July 2020 guide to the bright planets

July 2020 offers you all 5 bright planets. Venus is that very bright object lighting the east before sunrise. After mid-July, find Mercury below Venus. Jupiter and Saturn are the planets to watch in July 2020. They are close together on the sky’s dome, and both reach opposition this month. Thus they’re at their best, up nearly all night, all month. Mars is looking very red now, steadily brightening, out between midnight and dawn.

Click the name of a planet to learn more about its visibility in July 2020: Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus, Mercury

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Chart with Jupiter, Saturn and three full moon positions along ecliptic line.

Watch for the moon to appear in the vicinity of Jupiter and Saturn for several days, centered on or near June 5, 2020. Read more.

Chart with ecliptic line, Mars and two positions of gibbous moon.

Get up early on July 11 and 12, 2020, to see the waning moon with the red planet Mars. Read more.

Chart: waning crescent moon aligns with the planets Venus and Mercury.

Starting in mid-July 2020, use the waning crescent moon and Venus to locate Mercury near the horizon as the morning darkness begins to give way to dawn. Read more.

Chart: Slender waning crescent moon swings by Venus and Aldebaran and then Mercury in the morning sky.

The waning crescent moon passes to the north of dazzling Venus on or near July 17. Read more.

Jupiter and Saturn are the planets to watch in July 2020. They are near one another on the sky’s dome, with Saturn following Jupiter westward across the sky from early evening until dawn. It’s a banner month for these gas giant worlds, as Jupiter and Saturn both come to opposition this month.

At and around opposition, Earth – in its yearly orbit – swings between these outer worlds and the sun. Thus we are closest to Jupiter and Saturn for the year this month. Jupiter and Saturn, in turn, shine at their brightest best and are out all night long.

Read more: Jupiter at opposition on July 13-14

Read more: Saturn at opposition on July 20

A chart illustrating the oppositions of Jupiter and Saturn.

Both Jupiter and Saturn will reach opposition in July 2020. In this illustration, Earth is depicted as the green ball nearer the sun. At opposition, Earth will fly between the sun and Jupiter, then between the sun and Saturn. Jupiter’s opposition will happen on July 13-14. Saturn’s opposition will be 6 days later on July 20. Chart via ClassicalAstronomy.com. Used with permission.

Around the world, Jupiter and nearby Saturn rise during nightfall in early July, around sunset in mid-July, and before sundown by the month’s end. You can spot both Jupiter and Saturn easily in July 2020. Look first for brilliant Jupiter; Saturn is the bright object immediately to Jupiter’s east. Although Saturn is easily as bright as a 1st-magnitude star – as bright as the brightest stars in our sky – the ringed planet can’t compete with the the king planet Jupiter, which outshines Saturn by some 15 times.

After all, Jupiter ranks as the fourth brightest celestial object, after the sun, moon, and the planet Venus, respectively.

Jupiter and Saturn are having a great conjunction in 2020. Astronomers use the word conjunction to describe meetings of planets and other objects on our sky’s dome. They use the term great conjunction to describe a meeting of very bright Jupiter and golden Saturn. The last great Jupiter-Saturn conjunction was May 28, 2000. The next one will be December 21, 2020. But July 2020 – when both worlds reach opposition – is the time to start watching these worlds.

Read more: Before 2020 ends, a great conjunction for Jupiter and Saturn

Watch for the moon in the vicinity of Jupiter and Saturn for several days, centered on or near July 5.

Chart: Jupiter, Saturn and teapot-shaped group of stars, with ecliptic line.

In July 2020, Jupiter and Saturn climb up highest for the night around midnight. Given an unobstructed southeast horizon, you should have little trouble catching the planets Jupiter and Saturn low in the southeast sky at nightfall or early evening. Use Jupiter and Saturn to find the “Teapot” asterism in the constellation Sagittarius the Archer. Read more.

Mars is the first of the three bright morning planets to rise in July 2020. Mars comes up at late night, roughly around midnight. Then, a few to several hours later, Venus rises into the predawn sky; and by the second half of July 2020, Mercury will appear below Venus at morning dawn.

Sometime this month, Mars will rise before midnight, to sit low in the east at late evening. By August, look for Mars to be up by mid-to-late evening. Thus Mars is rising earlier, heading for its own opposition on October 13, 2020. At that wondrous time, Mars will actually supplant Jupiter as the sky’s fourth-brightest celestial body, after the sun, moon, and the planet Venus. That will be something to see!

In July 2020, you’ll find Mars heading toward that dramatic brightening around its October opposition. This month, Mars is respectably bright, easily as brilliant as a 1st-magnitude star, or one of the sky’s brightest stars. Earth is now rushing along in its smaller, faster orbit, gaining on Mars, the fourth planet outward from the sun. Throughout the next three months, watch for Mars to brighten dramatically as Earth closes in on Mars, passing between it and the sun in October.

