Star Charts

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Star Charts

July 2020

After Sunset

In the early summer, the Big Dipper is easy to find, high in the northwest after sunset. Connect the dots to imagine a big spoon or ladle high above.

The Big Dipper is not officially a constellation; it’s what astronomers sometimes call an asterism. It’s a familiar name for this pattern of stars, especially used by observers in the United States, but it’s not one of the 88 constellations recognized by astronomers worldwide. Ursa Major the Great Bear is the official constellation here, but you’ll need dark skies to see its fainter stars.

Use the two stars at the end of the Dipper’s bowl to lead you to Polaris, also known as the North Star. Polaris is not a particularly bright star, but it does remain fixed in the sky throughout the night and throughout the year, When you face the North Star, you’re facing due north. Polaris is at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. This group of stars is also officially known as Ursa Minor the Little Bear.

Follow the curved handle of the Big Dipper to trace an ‘arc’ to Arcturus, the orange colored star in Boötes the Herdsman. Then speed on to Spica, the single bright star in Virgo the Maiden. Neither of these constellations has any other bright stars. Even under dark skies away from city lights, it’s hard to imagine these mythological figures just by connecting the dots.

Look to the east for the three bright stars that make up the Summer Triangle. Viewers with darker skies might find the fainter stars that make up the three constellations of the Triangle: Cygnus the Swan, Aquila the Eagle, and Lyra the Harp.

Low in the south is the hook-shaped constellation Scorpius the Scorpion low in the south. The red star Antares marks the heart of the scorpion.

Just to the east of Scorpius is Sagittarius the Archer. To ancient civilizations it may have looked like a mythical centaur holding a bow and arrow, but to modern stargazers it looks a lot more like a teapot.

Further to the east of Sagittarius are two planets, Jupiter and Saturn. Jupiter is the brighter of the two. If you have binoculars, you will be able to see up to four of Jupiter’s largest moons. Observe over several nights to watch them orbit around their parent planet. If you have trouble steadying your binoculars on Jupiter, try leaning them up against the side of a building or another steady surface. A small telescope not only shows the moons of Jupiter, but also its cloud bands. Jupiter has stripes!

Saturn’s most famous feature is a little harder to see. Most binoculars aren’t powerful enough to clearly resolve the rings. Instead, Saturn may look a little oval in shape. A small telescope provides a beautiful view of the rings and even the large moon Titan.

Look for our own Moon near Jupiter and Saturn on July 7.

As Earth and the other planets orbit around the Sun, the planets we see appear to move across the constellations over time. Some planets, like Mercury, Venus and Mars, move relatively quickly. Meanwhile, Jupiter and Saturn, being further from the Sun, move far more slowly. These two planets are now in our early evening sky through the rest of the year, and we have a great opportunity to track their motions. They will appear to grow closer to each other over the next several months, and by mid-December, they will appear extemely close together, from our vantage here on Earth. Their closest approach will be on December 21, and you’ll be able to go out in the early evening to catch this incredible sight. Mark your calendars!

A Look Ahead

As the Earth orbits the Sun throughout the year, the constellations rise and set just a little bit earlier every day. You won’t see much difference from night to night, but you will over the course of weeks or months. What we see in today’s pre-dawn sky is a preview of the early evening sky in later months. Go out before dawn this month for a look ahead at the autumn night sky.

In the hours before dawn, the Summer Triangle is high in the west. Sagittarius has already set. Autumn constellations such as Pegasus the Flying Horse and Andromeda the Princess are high overhead. Saturn and Jupiter are ready to set and Mars is high in the south.

Brilliant Venus is easily visible in the east. It will be the single brightest point of light in the sky. Look for a very thin crescent Moon near Venus on the morning of the 17th.

Desktop planetarium software like the free, open-source Stellarium can show you more precisely where night sky objects will be on any date and time, and help you plan your observing.

From Dark Skies

Bright outdoor lighting can make it hard to see all but the brightest stars. On a clear night, find a dark spot far away from city lights, give your eyes time to adjust to the dark, and look for even more celestial sights.

Evenings in the early summer are great for spotting the Milky Way coursing from Sagittarius and Scorpius, through the Summer Triangle and on towards Cassiopeia the Queen in the northeast. This hazy band of light is the bulk of our disc-shaped galaxy, as we see it from within.

As you look towards Scorpius and Sagittarius, you are looking in the direction of the dense center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Scan with binoculars or a telescope in this area to find many faint star clusters and nebulae throughout this part of the sky.

Look high overhead for the constellation Hercules. Four stars in Hercules form a trapezoid shape called the Keystone, after the top stone in an arch. This time of year the Keystone can appear directly overhead, from our part of the world. Imagine the Keystone holding up the arch of the sky!

Look near the Keystone for the globular cluster known as the Hercules Cluster, or M-13. Using binoculars, you may be able to spot a round-shaped glow. If that blurry glow doesn’t seem impressive, just remember that it’s a collection of around 300,000 stars, at a distance of over 22,000 light years, at an age of over 11 billion years old.

Comet NEOWISE

It’s been years since a comet bright enough to see with the unaided eyes has graced our night sky. This month, we have a surprise: Comet NEOWISE, named after the orbiting spacecraft that discovered it, is visible right now in the northern sky. You’ll need to find a dark sky away from city lights and a low northern horizon clear of trees or buildings.

Photos of the comet so far have been spectacular! With the unaided eye under somewhat light-polluted conditions, it will look like an elongated blurry patch in the sky. From dark skies or with binoculars, you may see the tail.

From the 10th-14th of July it is low in the northeastern sky 45 minutes before dawn. Look for bright Venus. NEOWISE is below and to the left.

By the 17th of July it will have moved into the evening sky, low in the northwest. Face the Big Dipper and look low to the horizon. By the 25th it will be higher up, below the bowl of the Dipper The later in the month we go, the fainter the comet will be. Binoculars will help at all stages of the comet’s progress through the sky.

How to Use a Star Chart

Newcomers to star charts like this one may quickly notice what looks like a serious error: East and west are labelled backwards! But it’s no mistake: remember that this is a map of the sky, not of the ground. Flip it up over your head and look at it from below. The cardinal directions are correct!

If you’d rather not observe while holding a piece of paper over your head, that’s understandable. Hold the chart in front of you and face south. The bottom area of the chart feature stars that are in front of you. The top of the chart are stars that are behind you, and the center of the chart is straight overhead.

Want to look to the west instead? Just rotate the chart in your hands until west is at the bottom.