You can see all five bright planets in the evening this month! But you’ll have to look hard for two of them. First, the easy ones … Jupiter, Mars and Saturn pop out as darkness falls in July 2016. Jupiter, brightest of the bunch, is found in the western half of the sky until late evening. Mars is still a bright beacon, although fainter than Jupiter at nightfall and early evening. Mars is still in a noticeable triangle with Saturn and the bright star Antares. Jupiter, Mars and Saturn are visible throughout July. Now the more difficult planets … Mercury and Venus. In July 2016, they’re low in the glare of evening twilight, quickly following the sun below the horizon before nightfall. But, as the days pass, both Mercury and Venus get higher in the sky. By mid-July, you’ll see them come into view in the west and then … wow! Five planets in our evening sky! Follow the links below to learn more about July planets in 2016.
Jupiter brightest “star” on July evenings. Jupiter lights up the sky almost immediately after sunset on these July evenings. From mid-northern latitudes, the king planet shines in the southwest sky at nightfall. From the Southern Hemisphere, look in the north to northwest sky as darkness falls.
For all of us, Jupiter sets in the west at late evening in the beginning of the month and early evening by the month’s end. It will start to fade into the sunset by late August.
Jupiter is almost impossible to miss. It’s the fourth-brightest celestial object, after the sun, moon and Venus. But Venus is now lost – or nearly lost – in the glare of the sun, so Jupiter rules the nighttime on July evenings. As evening falls, Mars and Saturn shine in the southern sky, while Jupiter appears in the west. So it should be pretty easy to distinguish Jupiter from ruddy Mars, especially since these two brilliant worlds shine in different parts of the sky.
The moon swings close to Jupiter on the sky’s dome for several days, centered on or near July 8.
If you have binoculars (on a tripod) or a telescope, it’s fairly easy to see Jupiter’s four major moons, which look like pinpricks of light on or near the same plane. They are often called the Galilean moons to honor Galileo, who discovered these great Jovian moons in 1610. In their order from Jupiter, these moons are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
These moons circle Jupiter around the Jovian equator. In cycles of six years, we view Jupiter’s equator edge-on. So, in 2015, we got to view a number of mutual events involving Jupiter’s moons through a high-powered telescope. Click here for more details.
Although Jupiter’s axial tilt is only 3o out of perpendicular relative to the ecliptic (Earth’s orbital plane), Jupiter’s axis will tilt enough toward the sun and Earth so that the farthest of these four moons, Callisto, will not pass in front of Jupiter or behind Jupiter for a period of about three years, starting in late 2016.
During this approximate 3-year period, Callisto will remain perpetually visible, alternately swinging above and below Jupiter from our earthly perspective.
Click here for a Jupiter moons almanac, courtesy of Sky & Telescope.
Mars, dusk until after midnight, shines near Saturn. Mars is still wonderfully bright this month, though fainter than it was in June 2016! Saturn came closest to Earth for the year on June 3, less than four days after Mars’ closest approach to Earth on May 30. Although Mars and Saturn are beginning to fade a bit in July, they’re still plenty bright and easy to see – especially Mars!
Mars was at its brightest at its opposition on May 22. Jupiter was at its brightest during its opposition on March 8. Mars and Jupiter will remain spectacularly bright in the July night sky, but, by the month’s end, you’ll notice the brightness of Mars has waned somewhat.
Here’s some really good news, though. Mars is near another planet on the sky’s dome, Saturn. Look for Mars and Saturn near Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion. They make a noticeable triangle on the sky’s dome.
Let the moon help guide your eye to Mars (plus Saturn and the bright star Antares) for several evenings, centered on or near July 14. Then watch for the moon to move away from Mars and to sail by Saturn on July 15.
Saturn, dusk until after midnight, shines near Mars. Both Mars and Saturn are near a fainter object – still one of the sky’s brightest stars – Antares in the constellation Scorpius.
