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Night sky, July 2020: What you can see this month [maps]

A clear night sky offers an ever-changing display of fascinating objects to see — stars, constellations, and bright planets, often the moon, and sometimes special events like meteor showers. Observing the night sky can be done with no special equipment, although a sky map can be very useful. Binoculars or a good beginner telescope will enhance some experiences and bring some otherwise invisible objects into view. You can also use astronomy apps and software to make your observing easier, and use our Satellite Tracker page powered by N2YO.com to find out when to see the International Space Station and other satellites. Below, find out what's up in the night sky tonight (Planets Visible Now, Moon Phases, Observing Highlights This Month) plus other resources (Skywatching Terms, Night Sky Observing Tips and Further Reading).

The night sky is more than just the moon and stars, if you know when and where to look. (Image credit: Karl Tate/SPACE.com)

Monthly skywatching information is provided to Space.com by Chris Vaughan of Starry Night Education, the leader in space science curriculum solutions. Follow Starry Night on Twitter @StarryNightEdu and Chris at @Astrogeoguy.

Editor's note: If you have an amazing skywatching photo you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, you can send images and comments in to spacephotos@futurenet.com.

Night Sky Guides:

Calendar of Observing Highlights

Wednesday, July 1 all night—Jupiter passes Pluto

(Image credit: Starry Night)

On the nights surrounding Wednesday, July 1, the faster orbit of Jupiter will carry it closely past distant and slower-moving Pluto. While the faint, magnitude 14.25 dwarf planet is not observable visually in amateur telescopes (red circle), nearby Jupiter will show amateur skywatchers where it is—less than a finger's width below (or 42 arc-minutes to the celestial south of) Jupiter. Since Earth will be passing Jupiter and Pluto "on the inside track" around the sun, those planets will be moving westward retrograde through the stars of eastern Sagittarius. 

Friday, July 3 from 02:34 to 05:32 GMT—Ganymede Shadow Transit with Great Red Spot

(Image credit: Starry Night)

From time to time, the small, round, black shadows cast by Jupiter's four Galilean moons and the Great Red Spot can be seen in amateur telescopes as they cross (or transit) the planet's disk for a few hours. Starting in late evening on Thursday, July 2 and continuing into Friday, July 3, observers in the Americas can see Ganymede's relatively large shadow traverse the planet, accompanied by the Great Red Spot. Ganymede's shadow will cross Jupiter's northern hemisphere between 02:30 and 05:50 GMT. The spot will complete its passage by 05:30 GMT. Owners of larger telescopes can look for Ganymede's pale disk following behind its shadow. Your telescope's optics are likely to flip and/or mirror image the view shown here.

Saturday, July 4 at 12:00 GMT—Earth at Aphelion

(Image credit: Starry Night)

On Saturday, July 4 at 8 a.m. EDT, or 12:00 GMT, Earth will reach aphelion, its maximum distance from the sun for this year. The aphelion distance of 94,511,180 miles (152.1 million km) is 1.67% farther from the sun than the mean Earth-sun separation of 92,955,807.3 miles (149,597,870.7 km), which is also defined to be 1 Astronomical Unit (1 AU). Earth's perihelion (minimum distance from the sun) will occur on January 4.

Sunday, July 5 at 4:44 GMT—Full Thunder Moon and Penumbral Lunar Eclipse

(Image credit: Starry Night)

The moon will reach its full phase on Sunday, July 5 at 12:44 a.m. EDT, or 4:44 GMT. The July full moon, commonly called the "Buck Moon", "Thunder Moon", or "Hay Moon", always shines in or near the stars of Sagittarius or Capricornus. This full moon will feature a shallow penumbral lunar eclipse, the first eclipse to be visible in the Western Hemisphere during 2020. The eclipse will begin when the moon contacts Earth's penumbral shadow at 03:07:23 GMT. At greatest eclipse at 04:30:02 GMT, only 35% of the moon will fall within the Earth's southern penumbral shadow, barely darkening the moon's northern limb. The penumbral eclipse will end when the moon exits Earth's shadow at 05:52:27 GMT. The entire eclipse will be visible from all of Central and South America, the southeastern half of North America, and western Africa. The latter stages of the eclipse will be visible in the rest of the USA (except Alaska) and the western Canadian provinces. The rest of Africa and western Europe will see only the early stages. 

