Summer Sky Watching

Head outside any clear night this summer and look up. It's amazing what you can see, even without the aid of a telescope. The night sky offers a plethora of objects to capture your attention. We highlight some of what you might see from North America this summer below:

The moon is the most obvious feature of the night sky. There are three full moons this summer: July 19, August 18, and September 16. The full moon looks particularly impressive as it's rising or setting. Want to keep track of what you're seeing? You can record your nightly observations of the moon over the course of a full lunar cycle.

You can see some of the other planets in our solar system at night: Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Mercury, and Venus can all be seen without aid of a telescope in July. You may have heard that the Juno spacecraft successfully was inserted into Jupiter's orbit on the night of July 4. While you won't be able to see Juno, you will be able to see Jupiter in the western sky in the hours around sunset. This week, it's particularly bright. Mars is the second-brightest planet in the July sky. It appears low in the southern sky and remains above the horizon most of the night. Venus will become visible later this month and, on August 28 and the days around it, will be in conjunction (will seem very close in the sky) to Jupiter just after sunset. Mercury will reach its highest point above Earth's western horizon on August 16. You should be able to see it just after sunset in the low western sky. If you have access to a telescope, or even a pair of binoculars, you may be able to see even more details of our solar system neighbors.

Later today (9:36 p.m. EDT on July 6, 2016), the Expedition 48 crew—Anatoli Ivanishin of Roscosmos, Takuya Onishi of JAXA, and Kate Rubins of NASA—on the Soyuz MS-01 spacecraft will launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan heading to the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS is one of the things you can spot in the night sky without a telescope, but it moves quickly (it orbits the earth nearly 16 times a day) so if you want to catch it, be outside several minutes before it's due to appear in your area and orient yourself in the right direction to view its trajectory. Visible within a few hours of sunset or sunrise (thanks to the sun reflecting off the station and contrasting with the darker sky), it will be in sight less than five minutes. It will look like a very fast moving airplane or a bright star, but without blinking lights or any change of direction. You can check NASA's page to find out when the ISS will next be viewable in your area or sign up to receive email or text alert reminders.

Two big meteor showers occur each summer: the Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower, visible from some of the more southern areas of North America, and the Perseid Meteor Shower. The former runs from July 12 to August 23, with the best viewing opportunities occurring July 27–30, when up to 20 meteors will be visible in an hour. You also may have luck seeing some of the meteors in the first few days of August around the time of the new moon. The meteors radiate from near the star Skat (also known as Delta) in the constellation Aquarius. The Perseids, which radiate from the constellation Perseus, occur between July 17 and August 24. At peak viewing time, August 10–13 (with the very best time to watch being after midnight on August 12), more than 60 meteors will be visible in an hour. The Perseids are produced by debris left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle. While meteors radiate from a specific constellation, they can appear anywhere in the night sky.

Beyond our solar system are the stars. You should be able to see the stars Arcturus, Spica, Antares, Regulus, as well as Big Dipper, Polaris (the North Star) in the Little Dipper, Scorpius, and Sagittarius, among others, without a telescope. In Star Search, you'll find four of the constellations visible in the summer sky, as well as some of the constellations to look for at other times of the year. This printable star chart shows what you might see in July.

Check out a couple of the apps that will help you identify what you're seeing in real time with just the help of a mobile device: GoSkyWatch Planetarium allows you to identify and locate stars, planets, constellations, and more by touching the screen or by pointing to the sky. The Planets App, by Q Continuum, provides several different ways for you to get information about objects in the sky. 

Finally, if you are able to visit a local observatory on a night when it's open to the public, its powerful telescopes will let you see even more of the night sky.


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