes you need a lot of imagination to see interesting new shapes in the sky, but there are 88 agreed-upon constellations that make up the entire sky. Once you can recognize some of the official ones, you can create your own.

Since we are in that area of the sky, it’s good to know that Pluto is also right there, one degree to the left of Saturn in the teaspoon. It will reach opposition on the 14th, exactly four years after the highly successful New Horizons mission got there in 2015.

It was like threading a needle at 4 billion miles away at 36,000 mph, 100 times faster than a jet plane, but everything went perfectly, and New Horizons already had farther expanded our horizons when it made some more dazzling discoveries at another Kuiper Belt object, Ultima Thule on the first day of this year. Even now it is performing a transect of the Kuiper Belt by continuously measuring the magnetic fields and particle densities. At magnitude 14.2, you would need a 10-inch telescope to see it for yourself. That makes Pluto about 400,000 times fainter than Saturn and 4 million times fainter than Jupiter.

Mars continues to get dimmer and settle lower into our western sky. It is about as dim and far away as it can get now. Remember that it was at its best in many years last July 27 —  it had a rare perihelic opposition when it was also closest to the sun. During the second week of July, Mars will disappear for about three months. Watch for a very thin waxing crescent moon to pass near Mars and Mercury low in the evening sky on the 3rd and the 4th of this month.

Venus continues to sink lower into our morning sky. We will lose it completely by the third week of July. It will reappear about two months later in our evening sky. Try to spot a very thin waning crescent moon to the upper right of Venus on the morning of July 1.

The nearly full moon will pass near Jupiter on the 13th and Saturn on the 15th one hour after sunset.

Neither of the eclipses this month will be visible from anywhere in this country. The total solar eclipse will be first, on Tuesday, July 2. This is the first total solar eclipse anywhere on Earth since the one that passed over our entire country on Aug. 21, 2017. I watched that unforgettable eclipse from eastern Idaho near Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons national parks. Bright day became night right at noon time as the moon’s shadow swept over us at 1,850 mph, engulfing everyone and everything as it carved a narrow 70-mile-wide path through the United States. It took only 90 minutes to complete its incredible journey, which 60 million people watched for two full minutes with awe.

After a last brilliant flash of sunlight, called the diamond ring effect, stars and planets became instantly visible and the atmosphere of the Earth showed itself as an eerily glowing, salmon-colored ring of faint light creating a 360-degree instant sunset. The sun’s ethereal corona pulsated with life, exhibiting enormous beauty and structure as it reached nearly 4 million miles into space, or five times the diameter of the sun itself.

During those two minutes, I caught glimpses of the inner workings of our sun and solar system, and its enormous scale. What was most incredible about these two precious minutes in eternity? The fact this is always happening. We just can’t see it and become part of it unless we, the sun, earth and moon are perfectly aligned. Although it looks fixed in our sky, the moon is always moving at about that speed. And the sun always has an amazing corona extending millions of miles toward the earth; it’s just that most of the time that corona is overpowered by the rest of the sun.

Try to watch the July 2 eclipse on a live feed, which will be shown on many YouTube videos along with slooh.com. It’s not the same as actually being there, but it’s the next-best thing and you can always make plans to see the next one for yourself. An eclipse will be crossing right over Maine on April 8, 2024. Save the date.

This July 20 marks the 50th anniversary of the first humans — Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin  — to ever walk on the moon. That walk shows what we can accomplish when we work together toward common goals. Actually the greatest insights from the 12 astronauts who have walked on the moon have come from seeing the Earth from space at that distance, not from walking on the lifeless moon itself.

The Delta Aquarid meteor shower peaks on Tuesday morning the 30th. There will be no moon to interfere, so you should be able to see about 25 meteors per hour emanating from Aquarius. The meteor shower is caused by Comet 96P Machholz – the earth passes through sand-grain-sized pieces of this comet each year at this time. Start watching for these meteors about a week earlier, and you will also see some early Perseid meteors starting.

July 1: A thin waning crescent moon will be just to the upper right of Venus this morning.

July 2: New moon is at 3:17 p.m. A total solar eclipse will occur over Chile and Argentina today.

July 3: Look for a very thin waxing crescent moon near Mercury and Mars tonight.

July 4: Earth is at aphelion, or farthest from the sun today at 94.3 million miles.

July 9: First-quarter moon is at 6:56 a.m. John Wheeler, the physicist who coined the term “black hole,” was born on this day in 1911. Saturn reaches opposition tonight.

July 11: Skylab re-entered our atmosphere on this day in 1979.

July 15: The moon will be just to the right of Saturn in Sagittarius tonight.

July 16: Full moon is at 5:39 p.m. This is called the hay or thunder moon. It will be partially eclipsed by the earth’s shadow in much of the eastern hemisphere.

July 20: This is the 50th anniversary of humankind’s first landing on the moon, our closest celestial neighbor in our solar system. Viking 1 landed on Mars on this day in 1976.

July 24: Last-quarter moon is at 9:19 p.m.

July 30: The Delta Aquarid meteor showers peaks this morning.

July 31: New moon is at 11:13 p.m.

 

 

 

 

 


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