Sunday, July 5 all night—Full Moon Jupiter and Saturn Form a Triangle

(Image credit: Starry Night)

When the full moon rises over the southeastern horizon at dusk on Sunday, July 5, it will form a neat triangle below (or to the celestial south of) bright, white Jupiter and dimmer, yellow-tinted Saturn. The moon and planets will fit within the field of view of binoculars (red circle) and will produce a lovely wide field photograph when composed with interesting foreground scenery. Over the course of the night, the diurnal rotation of the sky will shift the moon to the planets' left, and the moon's orbital motion will carry it closer to Saturn than Jupiter.

Monday, July 6 pre-dawn—Venus Crosses the Hyades

(Image credit: Starry Night)

In the eastern pre-dawn sky between July 3 and 12, Venus' orbital motion (red path with dates:times) will carry it directly through the Hyades star cluster, the large, triangular grouping of stars that forms the face of Taurus, the bull. Its traverse offers an opportunity to easily see the daily motion of a planet. Look with unaided eyes while the sky is still somewhat dark, around 4:30 a.m. local time - or use binoculars (red circle), which will nicely frame the planet and the cluster's stars surrounding it.

Friday, July 10 pre-dawn—Venus at Greatest Illuminated Extent

(Image credit: Starry Night)

In the early hours of Friday, July 10, Venus will reach its greatest illuminated extent for the current morning apparition. In a telescope, the planet will show a 27%-illuminated waxing crescent phase and an apparent disk size of 37 arc-seconds. Even with a less than fully-illuminated disk (inset), Venus' nearness to Earth of only 0.4502 Astronomical Units (41.85 million miles or 67.35 million km) will boost its brightness to a brilliant magnitude -4.47. After rising at about 3 a.m. local time, the extremely bright planet will be visible in the eastern pre-dawn sky, just above the bright orange star Aldebaran in Taurus.

Saturday, July 11 after 1 a.m.—Moon Hops Past Mars

(Image credit: Starry Night)

In the southeastern sky during the hours before dawn on Saturday, July 11, the moon will shine near Mars. Look for the waning gibbous moon positioned a generous palm's width (or 7 degrees to the celestial west) of the bright, red-tinted planet. As the pair crosses the sky together, the moon's orbital motion will carry it noticeably closer to Mars by dawn. The same movement will cause the moon to hop to the left-hand (eastern side) of Mars on Sunday morning, July 12. Observers at Middle Eastern longitudes can see the moon pass less than three degrees south of Mars on Sunday. 

Sunday, July 12 pre-dawn—Venus meets Aldebaran

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Venus' trip through the triangular face of Taurus, the Bull will be concluding on Sunday, July 12 when the bright planet passes less than a finger's width to the upper left (or 57 arc-minutes to the celestial north) of Taurus' brightest star, Aldebaran. Look for the star and planet sitting above the eastern horizon together for about 2 hours before dawn. For several evenings centered on July 12, the duo will appear together in the field of view of backyard telescopes at medium magnification (red circle), with Venus displaying a crescent phase. 

Sunday, July 12 at 23:29 GMT—Last Quarter Moon

(Image credit: Starry Night)

The moon will reach its last quarter phase at 7:29 p.m. EDT, or 23:29 GMT, on Sunday, July 12. At last quarter, the moon always rises around midnight and remains visible in the southern sky during morning daylight. The relative positions of the Earth, sun, and moon cause us to see the moon half-illuminated—on its western (left-hand) side. The last quarter moon is also positioned ahead of the Earth in our trip around the sun. About 3½ hours later, Earth will occupy that same location in space. After this phase, the waning moon will traverse the final quarter of its orbit around the earth, on the way to new moon. 

