Of the thousands of celestial wonders I’ve observed over the years, three are consistently the most-viewed and visually exciting. They are the Moon, and the planets Jupiter and Saturn. It happens that all three are conveniently placed this month for the enjoyment of readers owning binoculars and small telescopes.
The bane of stargazers is light pollution—especially in and near large metropolitan areas. And even in the suburbs, I often hear people say they’ve given up on observing due to the ever-increasing lights around them. But the three jewels mentioned above can be seen even in the brightest of skies. And they are perfectly positioned on mid-July evenings.
The Moon, of course, when up can always be seen—even in broad daylight! If you’ve never done it, look at the Moon in binoculars or with a low power eyepiece on a telescope against a late afternoon blue sky. There’s definitely something magical about seeing it this way! This is how I saw our lovely satellite for the very first time, using a 10-power Boy Scout telescope one summer afternoon some 60 years ago. It was a sight that I have never forgotten.
Next in order of visibility is radiant Jupiter, which currently dominates the southwestern sky. As we’ve pointed out here in past columns, 7- to 10-power binoculars (held steadily or image-stabilized glasses) will show the planet’s four bright Galilean satellites shuttling to-and-fro about it from night-to-night. Given 25- to 30-power on even the smallest of telescopes, these moons provide endless fascination as they disappear into and reappear out of Jupiter’s huge shadow, or cross in front of or pass behind the planet. Some have compared this to a “four-ring circus”! The cloud belts and slow rotation of this giant world are also visible.
And finally there’s magnificent Saturn, now due south halfway up the evening sky. While normal binoculars will not actually reveal its beautiful rings, they do show the planet as egg-shaped from their presence. Telescopes are another matter! At 30x, Saturn looks like an exquisite piece of cosmic jewelry and so other-worldly as to look artificial. “It can’t be real” is a comment often heard at public star parties. Indeed, hanging out there in space with rings around it, you may well agree seeing it for the first time!
In closing, it should be mentioned that the planets Venus (anytime it’s in the sky) and Mars (when at opposition and brightest) also are visible even in the worst of light polluted skies. But the slowly cycling phases of the former, and the visibility of subtle surface markings and the polar caps of the latter, are no match for the thrill of the ever-changing dance of Jupiter’s moons, or the ethereal beauty of Saturn’s rings.
— James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of nine books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com.