The Telescope
























































Saturn came into opposition on June 11th and so will be at its highest elevation due south at around midnight BST as July begins but by ~10 pm BST at its end. It will be visible throughout most of the short night. It shines initially at magnitude 0.1 falling to +0.2 during the month and has an angular size of ~18 arc seconds. With an angle of 26.7 degrees inclination to the line of sight, the rings are virtually as open as they ever can be. It is sad that Saturn, now lying in the southern part of Ophiuchus between Sagittarius and Scorpius, only reaches an elevation of ~17 degrees above the horizon when due south so hindering our view of this most beautiful planet. If imaging Saturn (or Jupiter), Registax 6 has a tool to align the red, green and blue colour images to largely remove atmospheric dispersion from the image. At somewhat over £100 one can purchse the ZWO atmospheric dispersion corrector which uses two, contra rotating, prisms to carry out an even better correction - and which can also be used for visual observing.


Jupiter. Now three months after opposition, Jupiter still dominates the low southwestern sky after nightfall. It sets at about 1 am BST as July begin. As the month progresses its brightness falls from -2.0 to -1.9 magnitudes as its angular size falls from 37 to 34 arc seconds. It lies in Virgo some 10.5 degrees to the west of Spica, now moving eastwards again after its period of retrograde motion. It will pass Spica on September 11th on its journey towards the lower parts of the ecliptic. Next year it will only reach an elevation of some 25 degrees when due south and, in the following two years, just 18 degrees before it moves back towards the more northerly parts of the ecliptic. Even so, with a small telescope one should easily be able to see the equatorial bands in the atmosphere, sometimes the Great Red Spot and up to four of the Gallilean moons as they weave their way around it.


Mars is hidden in the Sun's glare all month so cannot be observed.
Venus is visible in the east before dawn this month, rising around 2.5 hours before sunrise increasing to 3 hours as the month progresses. It magnitude dims slightly during the month from -4.2 to -4.0 as its angular diameter shrinks from 18.2 to 14.6 arc seconds. However, at the same time, its illuminated phase increases from 63 to 74% which explains why the magitude does not drop too much. Even though it will be moving back towards the Sun, as the angle of the ecliptic to the horizon increases at this time of the year, it elevation before sunrise will continue to increase until August. Venus passes the Pleiades Cluster on the 5th, the Hyades on the 13/14th and ends the month close to M35 in Gemini.


Mercury reaches greatest elongation east, some 27 degrees from the Sun, on July 30th. It can be seen low in the west-northwest around 30 minutes after sunset. Binoculars may well be needed but please do not use them until after the Sun has set. It fades slightly during the month from -1.0 to +0.4 magnitudes whilst its angular size increases from 5.3 to 7.8 arc seconds. No surface details will, of course, be seen.

The Night Sky In and Around Swindon July 2017

Slide Presentation

The following presentation was given at our meeting on the 16th June, 2017 by Rob Slack

The constellation Hercules

Between the constellation Bootes and the bright star Vega in Lyra lies the constellation Hercules.The Red Giant star Alpha Herculis or Ras Algethi, its arabic name, is one of the largest stars known, with a diameter of around 500 times that of our Sun. In common with most giant stars it varies its size, changing in brightness as it does so from 3rd to 4th magnitude. Lying along one side of the "keystone" lies one of the wonders of the skies, the great globular cluster, M13. Just visible to the unaided eye on a dark clear night, it is easily seen through binoculars as a small ball of cotten wool about 1/3 the diameter of the full Moon. The brightness increases towards the centre where the concentration of stars is greatest. It is a most beautiful sight in a small telescope. It contains around 300,000 stars in a region of space 100 light years across, and is the brightest globular cluster that can be seen in the northern hemisphere.

The Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules.
Image by Yuugi Kitahara

The constellation Virgo
Virgo, rising in the east in late evening this month, is not one of the most prominent constellations, containing only one bright star, Spica, but is one of the largest and is very rewarding for those with "rich field" telescopes capable of seeing the many galaxies that lie within its boundaries. Spica is, in fact, an exceedingly close double star with the two B type stars orbiting each other every 4 days. Their total luminosity is 2000 times that of our Sun. In the upper right hand quadrant of Virgo lies the centre of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. There are 13 galaxies in the Messier catalogue in this region, all of which can be seen with a small telescope. The brightest is the giant elliptical galaxy, M87, with a jet extending from its centre where there is almost certainly a massive black hole into which dust and gas are falling. This releases great amounts of energy which powers particles to reach speeds close to the speed of light forming the jet we see. M87 is also called VIRGO A as it is a very strong radio source.

The Giant Elliptical Galaxy M87
Below Porrima and to the right of Spica lies M104, an 8th magnitude spiral galaxy about 30 million light years away from us. Its spiral arms are edge on to us so in a small telescope it appears as an elliptical galaxy. It is also known as the Sombrero Galaxy as it looks like a wide brimmed hat in long exposure photographs.