Monday, July 13 over night—Ceres Reverses Direction

(Image credit: Starry Night)

On Monday, July 13, the dwarf planet Ceres will stop moving eastward through the stars of Aquarius and commence a westward retrograde loop that will last until October (red path with dates:times). After rising in the east shortly before midnight local time, you'll find magnitude 7.5 Ceres in the southeastern sky within southern Aquarius, sitting 2.8 degrees to the upper left (northeast) of the medium-bright star 88 Aquarii, and a generous palm's width to the upper left of the very bright star Fomalhaut.

Monday, July 13 all night—Asteroid Pallas at Opposition

(Image credit: Starry Night)

On Monday, July 13, the main belt asteroid designated (2) Pallas will reach opposition, its minimum distance from Earth for the year. On the nights around opposition, Pallas will rise at sunset and shine with a peak visual magnitude of 8.9—within reach of binoculars and backyard telescopes. The asteroid will be situated on the border between western Vulpecula and Sagitta, about a fist's diameter to the right (or 9 degrees to the celestial southwest) of the medium-bright star Albireo. 

Tuesday, July 14 all night—Jupiter at Opposition

(Image credit: Starry Night)

On Tuesday, July 14, Jupiter will reach opposition among the stars of eastern Sagittarius – rising at sunset, and remaining visible all night long. At opposition, Jupiter will be located 384.8 million miles, 619.2 million km, or 34.4 light-minutes from Earth, and it will shine at its maximum brightness of magnitude -2.75 for 2020. Views of Jupiter's 48 arc-second wide disk in amateur telescopes will show the Great Red Spot and equatorial bands (inset). Around opposition, Jupiter and its four large Galilean satellites frequently eclipse and occult one another, and cast their round, black shadows on the planet. This year, dimmer Saturn will share the sky with Jupiter.

Wednesday, July 15 all night—Pluto at Opposition near Jupiter

(Image credit: Starry Night)

On Wednesday, July 15, the dim and distant Pluto will reach opposition for 2020. On that date, the Earth will be positioned between Pluto and the sun, minimizing our distance from the dwarf planet. At opposition, Pluto will be located 3.05 billion miles, 4.91 billion km, or 273 light-minutes from Earth, and it will shine with an extremely faint visual magnitude of +14.2. That's far too dim for visual observing through backyard telescopes; but the planet will actually be located in the sky less than two finger widths to the lower left (or 1.75 degrees to the celestial southeast) of the brightest planet, Jupiter. Telescope-owners (red circle) can also look for a magnitude 8.96 star named HIP96913, which will be sitting directly beside Pluto on July 14, and only 1.3 arc-minutes north of Pluto on opposition night. Even if you can't see Pluto directly, you will know that it is there.

Friday, July 17 from 02:45 to 05:30 GMT—Europa Shadow Transit with Great Red Spot

(Image credit: Starry Night)

From time to time, the small, round, black shadows cast by Jupiter's four Galilean moons can be seen in amateur telescopes as they cross (or transit) the planet's disk for a few hours. Starting in late evening on Thursday, July 16, observers in the Americas can see Europa's shadow transiting Jupiter while accompanied by the Great Red spot. The shadow and spot will commence their traverse together at 10:45 p.m. EDT, or 02:45 GMT. Europa's shadow will move off of Jupiter at 1:30 a.m. EDT, or 5:30 GMT, leaving the GRS to complete its passage about 90 minutes later.

Friday, July 17 pre-dawn—Crescent Moon meets Venus

(Image credit: Starry Night)

In the eastern pre-dawn sky on Friday, July 17, the waning crescent moon will be positioned less than three finger widths to the upper left (or 2.75 degrees to the celestial northeast) of the bright planet Venus. Both objects will appear together in binoculars (red circle) until sunrise, and will make a nice photograph when composed with an interesting foreground landscape. Under magnification, Venus will show a crescent phase similar to the moon's.

Sunday, July 19 pre-dawn—Old Moon near Mercury

july 2020 starry night Old Moon near Mercury

(Image credit: Starry Night)

For a short period before dawn on Sunday, July 19, sharp-eyed skywatchers with a clear view of the east-northeastern horizon might spot the very slender crescent of the old moon sitting four finger widths to the left (or 4.8 degrees to the celestial east) of Mercury. Start your search after about 4:45 a.m. local time, when the pair, which will both appear in the field of binoculars (red circle), will sit less than a fist's diameter above the horizon.

