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A Guide to the Night Sky: July 2016

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A Guide to the Night Sky
July 2016 

By Tre Gibbs

July is a fantastic month for planet viewing, since three of the five “naked eye’ planets will be visible in the early evening skies. Jupiter, the King of Gods, begins its slow, deliberate western exit and allows both Mars, The God of War and Saturn, The God of Agriculture, to take center stage this month.

Early in the month just after sunset, when just a hint of daylight dapples the evening sky, look for Jupiter – the very bright, star like object high in the southwest. By the end of the month, Jupiter will be even further west, preparing to head into the glare of the sun, eventually reclaiming its place in our pre-dawn skies by mid autumn.

East of Jupiter though, a little less than halfway up the sky in the south (just after sunset) is a bright, glowing, star-like object – The planet Mars. Mars is easy to spot for two reasons… first of all, it’s very bright, almost as bright as Jupiter, so it can be easily seen even in light polluted skies. It also has a slightly discernible pale copper color due to a thin blanket of rust covering its surface.

Following Mars is the planet Saturn, which because of it’s distance from us, almost appears as simply another star in the night sky, which is kind of a shame since its quintessential ring system makes it one of the most magnificent celestial bodies ever seen, explored, and/or photographed. A little brighter than your average star, Saturn gives off a consistent, non-twinkling light – as does both Jupiter and Mars. Look for Saturn to the left (east) of Mars, although as the weeks and months progress, the distance between them shrinks.

Sine the sun, moon and planets all travel the same path in the sky together, called “the ecliptic”, the moon becomes a useful tool in finding the planets, although it takes some patience.  On the evening of the 8th, look for Jupiter just above and to the left of the young, crescent moon, low in the western sky during twilight. On the evening of the 14th, the moon, moving eastward, will travel the night sky in between and above both Mars and Saturn. Though on the very next night, the evening of the 15th, the moon, continuing its month-long eastward journey, appears directly above the planet Saturn, and the two celestial bodies engage in their monthly duet as they slowly glide westward across the night sky.

Have a great month – and remember; astronomy is looking up!