The month celebrated in the Northern Hemisphere for BBQs, maturing gardens and crops, and moments spent relaxing in the hammock or kicking back on the beach is upon us. While fireworks will dominate the evening skies on the Fourth of July across the U.S., the rest of the month will feature visual spectacles of a different kind –– from the full Thunder 'Blood' Moon to a dazzling close encounter with Mars.
So set your alarm clock, have a blanket ready and check out some of July's celestial highlights below. Wishing you clear skies!
Venus rules the morning sky (All month)
The waning crescent moon and Venus as captured by the Paranal Observatory in Chile on May 30, 2017. (Photo: European Southern Observatory/flickr)
Venus, the queen of planets, will rule the early morning hours of July –– with a visual brightness approaching minus 4 magnitude. The closest planet to Earth, Venus glows brightly due to both its proximity and the fact that its atmosphere is composed of thick clouds of carbon dioxide that reflect sunlight back into space. Look for it on the eastern horizon two or three hours before dawn. For some extra splendor, wake up early on the morning of July 14 to watch the waning crescent moon briefly glide by Venus.
Spy the solar system's brightest asteroid with a 13-mile-high mountain (until July 16)
From now until July 16, the 326-mile-wide asteroid Vesta will be bright enough to pick out with a pair of high-powered binoculars or, even better, a backyard telescope. Our solar system's lone remaining protoplanet — an embryonic remnant of the material that created future worlds like Earth — Vesta also hosts a 65,000 foot-tall mountain, second in size only to Mars's Olympus Mons (72,000 feet).
Those interested in spotting this yellow-hued relic should use Saturn as their guide and then star-hop into the constellation Sagittarius. While it will shine brightest through mid-July, more powerful telescopes should be able to pick it out until late September. But catch it while you can; Vesta won't be this close to Earth again until 2040.
Pluto makes its closest approach to Earth (July 12)
Pluto, the most beloved dwarf planet, will make its closest approach to Earth on the evening of July 12. Unlike Mars, which will come within 36 million miles of us later in the month, Pluto's opposition (when the Earth is lined up between an object and the sun) will only push it to within 2.66 billion miles. At this distance, it will "shine" at a diminutive 14.1 magnitude, so you'll need a telescope with at least an 8-10 inch diameter mirror to pick it out. Thankfully, dark skies courtesy of a new moon will help. Look for it within the southern constellation Sagittarius after midnight.
It's worth noting that Pluto's alignment with Earth hasn't been this perfect since 1931 and won't be again for another 161 years. So if you don't see it, be sure to look up anyways on the 12th and appreciate this extremely rare event.
New moon (July 13)
The Milky Way as seen through the Mobius Arch in Alabama Hills. (Photo: Kartik Ramanathan/flickr)
This month's new moon offers the perfect opportunity to grab the telescope and head out for dark, unencumbered views of galaxies, planets and other celestial sights.
Take in the Delta Aquarids meteor shower (July 27-28)
Look for the Delta Aquarids to light up the early morning skies on July 27 and 28. (Photo: Kris Williams/flickr)
A precursor to the more popular Perseid meteor shower in early August, the Delta Aquarids peak around July 27 and 28 and offer as many as 10-20 shooting stars per hour. According to EarthSky.org, 5 to 10 percent of the Aquarids leave behind glowing ionized gas trails that last a few seconds after the meteor has passed.
The meteors appear to originate just before the constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer in the southern sky. In reality, they're debris from Comet 96P Machholz, a short-period sun-grazing comet that swings our way every five years. To catch the shower at its best, look up on the morning of the 27 or 28 between 2-3 a.m. Unfortunately, you'll have to contend with a glowing full moon, so it's likely that you'll see only the brightest of the Aquarids.
Western Hemisphere takes in a full Thunder Moon (July 27)
The Thunder Moon, also known as the Buck Moon and Hay Moon, will arrive on July 9. (Photo: Angus MacRae/flickr)
With July being the stormiest month of the year for the Northern Hemisphere, it only makes sense that its full moon nickname would follow suit. For those lucky enough to have clear skies, the so-called Thunder Moon (frankly, the best moon nickname of the year) will make its trip across the evening sky on the morning of July 27.
In addition to its association with storms, this full moon has also been nicknamed the Buck Moon (for when deer begin growing their antlers), the Ripe Corn Moon and the Hay Moon. Europeans also called it the Meade Moon as it coincided with an uptick in honey harvest for making the delicious drink.
Blood Moon and longest lunar eclipse (July 27)
July's total lunar eclipse will turn the moon a ruddy red as it passes through the Earth's shadow. (Photo: Francisco Carlos Calderòn/flickr)
Those living in Europe, Africa, Australia or anywhere else in the Eastern Hemisphere on July 27 will be treated to the 21st century's longest lunar eclipse. Nicknamed a Blood Moon due to the ruddy light cast by Earth's shadow, the totality (moment of complete eclipse) will last an astounding 1 hour and 43 minutes. So you'll have plenty of time to look up and marvel at our closest neighbor turned an ominous shade of red.
Those living in the Western Hemisphere can look forward to their own total lunar eclipse to unfold on Jan. 21, 2019.
The return of the 'ghost of the summer dawn' (July 30)
Orion the Hunter and Jupiter rise over a forest just before dawn in this photo captured in September 2012. (Photo: Luis Argerich/flickr)
Orion the Hunter is a distinctive constellation during the winter months thanks to the three bright stars, Mintaka, Alnitak and Alnilam, that make up its belt. On July 30, this constellation will make its eastern return in the early morning hours, an event beautifully nicknamed "the ghost of the shimmering summer dawn." You can almost hear him whispering across the creeping light of a new day that "winter is coming..."
Mars, oh my! (July 31)
Mars will more than double in size in the night sky between May 2018 and late July 2018. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Mars will steal the celestial spotlight for most of July, peaking in both dazzle and size on the morning of July 31 with a magnitude brightness of around -2.78. On a few days before, on July 27, Mars's orbit will place it in a straight line with the Earth and sun, an annual event known as opposition. Because the orbit of Mars is elliptical, however, some oppositions are much closer than others. In fact, on July 31, the red planet will come within 35.8 million miles of Earth –– the closest brush with our blue marble since the historical opposition of 2003!
"Mars will easily be visible to the naked eye. In fact, you will be hard pressed to miss it," Dean Regas, astronomer for the Cincinnati Observatory, told MNN. "It will look like a glowing orange beacon of light rising in the southeast after sunset. It'll be much brighter than any star, brighter than Jupiter, nearly as bright as Venus. And you'll see it every night for the next several months."
To spot this Mars, look towards the southeast sky just after sunset. At this distance, backyard telescope can sometimes pick up the planet's polar ice caps, distinctive hues of orange, yellow, and red and even clouds.