Monday, July 20 at 17:33 GMT—New Moon

july 2020 starry night New Moon

(Image credit: Starry Night)

At its new phase on Monday, July 20 at 1:33 p.m. EDT, or 17:33 GMT, the moon will be travelling between the Earth and the sun. Since sunlight is only shining on the side of the moon aimed away from us, and the moon is in the same region of the sky as the sun, the moon will be hidden from view everywhere on Earth for about a day. 

Monday, July 20 all night—Saturn at Opposition

july 2020 starry night

(Image credit: Starry Night)

On Monday, July 20, Saturn will reach opposition among the stars of eastern Sagittarius – rising at sunset, and remaining visible all night long. At opposition, Saturn will be located 836.6 million miles, 1.346 billion km, or 74.9 light-minutes from Earth, and it will shine at its maximum brightness of magnitude 0.13 for 2020. In telescopes (inset) Saturn will show its greatest apparent disk diameter of 18.5 arc-seconds—and its rings, which will be narrowing every year until the spring of 2025, will span 43 arc-seconds. A handful of Saturn's moons are readily observable with backyard telescopes in a dark sky. This year, Saturn will share the sky with brighter Jupiter. 

Wednesday, July 22 pre-dawn—Mercury at Greatest Western Elongation

july 2020 starry night Mercury at Greatest Western Elongation

(Image credit: Starry Night)

On Wednesday, July 22, the planet Mercury will reach a maximum angle of 20 degrees from the sun, and peak visibility for this morning apparition. Look for the swiftly-moving planet sitting very low in the east-northeastern sky between about 5 and 5:30 a.m. in your local time zone. In a telescope (inset) Mercury will show a 37%-illuminated, waxing crescent phase. Mercury's position below the morning ecliptic (green line) will make this apparition less than ideal for Northern Hemisphere observers, but a good showing for those located near the Equator, and farther south.

Friday, July 24 from 05:20 to 08:00 GMT—Europa Shadow Transit with Great Red Spot

july 2020 starry night Europa Shadow Transit with Great Red Spot

(Image credit: Starry Night)

For the second time this month, observers in the Americas can watch Europa's shadow and the Great Red Spot transit Jupiter together in their telescopes. Europa's shadow will join the red spot, already at mid-transit, at 1:20 a.m. EDT, or 05:20 GMT. The spot will vanish around Jupiter's edge at about 3:40 a.m. EDT, or 7:40 GMT, leaving Europa's shadow to complete its passage about 20 minutes later. 

Monday, July 27 at 12:32 GMT—First Quarter Moon

july 2020 starry night First Quarter Moon

(Image credit: Starry Night)

The moon will reach its first quarter phase on Monday, July 27 at 8:32 a.m. EDT, or 12:32 GMT. At that time, the relative positions of the Earth, sun, and moon will cause us to see the moon half-illuminated—on its eastern (right-hand) side. Sunlight striking the moon at a shallow angle along the pole-to-pole terminator line that separates the lit and dark hemispheres will produce spectacularly illuminated vistas – especially under magnification. First quarter moons always rise around noon and set at midnight, so they are visible starting in the afternoon hours. The term "first quarter" refers not to the moon's appearance, but the fact that our natural satellite has now completed one quarter of its orbit around Earth, counting from the last new moon. 

Tuesday, July 28 pre-dawn—Southern Delta Aquariids Meteor Shower Peaks

july 2020 starry night Southern Delta Aquariids Meteor Shower Peaks

(Image credit: Starry Night)

The Southern Delta Aquariids meteor shower runs annually from July 21 to August 23. It will peak before dawn on Tuesday, July 28, but it is quite active for a week surrounding that date. This shower, produced by debris dropped from Comet 96P/Machholz, commonly generates 15-20 meteors per hour at the peak. It is best enjoyed from the southern tropics, where the shower's radiant, in southern Aquarius, is positioned higher in the sky. The waxing gibbous moon on the peak date will set in early evening, so it should not adversely affect pre-dawn views of the shower. 

