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2020 Summer Sky Lights Up with Planets, Meteors, and a Comet!

Comet Neowise path

This summer truly offers us a chance to become familiar with the night sky that belongs to all of us. Whether it be a backyard or a front step, city, shore or mountains, the cosmos serves up some of its best ‘easy-to-see-no-matter-where-you-are’ astro targets from now through early September.

Let’s start with Comet Neowise. Discovered in late March, it wasn’t until July 4 when it brightened to visibility in the pre-dawn sky. It’s now moved into the late evening sky where – under clear, dark skies - it’s visible in the northwest by 10pm EDT. Each night it climbs a bit higher but it also dims a bit each night as it pulls away from the sun. Close approach to Earth occurs July 28. To see it, look for a brighter smudge of light, like a cotton ball, with a wisp of long cloud pointing up from the horizon. The cotton ball is the nucleus; the wisp of trailing cloud is its tail. The sun’s constant outflow of electromagnetic particles, called ‘solar wind’, pushes dust (melting out of the comet’s nucleus) out behind the comet. Binoculars will definitely enhance your view. In the city and want to see it? Get to the country. While brighter than two other comets earlier this year and photos show it as stunning, right now, it’s still a challenging object. It’ll be around until late July. Use the chart above to check its position day by day.

Evening Planets

Jupiter and Saturn now are well up in the south as the sky darkens. Jupiter reached its solar opposition point on July 14th so it rises around sunset and sets around sunrise. Creamy-colored Jupiter is the larger and brighter of the two; yellowish Saturn is to the left of Jupiter. If you’re having a problem figuring which bright points in the sky are planets and which ones are stars, the general rule is, stars twinkle, planets don’t. Mars joins the evening scene in early August and all three are visible to the naked eye, no binoculars or telescope needed. Of course, your view will be enhanced if you have binocs or a scope available. Here’s a star map showing Jupiter and Saturn at 10p EDT July 14. Each night they’ll slide a bit further toward the west. Use the Stellarium Web desktop app (https://stellarium-web.org/)  to show the sky where you live and the time you’d like to observe.

Stellarium screenshot of Saturn and Jupiter


Morning Planets

Seeing the Moon, Venus, Mars, and Mercury in the pre-dawn sky make being up and out early a real delight. If you time it just right, you’ll see all five of the classic naked-eye planets in one view! Finishing out its current cycle, the Moon slides by Venus on the 17th and cruises past Mercury on the 18th, thinning to just a ‘fingernail’ by the 19th. Using the chart below (set for July 17 at 4:40a), Venus is the big dot next to the Moon; Saturn and Jupiter are over to the west(right). Use the Stellarium Web desktop app (https://stellarium-web.org/) to show which dates favor seeing Mercury as well as all the star patterns of the summer sky.

Stellarium shot of morning planets

Take note of how the planets are lined up left to right, in order of their position from the sun – except for Saturn. Saturn looks ‘out of order’ because of our viewing position relative to Jupiter and Saturn!

Perseid Meteor Shower – July 31 thru August 31

This major meteor shower peaks around the same time every year – August 11 to Aug. 13. Throughout the month, sand-grained-sized pieces of debris left over from Comet Swift-Tuttle crash into Earth’s atmosphere, creating momentary bright streaks we sometimes call ‘falling stars’ or ‘shooting stars’. Here’s where to look:

Perseid meteor shower

Under good sky conditions, you might see as many as 100 per hour! Don’t bet on seeing that many this year though. The last quarter moon rises a little over an hour later brightening the eastern sky not far behind the shower’s radiant point. But if it’s a nice night, this could be a great group activity – properly socially distanced, of course! Meteor showers are best seen from dark sky locations with reduced light pollution. Find a safe, dark spot, take a lounge chair and a radio and make it a fun evening of casual sky observing. See a really cool visualization showing how the Earth encounters the meteor shower here.

Casual sky observing can be done easily and safely during this time of quarantine and social distancing from your front steps or backyard. You can also share the experience through social media across the city or across the country. Use sky watching opportunities to connect with friends, family, or as a respite for peace and tranquility. For more detailed descriptions of the night sky, check out our Night Skies@Home programs at www.fi.edu. Remember, it’s your universe. Explore it!

July 16, 2020, 11:45am