At mid-northern latitudes, Mars rises around the midnight hour in early July, and roughly 10 p.m. (11 p.m. daylight saving time) by the month’s end. By midnight, we mean midway between sunset and sunrise.

At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Mars comes up at or near the midnight hour in early July, and about an hour earlier by the month’s end.

Let the waning moon help guide your eye to Mars on the mornings of July 11 and 12.

3 planets, crescent moon in deep blue sky above telephone lines before sunup.

View at EarthSky Community Photos. | From Paul Armstrong, who took this photo of Mars, Saturn and Jupiter on the morning of April 15, 2020, from Exmoor, U.K. Jupiter is at the upper right, Mars at center left, with Saturn between them. In May 2020, Jupiter and Saturn were closer together, whereas Mars was farther away from Jupiter and Saturn. Thanks, Paul!

Venus – the brightest planet – rushed between the Earth and sun (inferior conjunction) on June 3, 2020. At that point, it transitioned out of the evening sky and into the morning sky. We first saw Venus reappear in the east at dawn around mid-June. Throughout July, this blazing world will climb progressively higher into the eastern predawn sky.

At mid-northern latitudes, Venus rises about 2 hours before the sun in early July, increasing to about 3 hours by the month’s end.

At and near the equator, Venus rises about 2 1/3 hours before the sun in early July, increasing to over 3 hours near the month’s end.

At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Venus rises about 2 2/3 hours before the sun in early July, increasing to over 3 hours by the month’s end.

Diagram showing positions of Venus in orbit and its phases at inferior and superior conjunction.

Inferior conjunction – when Venus sweeps between the sun and Earth – happened on June 3, 2020. Just before inferior conjunction, we saw Venus as a thin waning crescent in the evening sky; and just after inferior conjunction, we saw Venus as a thin waxing crescent in the morning sky. In July 2020, Venus will start the month about 19% illuminated and end the month about 42% illuminated. Image via UCLA.

Throughout July, Venus in its faster orbit around the sun will be going farther and farther away from Earth. As viewed through the telescope, Venus’ waxing crescent phase will widen, yet its overall disk size will shrink. Venus’ disk is 19% illuminated in early July, and about 42% illuminated by the month’s end; Venus’ angular diameter, on the other hand, will shrink to 2/3 the size by the month’s end.

Look for Venus to beam at its brightest in the morning sky on or around July 10, 2020, when Venus displays its greatest illuminated extent on the sky’s dome. Venus always beams at its brightest best when its disk is about 1/4 illuminated by sunshine. In fact, if you’re up before dawn, note that Venus at its brightest closely couples up with Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus the Bull.

Chart: Venus, Aldebaran and the Pleiades cluster in the east before dawn near the ecliptic line.

If you’re up before dawn July 10, 2020, look for Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus the Bull, quite close to Venus on the sky’s dome. Read more.

Watch for the waning crescent moon in the vicinity of Venus for several days, centered on or near July 17.

Mercury transitions out of the evening sky and into the morning sky on July 1, and then reaches its greatest elongation in the morning sky on July 22, 2020. We expect Mercury to become visible in the eastern dawn sky around mid-month. Have binoculars handy, however, for Mercury has to compete with the glow of morning twilight. Given an unobstructed horizon in the direction of sunrise, you have a reasonably good chance of catching Mercury in the second half of July, as this world brightens throughout the month.

For several mornings, starting on or around July 16, let the waning crescent moon and the brilliant planet Venus guide you to Mercury’s place near the horizon.

Mercury reaches its greatest elongation on July 22, 2020, at which time Mercury will be 20 degrees west of the sun. After that date, Mercury will slowly fall sunward day by day.

Here are Mercury’s approximate rising times for 40 degrees north latitude, the equator (0 degrees latitude) and 35 degrees south latitude (given an unobstructed eastern horizon):

40 degrees north latitude:
July 15: Mercury rises 66 minutes (1 1/10 hours) before the sun
July 22: Mercury rises 90 minutes (1 1/2 hours) before the sun
August 1: Mercury rises 80 minutes (1 1/3 hours) before the sun

Equator (0 degrees latitude)
July 15: Mercury rises 75 minutes (1 1/4 hours) before sunrise
July 22: Mercury rises 84 minutes (1 2/5 hours) before sunrise
August 1: Mercury rises 66 minutes (1 1/10 hours) before sunrise

35 degrees south latitude
July 15: Mercury rises 80 minutes (1 1/3 hours) before sunrise
July 22: Mercury rises 80 minutes (1 1/3 hours) before sunrise
August 1: Mercury rises 45 minutes (3/4 hour) before sunrise

For more specific information, check out these recommended sky almanacs

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.

silhouette of man against the sunset sky with bright planet and crescent moon.

Skywatcher, by Predrag Agatonovic.

Bottom line: July 2020 presents all 5 bright solar system planets. Catch Jupiter and Saturn at early evening and throughout the night, Mars between midnight and dawn, Venus in the predawn/dawn sky, and Mercury below Venus at dawn in the second half of July.

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Bruce McClure