M104 - The Sombrero Galaxy
July - A good month to observe Saturn

Saturn in the evening Sky
Saturn reached opposition on the 14th of June, so is now due south and highest in the sky in the late evening.

It lies in the southern part of Ophiuchus some 16 degrees up and to the left of the orange star Antares in Scorpius.

Held steady, binoculars should enable you to see Saturn's brightest moon, Titan, at magnitude 8.2. A small telescope will show the rings with magnifications of x25 or more and one of 6-8 inches aperture with a magnification of ~x200 coupled with a night of good 'seeing' (when the atmosphere is calm) will show Saturn and its beautiful ring system in its full glory.

As Saturn rotates quickly with a day of just 10 and a half hours, its equator bulges slightly and so it appears a little 'squashed'. Like Jupiter, it does show belts but their colours are muted in comparison.

The thing that makes Saturn stand out is, of course, its ring system. The two outermost rings, A and B, are separated by a gap called Cassini's Division which should be visible in a telescope of 4 or more inches aperture if seeing conditions are good. Lying within the B ring, but far less bright and difficult to spot, is the C or Crepe Ring.

Due to the orientation of Saturn's rotation axis of 27 degrees with respect to the plane of the solar system, the orientation of the rings as seen by us changes as it orbits the Sun and twice each orbit they lie edge on to us and so can hardly be seen. This last happened in 2009 and they are now fully opened out, currently at an angle of 26.5 degrees to the line of sight. From this month the ring's orientation will begin to narrow until March 2025 when they will appear edge-on again.

The constellation Ursa Major
The stars of the Plough, shown linked by the thicker lines in the chart above, form one of the most recognised star patterns in the sky. Also called the Big Dipper, after the soup ladles used by farmer's wives in America to serve soup to the farm workers at lunchtime, it forms part of the Great Bear constellation - not quite so easy to make out! The stars Merak and Dubhe form the pointers which will lead you to the Pole Star, and hence find North. The stars Alcor and Mizar form a naked eye double which repays observation in a small telescope as Mizar is then shown to be an easily resolved double star. A fainter reddish star forms a triangle with Alcor and Mizar.

Ursa Major contains many interesting "deep sky" objects. The brightest, listed in Messier's Catalogue, are shown on the chart, but there are many fainter galaxies in the region too. In the upper right of the constellation are a pair of interacting galaxies M81 and M82 shown in the image below. M82 is undergoing a major burst of star formation and hence called a "starburst galaxy". They can be seen together using a low power eyepiece on a small telescope.

M81 and M82
Another, and very beautiful, galaxy is M101 which looks rather like a pinwheel firework, hence its other name the Pinwheel Galaxy. It was discovered in1781 and was a late entry to Messier's calalogue of nebulous objects. It is a type Sc spiral galaxy seen face on which is at a distance of about 24 million light years. Type Sc galaxies have a relativly small nucleus and open spiral arms. With an overall diameter of 170,000 light it is one of the largest spirals known (the Milky Way has a diameter of ~ 130,000 light years).

M101 - The Ursa Major Pinwheel Galaxy
Though just outside the constellation boundary, M51 lies close to Alkaid, the leftmost star of the Plough. Also called the Whirlpool Galaxy it is being deformed by the passage of the smaller galaxy on the left. This is now gravitationally captured by M51 and the two will eventually merge. M51 lies at a distance of about 37 million light years and was the first galaxy in which spiral arms were seen. It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1773 and the spiral structure was observed by Lord Rosse in 1845 using the 72" reflector at Birr Castle in Ireland - for many years the largest telescope in the world.

M51 - The Whirlpool Galaxy
Lying close to Merak is the planetary nebula M97 which is usually called the Owl Nebula due to its resemblance to an owl's face with two large eyes. It was first called this by Lord Rosse who drew it in 1848 - as shown in the image below right. Planetary nebulae ar the remnants of stars similar in size to our Sun. When all possible nuclear fusion processes are complete, the central core collpses down into a "white dwarf" star and the the outer parts of the star are blown off to form the surrounding nebula.

M97 - The Owl Planetary Nebula

Lord Rosse's 1848 drawing of the Owl Nebula
20th July - before dawn: Venus, Aldebaran and a thin crescent Moon

Venus and a crescent Moon
Image: Stellarium/IM
Before dawn on the 20th, Venus will be seen over to the left of a very thin waning crescent Moon. Aldebaran, lying in front of the Hyades Cluster, will also be seen to the upper right of the Moon.
July 7th/8th - midnight: The Moon and Saturn
Late evening on the 7th July, the waxing Moon will be seen to the upper right of Saturn.
July 25th - after sunset: The Moon and Mercury

The Moon and Mercury
Image: Stellarium/IM
After sunset on the 25th July, given a low western horizon and clear skies, there is a chance of spotting Mercury down to the left of a very thin crescent Moon. Binoculars may well be needed but please do not use them until after the Sun has set.

Compiled by Ian Morison - Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics