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The Night Sky July 2008

Compiled by Ian Morison

This page, updated monthly, will let you know some of the things that you can look out for in the night sky. It lists the phases of the Moon, where you will see the naked-eye planets and describes some of the prominent constellations in the night sky during the month.

Image of the Month

ngc 1300

Interacting Galaxies NGC 1300,
Image: The Hubble Heritage Team ESA, NASA

NGC 1300 spans over 100,000 light years - just bigger than our galaxy, th Milky Way - and lies in Eridanus some 70 million light years away. Though it has a prominent bar, the centre reveals a spiral structure 3,000 light years across. Many large galaxies harbour a massive black hole at their centre but, at present, there is no confirmation of one here. This is one of the largest composite images ever made by the HST and a worthy addition to its heritage!

Highlights of the Month

July: Jupiter at its best this year - but sadly, low in the sky

Jupiter
Cassini Image of Jupiter
Image: Cassini mission, NASA

Jupiter rises in the south-east just after sunset at the beginning of July but, by the end of the month, will be well up in the south south-east at nightfall. On July 9th it is at opposition which means that it will be due south around midnight UT. It lies in the constellation Sagittarius, and as the Earth moves around the Sun "on the inside track" we see Jupiter moving westwards relative to the stars - so called retrograde motion. It begins July at magnitude -2.7 with an angular diameter of 47.2 arc seconds and, as it passes opposition, by the end of July these slightly reduce. However, it is now at the lowest point of the ecliptic in the sky and will only rise to about 15 degrees elevation when it is in the south. Thus, sadly, this year our views of Jupiter from northern latitudes will be rather poor. Despite the low elevation, even a small telescope will show the Galilean Moons as they weave their way around it. Due to refraction, we see Jupiter at very slightly different elevations in the different colours of the spectrum, thus bluring the image. A cleaner image may seen if one observes through a narrow band filter such as an OIII filter.

July: A last chance, this year, to observe Saturn in the late evening sky

Saturn
Saturn imaged from Earth with an 11 inch telescope.
Image copyright: Damian Peach

To see more of Damian Peache's Images: Damian Peache's website

Saturn, at magnitude +0.7, lies just under 4.5 degrees to the left of Regulus and visible low in the western sky after sunset in the constellation Leo. On the 5th of June it will lie above and to the left of the the thin crescent Moon. As the month progresses it moves eastwards in the sky but will soon be lost in the glare of the setting Sun. See additional highlights. Saturn is not as bright this year as it sometimes is: the rings are closing (just ~ 9 degrees tilt to us and subtending only 5 arc seconds) and thus there is less apparent reflecting area. The rings will be seen (or rather - not seen) edge on in 2009 and it will not be until 2016 that they will be at their widest again. A small telescope will easily show its largest moon, Titan, and show some bands around the surface.

July 5th: A nice skyscape - the Moon, Mars and Saturn in the evening sky

July 5th
The Moon near Mars and Saturn.
Image: Stellarium/IM

Looking west just after the Sun has set on the evening of the 5th July, you should, if clear, see the 8 day old Moon with Regulus, in Leo, up to its right. Above and to the left of Regulus will lie Mars with Saturn just a few degrees beyond. Note: The sky brightness has been reduced to show the locations of the stars and planets.

July 10th: Mars and Saturn in conjunction the evening sky

July 10th
Mars and Saturn in Leo.
Image: Stellarium/IM

Looking west just after the Sun has set on the evening of the 10th July, you should, if clear, see Mars and Saturn in conjunction, just 3/4 of a degree apart up and to the left of Regulus in the constellation Leo. Note: The sky brightness has been reduced to show the locations of the stars and planets.

Observe the International Space Station

The International Space Station
The International Space Station and Jules Verne passing behind the Lovell Telescope on April 1st 2008.
Image by Andrew Greenwood

Use the link below to find when the space station will be visible in the next few days. In general, the space station can be seen either in the hour or so before dawn or the hour or so after sunset - this is because it is dark and yet the Sun is not too far below the horizon so that it can light up the space station. As the orbit only just gets up the the latitude of the UK it will usually be seen to the south, and is only visible for a minute or so at each sighting. Note that as it is in low-earth orbit the sighting details vary quite considerably across the UK. The NASA website linked to below gives details for several cities in the UK. ( Across the world too for foreign visitors to this web page.)

Find details of sighting possibilities from your location from: Location Index

See where the space station is now: Current Position

The Moon

3rd Quarter Moon
The Moon at 3rd Quarter. Image, by Ian Morison, taken with a 150mm Maksutov-Newtonian and Canon G7.
Just below the crator Plato seen near the top of the image is the mountain "Mons Piton". It casts a long shadow across the maria from which one can calculate its height - about 6800ft or 2250m.
new first quarter full moon last quarter
July 3rd July 10th July 18th July 25th

Some Lunar Images by Ian Morison, Jodrell Bank Observatory: Lunar Images

The Planets

 A montage of the Solar System
A montage of the Solar System. JPL / Nasa

Jupiter

Jupiter
A Cassini image of Jupiter . Nasa

Jupiter - see highlight above.

Saturn

Saturn
The planet Saturn. Cassini - Nasa

Saturn - see highlights above.

Mercury

Mercury.
Messinger image of Mercury Nasa

Mercury reaches its greatest angular seperation from the Sun, called "greatest elongation" on July 1st when it can be seen in the east north-east about 45 minutes before dawn. It will remains visible for the first two weeks of July and reaches magnitude -1. It is to the lower left of Aldebaran in Taurus.

Mars

Mars showing Syrtis major.
A Hubble Space Telescope image of Mars.
Jim Bell et al. AURA / STScI / Nasa

Mars begins July with a magnitude of +1.6 lying to the lower left of Regulus in Leo. The disk, now just over 4 arc seconds across, is now so small that it will be virtually impossible to see any details on the salmon pink surface. See highlights above.

Venus

Venus
Venus showing some cloud structure

Venus was at superior conjunction - on the far side of the Sun - on June 9th, and only becomes visible just above the western horizon after sunset at the end of July. Best to wait a month or so to see it better.

Radar Image of Venus
Radar image showing surface features

Find more planetary images and details about the Solar System: The Solar System

The Stars

The mid evening July Sky

July Sky
The July Sky in the south - mid evening.

This map shows the constellations seen towards the south at about 10pm BST in mid July. High overhead towards the north (not shown on the chart) lies Ursa Major. As one moves southwards one first crosses the constellation Hercules with its magnificent globular cluster, M13, and then across the large but not prominent constellation Ophiucus until, low above the souther horizon lie Sagittarius and Scorpio. To the right of Hercules lie the arc of stars making up Corona Borealis and then Bootes with its bright star Arcturus. Rising in the east is the beautiful region of the Milky Way containing both Cygnus and Lyra. Below is Aquilla. The three bright stars Deneb (in Cygnus), Vega (in Lyra) and Altair (in Aquila) make up the "Summer Triangle".

The constellation Ursa Major

Ursa Major
Ursa Major

The stars of the Plough, shown linked by the thicker lines in the chart above, form one of the most recognised star patterns in the sky. Also called the Big Dipper, after the soup ladles used by farmer's wives in America to serve soup to the farm workers at lunchtime, it forms part of the Great Bear constellation - not quite so easy to make out! The stars Merak and Dubhe form the pointers which will lead you to the Pole Star, and hence find North. The stars Alcor and Mizar form a naked eye double which repays observation in a small telescope as Mizar is then shown to be an easily resolved double star. A fainter reddish star forms a triangle with Alcor and Mizar.

Ursa Major contains many interesting "deep sky" objects. The brightest, listed in Messier's Catalogue, are shown on the chart, but there are many fainter galaxies in the region too. In the upper right of the constellation are a pair of interacting galaxies M81 and M82 shown in the image below. M82 is undergoing a major burst of star formation and hence called a "starburst galaxy". They can be seen together using a low power eyepiece on a small telescope.

M81 and M82
M81 and M82

Another, and very beautiful, galaxy is M101 which looks rather like a pinwheel firework, hence its other name the Pinwheel Galaxy. It was discovered in1781 and was a late entry to Messier's calalogue of nebulous objects. It is a type Sc spiral galaxy seen face on which is at a distance of about 24 million light years. Type Sc galaxies have a relativly small nucleus and open spiral arms. With an overall diameter of 170,000 light it is one of the largest spirals known (the Milky Way has a diameter of ~ 130,000 light years).

