Three out of five bright planets are lost to view during this month: Mercury and Mars in the evening sky and Venus in the morning sky. That only leaves Jupiter and Saturn, however, they both are in excellent position for observation in the evening sky all month long. In fact, on July 9, Saturn comes to opposition, rising in the east-southeast as the sun is going down and remaining in view all night long until daybreak the following morning. The nearly full moon has a rather close encounter with Saturn on the night of July 15-16.
In our schedule, remember that when measuring the angular separation between two celestial objects, your clenched fist held at arm's length measures roughly 10 degrees. Here, we present a schedule below which provides some of the best planet viewing times as well directing you as to where to look to see them.
Planet Viewing Guide
Mercury — is an evening object as July begins, sitting close to a much dimmer Mars. Both are very low near the west-northwest horizon, setting within an hour after the sun. While they might be glimpsed in binoculars, but within a few days they are lost in the glare of sunset. On July 21st Mercury passes through inferior conjunction with the sun. The planet then emerges into the dawn sky, but it's still too faint to observe in morning twilight even by the end of July. At its next inferior conjunction on November 11th, Mercury will pass across the sun's face (called a "transit") as seen from the Americas, the Atlantic, Africa, Europe and western Asia.
Venus — is in the morning sky and rises about an hour before the sun as July starts, and only about a half hour before as July ends. Although the planet shines at a brilliant magnitude -3.9, it will become increasingly harder to find low in the bright east-northeast sky as the month progresses. By midmonth, it's all but gone from our view and will be too close to the sun to be seen until September.
Earth — is at aphelion, farthest from the sun for the year, at 6:11 p.m. EDT. Our planet is then 94,513,221 miles from the sun (measured center to center), 3.3 percent farther than we were at perihelion in January.
Mars — is near Mercury as July begins, but thanks to their low altitude above the west-northwest horizon and placement against the bright evening twilight sky, they're only accessible using binoculars less than an hour after sundown ... and even that will be a very challenging observation. Fading into the sunset fires as July progresses, heading toward superior conjunction in early September.
Jupiter — is a bright beacon shining at magnitude -2.5 in the south-southeast at nightfall. Look for fainter, ruddy Antares flickering into view 7½ degrees to its lower right. Early evening, when the atmosphere is steady, is the best time to study the often copious detail visible on Jupiter in medium and large telescopes. Later in the evening, Jupiter and Antares move lower in the southwest. On the evening of July 13th, a waxing gibbous moon will sit several degrees to the left of the big planet.
Saturn — arrives at opposition to the sun on July 9th. Shining at magnitude +0.1, it's one of the brightest and easiest "stars" of the warm July night. The ringed planet rises at sunset and shines low in the southeast by the time twilight fades to dark. But Saturn still requires another hour or so to reach a decent altitude for telescopic viewing — especially early in the month, and especially for observers at northern latitudes. It transits the meridian (is due south) at 1:35 a.m. local daylight time on July 1st and by 11:30 p.m. by July's end. The rings of Saturn can be seen in any telescope that magnifies at least 25 times, but the larger the aperture and the sharper the image, the more the detail that can be made out. During the overnight hours of July 15-16, watch as an almost-full moon slowly creeps toward Saturn. As darkness falls, the ringed world glows about 2½ degrees to the moon's left. By midnight the moon has inched noticeably closer, with Saturn appearing to the moon's upper left. By 3 a.m., they are separated by only 1 degree with Saturn now hovering directly above the moon. They will get even closer as they drop toward the west-southwest horizon at dawn.
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmers' Almanac and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for Verizon FiOS1 News in New York's lower Hudson Valley. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.