The ringed planet starts out the month appearing in the south to southeast sky at nightfall. At the beginning of the month, Saturn will soar to its highest point for the night around 10 p.m. local time (11 p.m. local Daylight Saving Time). By the month’s end, Saturn will be at its high point around 8 p.m. local time (9 p.m. local Daylight Saving Time).
Although Saturn shines on par with the sky’s brightest stars, its brilliance can’t match that of Mars. Look for Saturn near Mars all month long. These two worlds form a bright celestial triangle with the star Antares in the July night sky. Mars is brighter than Saturn, which in turn is brighter than Antares.
Mars will eventually catch up with Saturn on August 24, 2016, to present a conjunction of these two worlds in the August evening sky.
Watch for the moon to swing by Saturn for several days, centered on or near July 15.
Saturn, the farthest world that you can easily view with the eye alone, appears golden in color. It shines with a steady light. Binoculars don’t reveal Saturn’s gorgeous rings, by the way, although binoculars will enhance Saturn’s golden color. To see the rings, you need a small telescope. A telescope will also reveal one or more of Saturn’s many moons.
Saturn’s rings are inclined at a little more than 26o from edge-on in July 2016, exhibiting their northern face. Next year, in October 2017, the rings will open most widely, displaying a maximum inclination of 27o.
As with so much in space (and on Earth), the appearance of Saturn’s rings from Earth is cyclical. In the year 2025, the rings will appear edge-on as seen from Earth. After that, we’ll begin to see the south side of Saturn’s rings, to increase to a maximum inclination of 27o by May 2032.
Venus might become visible in the western sky after to the unaided eye at dusk by around mid-July. If you’re an eagle-eyed observer, try catching the young moon and Venus after sunset on July 5. If you miss the coupling of the moon and Venus on July 5, you’ll have another chance to catch Venus in conjunction with Mercury on July 16. Undoubtedly, an optical aid will come in handy on both dates!
Venus will become easier to see in the western evening twilight in August, and even more so in September.
By the way, when Venus passed behind the sun in June, it passed directly behind it, as seen from Earth. That happened on June 6, 2016, and at that time Venus officially transitioned from our morning to our evening sky. Exactly four years previous to Venus’ passing directly behind the sun on June 6, 2016, Venus swung directly in front of the sun on June 6, 2012. You might remember that event: the widely watched transit of Venus, during which Venus crossed the sun’s face as seen from Earth (see photos). It was the last transit of Venus until December 11, 2117.
Fainter Mercury near Venus in July’s western twilight. Mercury transitions from the morning to evening sky on July 7, 2016. Your first chance to view Mercury after sunset will probably come on or around July 16, when Venus and Mercury are in conjunction. You might see Venus with the unaided eye, but you’ll probably need binoculars to glimpse Mercury.
Throughout the month, Mercury will climb higher up at sunset and set later after sundown. Mercury may not become visible to the naked eye until late July or early August. For another big challenge, try viewing Mercury snuggling up with the star Regulus in the western dusk on July 30.
What do we mean by bright planet? By bright planet, we mean any solar system planet that is easily visible without an optical aid and that has been watched by our ancestors since time immemorial. In their outward order from the sun, the five bright planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These planets actually do appear bright in our sky. They are typically as bright as – or brighter than – the brightest stars. Plus, these relatively nearby worlds tend to shine with a steadier light than the distant, twinkling stars. You can spot them, and come to know them as faithful friends, if you try.
Bottom line: In July 2016, Jupiter is the brightest starlike object up when the sun goes down (unless you happen to glimpse Venus low in the west after sunset). Saturn and the bright star Antares make a triangle with Mars on the sky’s dome. Mercury, the innermost planet, is returning to the evening sky, to .
Bruce McClure has served as lead writer for EarthSky's popular Tonight pages since 2004. He's a sundial aficionado, whose love for the heavens has taken him to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and sailing in the North Atlantic, where he earned his celestial navigation certificate through the School of Ocean Sailing and Navigation. He also writes and hosts public astronomy programs and planetarium programs in and around his home in upstate New York.