M101
M101 - The Ursa Major Pinwheel Galaxy

Though just outside the constellation boundary, M51 lies close to Alkaid, the leftmost star of the Plough. Also called the Whirlpool Galaxy it is being deformed by the passage of the smaller galaxy on the left. This is now gravitationally captured by M51 and the two will eventually merge. M51 lies at a distance of about 37 million light years and was the first galaxy in which spiral arms were seen. It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1773 and the spiral structure was observed by Lord Rosse in 1845 using the 72" reflector at Birr Castle in Ireland - for many years the largest telescope in the world.

M51
M51 - The Whirlpool Galaxy

Lying close to Merak is the planetary nebula M97 which is usually called the Owl Nebula due to its resemblance to an owl's face with two large eyes. It was first called this by Lord Rosse who drew it in 1848 - as shown in the image below right. Planetary nebulae ar the remnants of stars similar in size to our Sun. When all possible nuclear fusion processes are complete, the central core collpses down into a "white dwarf" star and the the outer parts of the star are blown off to form the surrounding nebula.

Owl Nebula Owl Nebula
M97 - The Owl Planetary Nebula Lord Rosse's 1848 drawing of the Owl Nebula

The constellation Hercules

Hercules
Hercules

Between the constellation Bootes and the bright star Vega in Lyra lies the constellation Hercules.The Red Giant star Alpha Herculis or Ras Algethi, its arabic name, is one of the largest stars known, with a diameter of around 500 times that of our Sun. In common with most giant stars it varies its size, changing in brightness as it does so from 3rd to 4th magnitude. Lying along one side of the "keystone" lies one of the wonders of the skies, the great globular cluster, M13. Just visible to the unaided eye on a dark clear night, it is easily seen through binoculars as a small ball of cotten wool about 1/3 the diameter of the full Moon. The brightness increases towards the centre where the concentration of stars is greatest. It is a most beautiful sight in a small telescope. It contains around 300,000 stars in a region of space 100 light years across, and is the brightest globular cluster that can be seen in the northern hemisphere.

Globular Cluster M13
The Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules. Image by Yuugi Kitahara

The constellation Virgo

Virgo
Virgo

Virgo, in the south-east after sunset this month, is not one of the most prominent constellations, containing only one bright star, Spica, but is one of the largest and is very rewarding for those with "rich field" telescopes capable of seeing the many galaxies that lie within its boundaries. Spica is, in fact, an exceedingly close double star with the two B type stars orbiting each other every 4 days. Their total luminosity is 2000 times that of our Sun. In the upper right hand quadrant of Virgo lies the centre of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. There are 13 galaxies in the Messier catalogue in this region, all of which can be seen with a small telescope. The brightest is the giant elliptical galaxy, M87, with a jet extending from its centre where there is almost certainly a massive black hole into which dust and gas are falling. This releases great amounts of energy which powers particles to reach speeds close to the speed of light forming the jet we see. M87 is also called VIRGO A as it is a very strong radio source.

M87 MERLIN images
The Giant Elliptical Galaxy M87 HST image showing the jet

Below Porrima and to the right of Spica lies M104, an 8th magnitude spiral galaxy about 30 million light years away from us. Its spiral arms are edge on to us so in a small telescope it appears as an elliptical galaxy. It is also known as the Sombrero Galaxy as it looks like a wide brimmed hat in long exposure photographs.

The Sombrero Galaxy
M104 - The Sombrero Galaxy

The constellations Lyra and Cygnus

Cygnus and Lyra
Lyra and Cygnus

This month the constellations Lyra and Cygnus are rising in the East as darkness falls with their bright stars Vega, in Lyra, and Deneb, in Cygnus, making up the "summer triangle" of bright stars with Altair in the constellation Aquila below. (see sky chart above)

Lyra

Lyra is dominated by its brightest star Vega, the fifth brightest star in the sky. It is a blue-white star having a magnitude of 0.03, and lies 26 light years away. It weighs three times more than the Sun and is about 50 times brighter. It is thus burning up its nuclear fuel at a greater rate than the Sun and so will shine for a correspondingly shorter time. Vega is much younger than the Sun, perhaps only a few hundred million years old, and is surrounded by a cold,dark disc of dust in which an embryonic solar system is being formed!

