top of page

What's Up Above? July Stargazing

July’s arrival tells us to fully step firmly into summer.  Not tentatively or with hesitation, the month of July demands our participation. Get outside, inhale a deep breath of fullness. This sensation of “full” abounds all around us. A month full of growth, full of thickness, and full of rich sensations for all of our senses. Does this call to mind a summer day? On the contrary, this describes a July summer night. 

This fullness awaits you every night in July. The biggest fullness is the Milky Way. Last month, the Milky Way began its flanking march low on the eastern horizon, sweeping across from the north, to the east and then turning and fading in the south. Now it flows majestically as the centerpiece of any clear July night.  It’s an arc of light, a river of life and passage, a bejeweled background of light and dark, depth and detail. Yet, more than an arc of opalescent light in the night, the Milky Way is our galactic home. Don’t miss a moment this month to look up and view the fullness of it. Look up in curiosity, wonder, and amazement to take in and experience the universe on any comfortable summer night. I guarantee that you will wake up happier the next morning.

The Full Buck Moon, July 21st 

This month, July’s Full Moon is called the Full Buck Moon. What the heck is a Full Buck Moon? The name Buck Moon refers to the time of year when the antlers of male deer are in full-growth mode according to indigenous, colonial American and European traditions.  For the Ojibwe nation it is the Blueberry Moon, for the Oneida nation it is the String Bean Moon, and for the Catawba it is the Thunderstorm Moon.

In the movement of celestial objects around one another there are moments when they are opposite each other, with the Earth or Sun in the middle, and then there are moments when they are in conjunction with each other, both on the same side, opposed to Earth or Sun. A full Moon is in opposition where the Moon and the Sun are directly opposite one another and the Earth is in the middle, between them. This is the moment of a full Moon. On this night, the Moon resides in the constellation Capricornus with an approximate distance from Earth of 229,000 miles. That night the Moon will rise above the eastern horizon in full radiance 4-minutes after the Sun sets over the western horizon. Fun fact, the average Moon to Earth distance is 238,000 miles. 

The Rise of Scorpius, The full month of July

Scorpius, The slayer of Orion, emerges in fullness this month to dominate the southern end of the Milky Way. This is because the Earth’s orbit and tilt allows us a full view of this spectacular constellation, which for most of the year calls the southern celestial hemisphere home.  Few constellations represent their name better than Scorpius. This is what is called an asterism. And what is an asterism? It is an observed pattern of stars seen in a connect-the-dots, stick-figure pattern.  

As an ancient constellation, Scorpius is noted in script, which predates Ptolemy’s identifying it in the 2nd century as one of the 48 “original '' constellations (today, there are 88 constellations). For the Polynesian cultures of the southern hemisphere Scorpius is “the brooded swan” (Javanese), and the “Big Fish Hook of Maui” (Hawaiian). The Greeks mythologies involving Scorpius are many and varied.  The short story is Artemis (or the Earth) sent the scorpion to slay Orion. This was because Orion, the Hunter, boasted to her and her mother that he could kill any wild beast on Earth. Angered by this, Artemis and Leto sent a scorpion to kill Orion. A battle ensued and the melee caught the attention of Zeus who ended it by placing each of them on opposite sides of the heavens. To this day the scorpion still chases Orion, but never catches him since it is only after Orion sets in the western night sky in late spring that Scorpius rises in the southeastern night sky in early summer. 

Scorpius is easy to find.  Look due south any time of the night, or you can just follow the Milky Way across the sky from the north to the southern horizon. Look just above the horizon to find the constellation.  As night progresses, Scorpius will “tip” to the west (left) revealing the entire asterism; head, body, stinger, and barb. 

Got Messages to Deliver! Mercury Reaches Peak Altitude, July 12th 

After zipping across the early morning eastern skies just a few months ago, Mercury, the swift winged-footed messenger of the gods, is visible now in the western sky at sunset. On July 12th, Mercury reaches a whopping peak altitude of 15 degrees above the western horizon after sunset. That’s quite high in the sky for Mercury to achieve as it is an inferior planet, making it much easier to spot and enjoy this elusive planet that usually resides close to the horizon; whether in the morning or evening. 

In fact, the ancients thought they were seeing two different stars, one in the morning and a different star in the evening. It wasn’t until circa 350 BCE that it was realized the two stars were indeed one. Before that time the Babylonians called Mercury “Nabu”; the ancients in China called it the “Hour Star”; and the Maya saw it as an owl serving as a messenger to the underworld. Interestingly, the common themes spanning time and cultures are those of messages and speed.  

To find Mercury on the 12th, look to western horizon shortly after the sun has set. The brightest point of light in the sky will be our other inferior planet, Venus. Use the image above as reference and draw an imaginary line from the point where the sun set up to Venus. Continue extending the line up at this angle to the next brightest point of light in the darkening western sky. That star is Regulus, in the constellation Leo the Lion. Half the distance between Venus and Regulus, you’ll find Mercury as a brilliant light gray brownish colored point of light that you can see with your naked-eye.  Mercury is 60% illuminated that night making it even brighter and easier to spot.  Be alert and on your toes as Mercury is moving fast with less than two hours for you to view it. Well, that makes sense when you're Mercury; on a tight schedule with messages to deliver. 

Dueling Meteor Showers - Alpha Capricornid and Delta Aquarids, Peaking July 30th

Do you remember the movie Deliverance?  Dueling banjos and dueling meteor showers? Maybe it’s not as far-fetched as you think.  Want to increase your chances of catching a meteor streaking across our night sky? Then, mark the night of the 30th on your calendar now, because both the Southern Delta Aquariid meteor shower and the Alpha Capricornid meteor shower reach their peak that night. Oh, did I mention that the showers start when the Sun goes down?  Anticipate never a dull moment.

The lesser known Delta Aquarids is the first of the summer’s annual meteor showers. It starts on July 18th and reach its peak on the 30th.  On that night, it’s estimated you’ll see 25 – 30 meteors an hour.  Around 10 pm, the shower’s radiant point will rise above the east-southeast horizon with the constellation Aquarius.       

Next, from our location 40 degrees north, the Alpha Capricornid meteor shower is visible all night. This shower radiates from July 3rd through August 15th. To find the shower, look to the southeastern horizon after sunset, when the skies have darkened.  The radiant point for this shower will be just to the left (southwest) of the radiant point of the Delta Aquarids.  Ah, now you get it; just like our dueling banjos, our duel meteor showers are sitting side-by-side, mimicking one another. The music is clear that night as the Moon is a 25-day old waning crescent, not rising in the east until after 1am. Dark skies means that the less luminous fainter meteors are visible. That’s good. More meteors means more “oohs” and “ahs” to fill your soul.

Truly, the word “full” is an apt one to describe stargazing in July.  The full grandness of the Milky Way is on full display; the full clarity and prominence of the Scorpius constellation dominating the southern horizon’s night skyline; and the full-on dueling meteor showers; full speed ahead and double-barreling towards you.  So, get heavy into stargazing this July.  Gather your posse, find a dark location, and give your eyes at least 20-minutes to adjust to the darkness, bring binoculars, and settle in for the “full” pleasure and joy of looking up at our wonderful night sky.  


Clear skies to you!


bottom of page