Some months are astronomically quiet – others are bursting with a variety of interesting events to try and see, keeping in mind the moon phases and weather. July 2020 is one of those latter months. This month you can expect to see a lunar eclipse, a comet and an asteroid, four close approaches with visible planets, and three meteor showers! The July night sky will be full of wonders, and hopefully clear of clouds.
If you need a telescope to help enjoy any of this month’s night sky events, we have a guide to the best stargazing telescopes. From the Meade Polaris 130 (under $200) to the Orion Atlas 8 EQ-G GoTo ($2000), you can find one for your astronomy interest and budget.
If you’re ready to experience one (or all) of these July night sky events, read on to learn about them and how you can see each one.
July 3 – C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) at Perihelion
A busy month of astronomical events kicks off with the chance to see a comet as it makes its way through our part of the solar system. C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) was discovered on March 27, 2020 and has a near-parabolic orbit. That means this is one of the rare chances to see this comet on its long journey through space.
Unfortunately, C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) will be difficult to view for most people in the northern hemisphere. Those in the southern hemisphere can try to spot it.
July 4 – Penumbral Lunar Eclipse
The third of three eclipses in the current set, a penumbral lunar eclipse will occur on the night of July 4th. It follows the annular solar eclipse on June 21st when the eastern hemisphere was treated to a ring of fire in the sky.
This lunar eclipse will be visible most of the Americas, especially South America. As a reminder, Penumbral lunar eclipses do not result in a “blood” red moon; instead you’ll notice a dimmer-than-usual moon as the Moon passes through the earth’s penumbra shadow.
July 5 – Close Approach of the Moon, Jupiter & Saturn
On the night of July 5th, the Moon will take on a different role in the night sky. It will begin to make the first of several planetary ‘close approaches’ from our perspective here on earth.
First, the Moon will make a close approach with Jupiter; the closest moment will be at 21:56 UTC when they appear within 1°51′ of each other. Next, the Moon will move on to approach Saturn. At 09:13 UTC, they’ll appear within 2°27′ of each other. While these two approaches are on opposite ends of the night, most people will be able to enjoy one or both of the close approaches on this night.
July 8 – Venus at Greatest Brightness
Venus has shifted from appearing as an evening planet to rising bright in the morning sky. On the morning of July 8th, Venus will be at its brightest of the year rising to a height of 10° above the horizon before the sun grows too bright to see our neighboring planet anymore.
Venus will continue to rise higher in the sky through the coming months, reaching a peak of 42° above the horizon in early September.
July 11 – Close Approach of the Moon & Mars
We haven’t seen much of Mars lately, but that changes in July when the Moon and Mars make a close approach from our earthly perspective. On the night of July 11th at 21:20 UTC, the Moon will pass within 1°46′ of Mars in the sky. While brightly illuminated at 20 days old, you should still be able to spot rusty orange Mars near the moon around this time.
July 15 – Asteroid 2 Pallas & Pluto both at Opposition
Looking for a night to bring out your telescope for some deeper solar system-gazing? The night of July 15 is a good opportunity. On this night, two objects that require a telescope will be at opposition, that is at their brightest from our perspective and alignment with the sun.
The first is asteroid 2 Pallas. 2 Pallas was the second asteroid ever discovered (hence the name), and is the third-largest asteroid in the asteroid belt. Astronomers even believe it may be the remnant of a protoplanet from the early eons of our solar system. 2 Pallas will be in the constellation Sagitta and high in the eastern sky.
Pluto will also be at opposition on July 15th, visible in the constellation Sagittarius. It will be in the southeastern sky, visually close to both Jupiter and Saturn. Pluto will also be close to perigee, it’s closest point to earth on the dwarf planet’s long 248-year orbit.
July 16 – Close Approach of the Moon & Venus
Rounding out the close approaches this month, the Moon makes one final brush past Venus in the early morning hours of July 16th. The closest approach – when the two will appear to pass within 3°03′ of each other will occur at 06:06 UTC. This means that those further west in the hemisphere will have a better chance to see the Moon and Venus in close proximity.
July 24 – Mercury Reaches its Highest Point in the Morning Sky
Ah little Mercury… so hard to spot! Mercury has several points throughout the year where it appears high enough above the horizon before or after the sun to be seen; the next opportunity is around July 24th, when Mercury will reach its highest point in the morning sky.
To try and spot Mercury, you’ll need a clear, unobstructed view of the eastern horizon. Mercury will only reach a peak of 17° above the horizon on this morning, and the sun will be close behind. You don’t need a telescope to spot Mercury, but remember to protect your eyes; the sun can do damage within a few seconds if you look directly at it even during sunrise.
July 28 – Peak of the Piscis Austrinid Meteor Shower
The first in a trio of meteor showers that round out the month, the Piscis Austrinid meteor shower will peak on the night of July 28th. As its name implies, this shower can be seen lower in the southeastern sky of the southern hemisphere.
To try and spot Piscis Austrinid meteors, you’ll need to stay up late: the peak is expected to occur around 3am local time, and the radiant point will be in the Piscis Austrinus constellation. The maximum rate of meteors you can expect to see will be about 5 per hour.
July 29 – Peak of the Southern δ-Aquariid & α-Capricornid Meteor Showers
Two more meteor showers provide the final good stargazing and meteor-spotting opportunities of July, and both peak on the night of July 29th.
The first is the Southern δ-Aquariids. Better viewed from the southern hemisphere (or further south on the northern hemisphere), you can expect to see a maximum of around 25 meteors per hour. Look for the constellation Aquarius in the southeastern sky to try and identify the radiant point.
The second meteor shower on this night is the α-Capricornid, a much less active shower with an expected maximum rate of 5 meteors per hour. The constellation Capricorus will be in the south-southeastern sky, not far from Aquarius – it’ll be hard to tell which meteors “belong” to which shower but together they create the prospects for an interesting night.
(Don’t worry, more compelling meteor showers are on the way – the Persieds are fast approaching!)
Have other questions about these astronomical events in the July night sky? Let us know in the comments!
Featured photo credit: Paul Balfe via Flickr