Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969 with two earthlings Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin. While a trip to the Moon may be a long shot there’s nothing to stop us from angling our heads for a glimpse of heaven every now and then. Amateur astronomer Aadil Desai tells us what to watch out for in between the gaps in the clouds during July.
Scintillating star clusters, waxing and waning planets, and pyrotechnic meteor showers, planet-like asteroids, speeding satellites and radiating comets put on a show in this month named after Julius Caesar.
Phases of the Moon
In its 29 day cycle the Moon has four principal phases, New Moon, First Quarter, Full Moon and Last Quarter as it waxes and wanes through the different phases.
This month you can see:
Full Moon, on July 22. This is also the time when the Moon is at Perigee or closest to Earth (358,402 km).
Last Quarter, on July 29, is the phase in which the Moon looks half illuminated.
Viewing equipment: Few bright features can be seen with unaided eye, but to see craters and mares (sea like features) on the surface of the Moon, a pair of binoculars or a small telescope is required.
Planets of the Sun
This planet is very bright. You identify it with its brown atmospheric bands, four of its brightest moons and the Great Red Spot—a large hurricane like feature on its gaseous atmospheric surface. Visible on the Eastern horizon from 5am to 6am.
Mercury and Venus
Although both planets are bright and shine in the white light of the sun, this month Mercury is visible early in the morning from 5am to 6am on the Eastern horizon. The much brighter Venus is visible in the evening from 7pm to 9pm in the Western sky. Both show phases just like the Moon—from crescent to full.
The red planet, shows white polar ice caps, which increase and decrease according to climatic changes. Other features like dark markings change due to dust storms caused by climatic changes. Look at the Eastern horizon, from 4am to 6am.
Saturn is one of the most beautiful planets to look at with gorgeous white rings that appear open or edge-on depending on the planet’s tilt. You can see it on the zenith from 7pm till it moves towards the Western horizon at 1am.
Viewing equipment: If you know your stars, most planets are easy to spot with the unaided eye, but to see any features on its surface you need a small telescope at least.
Often called minor planets, asteroids are mostly found circling the Sun, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
Viewing equipment: This month the four brightest and largest asteroids visible with binoculars are Ceres, Pallas, Juno and Vesta, and ones requiring a small telescope are Iris, Flora and Bamberga.
These icy bodies look like fuzzy balls of cotton, or nebulous objects, with gas and dust tails (only visible when close to the Sun). A new comet has been discovered on July 08, 2013 called Comet C/2013 N4 (Borisov). Comet Lemmon, PanSTARRS, NEAT and LINEAR can be seen throughout July.
Viewing equipment: This month`s faint comets are not visible with the unaided eye and hence a telescope is a must. Bright comets are usually visible with a pair of binoculars or even the unaided eye.
These clusters look stunning despite their missile-like names.
Globular star clusters are gravitationally bound groups of thousands or millions of primarily old stars. Look for: M4, M9, M22, M54, M55, M62, M71, M80 and M107.
Open clusters found along the plane of the galaxy, are loose aggregations of dozens or hundreds of young stars, usually not gravitationally bound together. Look for: NGC 869 (double cluster), NGC 7654, NGC 6871, NGC 6705 (wild duck cluster), IC 4756, NGC 6613, NGC 6514 (Trifid nebula) and NGC 6124.
Viewing equipment: Binoculars or a small telescope.
Satellites and Space Stations
There are many Earth orbiting satellites that shine brightly and are easy to spot in the early evening or morning skies. The International Space Station (ISS) is one such interesting object to sight this month as it passes in front of the Sun. This space station looks like a fast-moving plane, but travels thousands of kilometers per hour faster than airplanes and at least a dozen times higher.
Viewing equipment: For your eyes only. A telescope with solar filters will help when observing transits across the Sun.
Popularly called shooting stars, meteors are small grains of dust orbiting in space. Attracted by Earth’s gravity, they enter its atmosphere, and burn up, causing a sparkling display of bright streaks across the night sky.
-North Delta-Aquariids: Maximum activity on July 26, visible till August 25.
-Perseids: Maximum activity on August 12, visible till August 24.
-Alpha-Capricornids: Maximum activity on July 30, visible till August 18.
-South Delta-Aquariids: Maximum activity on July 28, visible till August 19.
-Beta-Cassiopeids: Maximum activity on July 29, visible till August 19.
Viewing equipment: No equipment required.
To observe meteor showers you just need a star chart to note the track of the meteor, a notepad to write down different colours, sounds, trails and trains of smoke if visible and a counting mechanism to keep note meteors you see. To track the best time to watch them from your location, go to www.imo.net of The International Meteor Organization. It has details for observations and also allows amateur astronomers to contribute their sightings, which are published as an international report every year.
Useful websites for tracking phenomena and monthly updates:
To get regular updates you can log in to dedicated websites such as http://www.heavens-above.com, https://www.calsky.com/, http://www.midnightkite.com/index.aspx?URL=Software from your specific location, and they will provide you the exact positions and timings to observe comets, asteroids, and other astronomical events throughout the year.
Aadil Desai is an amateur astronomer interested in astrophotography, chasing eclipses, comets, meteor showers and astronomical sketching of planetary, deep-sky objects and solar observations, since 1981.