July Night Sky 2016 John T. Meader, Northern Stars Planetarium: Hi, this is John Meader, owner and director of Northern Stars Planetarium of Fairfield, Maine in the U.S.
July is the month that the Milky Way begins to be visible in the early evening sky. It’s been visible since March if you’re one who likes getting up at 3 a.m. By July it’s high enough to be visible as soon as it gets dark, and if you’re just learning about the night sky, you’ll probably begin by star gazing during the first couple of hours after sunset.
The Milky Way is only visible from a dark location away from city lights on clear nights. Don’t forget to give your eyes a chance to become dark adapted. The faint path of the Milky Way crosses the sky from north to south, leaning slightly east of the zenith in the early evening hours of July. The Milky Way is our galaxy and binoculars will reveal it to be composed of millions of stars. Given their distance and abundance, their light blurs together to make this faint cloudy band crossing the sky.
Starting in the north it will pass through the distinctive W shaped constellation of Cassiopiea the Queen.
Nearly overhead it reaches Deneb, the tail of Cygnus the Swan. Deneb is one of three stars known as the Summer Triangle. The other two stars are Vega—just to the west of the Milky Way and Altair to the south and on the eastern edge of the Milky Way.
Going back up to Deneb, an observant sky watcher will notice that the Milky Way seems to split in two branches near Deneb. The dark region in the middle of the Milky Way, which extends nearly to the southern horizon for mid-latitude northern observers, is known as the “Cygnus Rift” or the “Great Rift.” It’s actually obscuring clouds of dust blocking our view of the stars behind it.
As we reach the southern horizon we see Sagittarius the archer, also known as the Tea Pot.” When you view this part of the Milky Way you are looking directly into the center of the galaxy. Binoculars here will shows you multitudes of stars as well as clusters of stars and nebulae.
All the stars we can see with our unaided eyes are part of the Milky Way. When we look at that fuzzy band of light arching across the sky, we’re looking into the thickness of our galaxy, when we look off to the side away from it, we’re simply looking out the top or bottom of the galaxy. Remember the Milky Way isn’t some far away deep space-object, we are inside of it and a part of it. The Sun is just one of the billions of stars that make up our galaxy. That’s why I encourage you to find the Milky Way in your sky, observe its textures and details, and know that it is our home in the cosmos.
Happy star gazing!