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Astronomy: July Observing Highlights

7-1-11 Pre Fireworks Jan Willem Stad
Before the fireworks start, point out the planets in the darkening sky. Credit: Jan Willem Stad

If you can steer clear of mosquitoes, July nights are some of the best for observing the heavens. Lie back and gaze at the Milky Way and watch for meteors shooting across the sky.

The summer's best meteor shower occurs this month. Normally that title goes to the Perseids in August, but because that one coincides with a full moon, July’s Southern Delta Aquarids shower will be the preferred event.

The Southern Delta Aquarids occur around new moon. The peak of activity will happen between nightfall on July 28 and sunrise on July 29. Look for the constellation Aquarius. It will be rising in the southeast in late evening, bringing with it the radiant from which the meteors appear to emanate. At peak you can see up to 20 meteors an hour.

Saturn and Mercury are the planets to watch in July. Saturn is visible after sunset as the bright starlike object in the southwest. Saturn is currently located in the constellation Virgo. Mercury shines a bit brighter than Saturn at the beginning of the month from its location in the west. But because it never ventures far from the sun, it will be in the twilight glow and hard to spot.

On the Fourth of July, Earth will reach aphelion, the farthest it gets from the sun all year at a distance of 1.017 Astronomical Units. As the sun sets and before the fireworks begin, look for a crescent moon below the star Regulus with Mercury to its right and Saturn to its left.

For more stargazing attractions, see the AstronomyToday.com SkyGuide for July through September.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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