There is a lovely double star called Epsilon Lyrae up and to the left of Vega. A pair of binoculars will show them up easily - you might even see them both with your unaided eye. In fact a telescope, provided the atmosphere is calm, shows that each of the two stars that you can see is a double star as well so it is called the double double!

The Double Double
Epsilon Lyra - The Double Double

Between Beta and Gamma Lyra lies a beautiful object called the Ring Nebula. It is the 57th object in the Messier Catalogue and so is also called M57. Such objects are called planetary nebulae as in a telescope they show a disc, rather like a planet. But in fact they are the remnants of stars, similar to our Sun, that have come to the end of their life and have blown off a shell of dust and gas around them. The Ring Nebula looks like a greenish smoke ring in a small telescope, but is not as impressive as it is shown in photographs in which you can also see the faint central "white dwarf" star which is the core of the original star which has collapsed down to about the size of the Earth. Still very hot this shines with a blue-white colour, but is cooling down and will eventually become dark and invisible - a "black dwarf"! Do click on the image below to see the large version - its wonderful!

M57 - The Ring Nebula
M57 - the Ring Nebula
Image: Hubble Space telescope

M56 is an 8th magnitude Globular Cluster visible in binoculars roughly half way between Alberio (the head of the Swan) and Gamma Lyrae. It is 33,000 light years away and has a diameter of about 60 light years. It was first seen by Charles Messier in 1779 and became the 56th entry into his catalogue.

M56 - Globular Cluster
M56 - Globular Cluster

Cygnus

Cygnus, the Swan, is sometimes called the "Northern Cross" as it has a distinctive cross shape, but we normally think of it as a flying Swan. Deneb,the arabic word for "tail", is a 1.3 magnitude star which marks the tail of the swan. It is nearly 2000 light years away and appears so bright only because it gives out around 80,000 times as much light as our Sun. In fact if Deneb where as close as the brightest star in the northern sky, Sirius, it would appear as brilliant as the half moon and the sky would never be really dark when it was above the horizon!

The star, Albireo, which marks the head of the Swan is much fainter, but a beautiful sight in a small telescope. This shows that Albireo is made of two stars, amber and blue-green, which provide a wonderful colour contrast. With magnitudes 3.1 and 5.1 they are regarded as the most beautiful double star that can be seen in the sky.

Alberio
Alberio: Diagram showing the colours and relative brightnesses

Cygnus lies along the line of the Milky Way, the disk of our own Galaxy, and provides a wealth of stars and clusters to observe. Just to the left of the line joining Deneb and Sadr, the star at the centre of the outstretched wings, you may, under very clear dark skys, see a region which is darker than the surroundings. This is called the Cygnus Rift and is caused by the obscuration of light from distant stars by a lane of dust in our local spiral arm. the dust comes from elements such as carbon which have been built up in stars and ejected into space in explosions that give rise to objects such as the planetary nebula M57 described above.

Deneb,the arabic word for "tail", is a 1.3 magnitude star which marks the tail of the swan. It is nearly 2000 light years away and appears so bright only because it gives out around 80,000 times as much light as our Sun. In fact if Deneb where as close as the brightest star in the northern sky, Sirius, it would appear as brilliant as the half moon and the sky would never be really dark when it was above the horizon!

There is a beautiful region of nebulosity up and to the left of Deneb which is visible with binoculars in a very dark and clear sky. Photographs show an outline that looks like North America - hence its name the North America Nebula. Just to its right is a less bright region that looks like a Pelican, with a long beak and dark eye, so not surprisingly this is called the Pelican Nebula. The photograph below shows them well.

The North American Nebula
The North American Nebula

Brocchi's Cluster An easy object to spot with binoculars in Gygnus is "Brocchi's Cluster", often called "The Coathanger",although it appears upside down in the sky! Follow down the neck of the swan to the star Alberio, then sweep down and to its lower left. You should easily spot it against the dark dust lane behind.

The Coathanger
Brocchi's Cluster - The Coathanger