Following Saturday night’s penumbral lunar eclipse, Earth’s Moon will get together with two planets in a lovely conjunction Sunday night, July 5. Any time from about 10:30 PM EDT and later, look to the Moon, big, bright and round just past its Full phase. Above and to the left and right of that bright orb will be two bright star-like objects. On Luna’s left is planet Saturn and above and just to the right floats brilliant Jupiter.
Both Saturn and Jupiter are approaching their opposition — the point in their orbits where each planet will be exactly opposite the Earth from our Sun. Opposition also places a planet about as close as it can be to us making it easier to see in detail, and brighter in our night skies.
Jupiter achieves opposition on July 14, while Saturn reaches its on July 20. The change in distance between Earth and the two gas giants is relatively slow giving casual observers plenty of time to enjoy the close-up view through their telescopes; a week or so before or after opposition really makes little difference.
Binoculars or a small telescope will allow users to view Jupiter as a bright dot with its four companion Galilean Moons. It’s helpful to have either a tripod mount or a way to brace binoculars when looking at Jupiter as it’s hard to hold steady enough for good viewing without!
Small telescopes with a bit more power will allow viewers to see the major cloud bands of Jupiter’s atmosphere and those same four moons. Make note of the position of those moons and take a look night-to-night or even after a couple of hours in the same night and you will see what Galileo observed: that those little star-like dots move!
Turn that telescope to Saturn and enjoy a look at the planet’s distinctive rings; they are well-positioned for viewing this month. If seeing conditions are good and with enough magnification, viewers can observe a dark line running inside the rings, a gap called the Cassini Division. It should also be possible to see the gap between the rings and the planetary body.
Both Jupiter and Saturn are bright enough that the waning Gibbous Moon shouldn’t interfere much with observing. Fear not, however, our Moon and those planets part company over ensuing nights providing a darker background. Jupiter and Saturn should be in a good position for observing any time after about 10:30 PM all month so you won’t have to stay up very late to enjoy the view.