Friday, July 31 pre-dawn—Venus near the Ruby Star

july 2020 starry night Venus near the Ruby Star

(Image credit: Starry Night)

When the very bright planet Venus rises in the east at around 3 a.m. local time on Friday, July 31, it will be positioned less than a finger's width to the upper left (or 0.6 degrees to the celestial north) of the Ruby Star. That star, also designated 119 Tauri and CE Tauri, is a giant, aging, pulsating variable star that shines with a deep red color. The pair will be visible in binoculars and backyard telescopes (red circle) until the sky begins to brighten. (Note that your telescope will likely flip and/or mirror this view.) You'll need to look closely to see the ruby. At magnitude -4.55, Venus will outshine the magnitude +4.3 star by a factor of nearly 3,500!

Planets

(Image credit: Starry Night)

During the first half of July Mercury will slowly return to easy visibility in the eastern pre-dawn sky. It will reach greatest western elongation and peak visibility, 20 degrees from the sun, on July 22, and then will continue to be observable through the end of July and early August. Look for the swiftly-moving planet sitting low in the east-northeastern sky before 5:30 a.m. in your local time zone. Mercury's position south of the morning ecliptic will make this apparition less than ideal for Northern Hemisphere observers, but a good showing for those located near the Equator, and farther south. Mercury will brighten continuously and dramatically during July, ending the month at magnitude -0.62. When viewed in a telescope, the planet will show a waxing phase that grows to 67%-illuminated by month-end. During the same period, the planet's apparent disk size will almost halve from 10 arc-seconds to 6.2 arc-seconds. For a short period before dawn on Sunday, July 19 the very slender crescent of the old moon will sit four finger widths to the left (or 4.8 degrees to the celestial east) of Mercury.

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Throughout July, Venus will rise about two hours before the sun and then shine prominently in the eastern sky until sunrise. Between July 3 and 12, Venus' orbital motion will carry it eastward and directly through the Hyades star cluster, the large, triangular grouping of stars that forms the face of Taurus, the bull. On July 10, Venus will reach its greatest illuminated extent, at magnitude -4.47, for the current morning apparition. On July 12, the planet will pass within a degree to the north of the bright star Aldebaran. For the rest of July, Venus will travel eastward through Taurus—ending the month near the southern horn-tip star Zeta Tauri, and only 0.6 degrees to the celestial north of the pulsating variable called the Ruby Star, 119 Tauri, and CE Tauri. Viewed in a telescope during July, Venus will show a crescent phase that waxes from 19% to 43%-illuminated, and an apparent disk size that shrinks from 43 to 27 arc-seconds. On July 17, the waning crescent moon will be positioned 2.75 degrees to the celestial northeast of Venus, making a lovely wide field photograph. 

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Mars will spend the month of July moving rapidly eastward along the Cetus-Pisces border. It will begin the month as a reddish, magnitude -0.5 speck that rises in the east just before 1 a.m. local time. By month's end, Mars will brighten to magnitude -1.1 and will be rising at 11:30 p.m. local time. As the distance between Earth and Mars decreases over the same period, telescope views of the red planet will show an 85% illuminated disk that grows from 11.48 to 14.6 arc-seconds. On July 11-12, the waning gibbous moon will hop past Mars, allowing observers at Middle Eastern longitudes to see the moon pass less than three degrees south of Mars before dawn on Sunday, July 12.

july 2020 starry night

(Image credit: Starry Night)

During July, very bright Jupiter will be visible all night long while it moves slowly retrograde through the stars of eastern Sagittarius. On July 14, Jupiter will reach opposition, when it will be located 384.8 million miles, 619.2 million km, or 34.4 light-minutes from Earth, and will shine at its maximum brightness of magnitude -2.75 for 2020. Views of Jupiter through amateur telescopes will reveal a generous 48 arc-second wide disk striped with equatorial bands. The Great Red Spot will also be visible every second or third night. Dimmer Saturn will be following Jupiter across the sky, lagging some 6 to 8 degrees to the east. Jupiter will be rather low in the sky for mid-latitude observers, but southerly observers will have a higher, better view of it. Near opposition, the four large Galilean moons appear bigger and brighter, too. Overnight on July 2-3, observers in the Americas can see Ganymede's relatively large shadow traverse the planet, accompanied by the Great Red Spot. Starting in late evening on July 16, and again in the wee hours of July 24, Europa's shadow will cross Jupiter accompanied by the Great Red spot. On July 5, the full moon will form a neat triangle below (or to the celestial south of) Jupiter and Saturn. 

july 2020 starry night

(Image credit: Starry Night)

During July, Saturn will be visible all night long as it travels retrograde westward through the stars of eastern Sagittarius. It will also be positioned approximately 6 to 8 degrees to the east of much brighter Jupiter and just 2 degrees north of the globular cluster Messier 75. On July 20, Saturn will reach opposition, when it will be located 836.6 million miles, 1.346 billion km, or 74.9 light-minutes from Earth, and will shine at its maximum brightness of magnitude 0.13 for 2020. In backyard telescopes Saturn will show an apparent disk diameter of 18.5 arc-seconds—and its rings, which will be narrowing every year until they close up in the spring of 2025, will span 43 arc-seconds. A handful of Saturn's moons are readily observable with backyard telescopes in a dark sky. Saturn will sit rather low in the sky for mid-latitude observers, but southerly observers will have a higher, better view of it. On July 5, the full moon will form a neat triangle below (or to the celestial south of) Jupiter and Saturn.

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Uranus will spend July in the eastern predawn sky, where it will be observable in the second half of the night among the stars of southern Aries. Due to its greater angular separation from the sun every morning, the blue-green, magnitude 5.8 planet will be rising around midnight local time by month's end. The waning crescent moon will pass less than a palm's width to the lower right (or 6 degrees south) of Uranus on July 14.

(Image credit: Starry Night)

During early July, Neptune will be observable for several hours before dawn in the southeastern sky as it moves retrograde west among the stars of eastern Aquarius. By month's end the magnitude 7.9 planet will be rising shortly after 10 p.m. local time. The medium-bright star Phi (φ) Aquarii, which will be positioned 3 degrees to Neptune's west all month, can help with finding the blue planet.

Skywatching Terms

Gibbous: Used to describe a planet or moon that is more than 50% illuminated.

Asterism: A noteworthy or striking pattern of stars within a larger constellation.

Degrees (measuring the sky): The sky is 360 degrees all the way around, which means roughly 180 degrees from horizon to horizon. It's easy to measure distances between objects: Your fist on an outstretched arm covers about 10 degrees of sky, while a finger covers about one degree.

Visual Magnitude: This is the astronomer's scale for measuring the brightness of objects in the sky. The dimmest object visible in the night sky under perfectly dark conditions is about magnitude 6.5. Brighter stars are magnitude 2 or 1. The brightest objects get negative numbers. Venus can be as bright as magnitude minus 4.9. The full moon is minus 12.7 and the sun is minus 26.8.

Terminator: The boundary on the moon between sunlight and shadow.

Zenith: The point in the sky directly overhead.
 

Night Sky Observing Tips

Adjust to the dark: If you wish to observe faint objects, such as meteors or dim stars, give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the darkness.

Light Pollution: Even from a big city, one can see the moon, a handful of bright stars and sometimes the brightest planets. But to fully enjoy the heavens — especially a meteor shower, the constellations, or to see the amazing swath across the sky that represents our view toward the center of the Milky Way Galaxy — rural areas are best for night sky viewing. If you're stuck in a city or suburban area, a building can be used to block ambient light (or moonlight) to help reveal fainter objects. If you're in the suburbs, simply turning off outdoor lights can help.

Prepare for skywatching: If you plan to be out for more than a few minutes, and it's not a warm summer evening, dress warmer than you think necessary. An hour of observing a winter meteor shower can chill you to the bone. A blanket or lounge chair will prove much more comfortable than standing or sitting in a chair and craning your neck to see overhead.

Daytime skywatching: When Venus is visible (that is, not in front of or behind the sun) it can often be spotted during the day. But you'll need to know where to look. A sky map is helpful. When the sun has large sunspots, they can be seen without a telescope. However, it's unsafe to look at the sun without protective eyewear. See our video on how to safely observe the sun, or our safe sunwatching infographic.

Further Reading

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