July

The Milky Way Kiwi

Instructions for looking up in July are as follows:

  • Learn what is July and what we do with it,
  • Find out what’s the Sun up to,
  • Find out what’s in the Milky Way,
  • Look at what celestial birds are in the sky,
  • Find out what Orion and Scorpius are up to
  • Find out what are the brightest stars visible at night after sunset and finally find your favourite binocular and telescope objects.

A bit about July

Our history section features Iulius, the month of July.

Roman general and leader Julius Caesar was born in July and after he died the Roman Senate renamed Quintilis, the fifth month of the 10-month calendar into what today is July or Iulius in Latin.

July is the second month of winter in the Southern Hemisphere and obviously the second month of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s also the month where traditionally the government’s financial year starts here in New Zealand. Not just the government experiences new beginnings but also we must add that end of June or July is when we observe the Maori New Year – Matariki.

This is observed according to a lunar calendar, called Maramataka during the last quarter of the Moon that occurs after the solstice. This phase is called Tangaroa Moon.

Matariki is also the bringer of fireworks here in Wellington. We wrote more in depth about when is Matariki or where to find Matariki/ the Pleiades in the sky during this time of the year so check out our other posts. This time of the year is significant both in the evening/night and in the morning – usually we only discuss the evening or night sky.

What’s the Sun up to?

The Sun rises around 7:50AM at the beginning of the month and 7:30AM at the end and sets from around 5:00PM at the beginning of the month to 5:20PM towards the end of it. The beautiful and long nights continue to enthrall us in July and the view to the Milky Way is the best. In July, the Sun transits the zodiacal constellations of the Gemini, switching to Cancer on the 22nd of July.

The Milky Way

This must be the best month of the year here in New Zealand in terms of stargazing as we can see the centre of our galaxy, all night long. Starting from the evening, when is rising in the south-east, the core of the Milky Way reaches meridian around 10PM and then sets in the west just before sunrise. With the centre of the galaxy come more stars, as we are looking towards the rotational centre of the Milky Way. The centre of our galaxy is in the direction of Sagittarius, Ophiucus and Scorpius and lies at about 26,500 light years away from us. It is spectacular to think that we are actually looking in the direction of the radiosource Sagittarius A, which is in lay words the name for the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy. At 4 million times more massive than our Sun, Sagittarius A is not visible to the naked eye and what we know about it comes from observations in gamma rays, infrared and radio wavelengths.

In fact, most of the centre of the galaxy line of sight is covered in dust which is visible in the form of dark bands – they show up best in wide field photographs of the Milky Way. There’s one tiny opening through this dust, of about one degree, which is known as Baade’s Window, named after astronomer Walter Baade who observed it in the 1940’s from Mount Wilson taking advantage of the city blackout during the war.

The dust makes interesting shapes against the light that comes from the stars in the disk of the Milky Way and people around the world and throughout times imagined many creatures that inhabit our galaxy. A great example is the Emu that our neighbours, the Aboriginal Australians placed across the Milky Way, that is as big as the galaxy.

Another example of dark creatures in the sky but on a smaller scale is the famous Prancing Horse nebula, which observed from the Northern Hemisphere does look like a horse. It also looks like a pipe or a donkey and of course, taking a huge leap all the way to the Southern Hemisphere, where everything in the sky looks upside down to what we see in the northern hemisphere, we have here a kiwi bird checking out the centre of the Galaxy.

The kiwi

Kiwis are nocturnal birds, endemic to New Zealand, they feed with insects in the forest and they are an endangered species. The closest relative of the Kiwibird is the elephant bird from Madagascar. Warm blooded mammals such as cats, dogs, possums, all that was introduced in New Zealand are main predators for the kiwibird but hey can also die from the loss of the habitat and worse of all, you’re not going to like this, humans were the worst threat. There are now continuous efforts from the Department of Conservation (DOC) to bring back the numbers. But one thing is certain, the kiwibird is one of the symbols of New Zealand and is the most loved bird here. And how amazing that is even embedded in the night sky – this bird that can only be seen active at night, how fitting that there’s a kiwi bird at the centre of our galaxy!

The Milky Way Kiwi

A matter of perspective and of course coincidences, as you have to know what a kiwi bird is, led to the realisation that if you turn the horse upside-down you get a kiwibird. Ian Cooper, one of the first New Zealand’s film astrophotographers told us how twenty five years ago, someone came up with the name. “It was during the height of film in astrophotography and before the rise of the internet, so it was a ’slow burner’ as they say. It is thought that some ‘independently’ discovered the little bird more recently and got all excited understandably. It is a pity that we don’t know who first coined the name “Milky Way Kiwi,” but that is how it was in the olden days when I was young.”

Milky Way Kiwi is useful for when explaining where is Sagittarius A, as it’s visually somehow on top of its head, just like a diamond on a crown.

Other birds/flying things in the sky in July

We were wondering what flying-capable constellations are out there – because of course kiwis cannot fly, but other things can and we found the following list of constellations:

Corvus.

Cygnus the swan, also known as the Northern Cross, which is in the sky around midnight. Aquila the eagle, rising just after 8PM.

On the southern horizon is Dove, Columba – visually inbetween the Dog star, Sirius and the Cat star, Canopus. Both these mammals are known to catch pigeons so this is a good memnonic for the Dove, Canopus and Sirius.

Delicate and rich in optical double stars that we can see with the naked eye, Grus the Crane, is laying now on the South Eastern Horizon.

And as much as I don’t like them, Musca, the Fly also qualifies for a flying constellation. Near the southern cross, Musca looks like a small polygon.

Apus, the bird of paradise is near Musca. Its name literally means “no feet” in Greek, as it was once wrongly believed that the birds of paradise lack feet.

Apus is pointing straight at Pavo the peacock, that is flaunting its feathers all over the south celestial circle.

Next to Pavo, is Toucana, near the Small Magellanic Cloud (NGC 292). Toucana is neighbouring Grus on one side and

the Phoenix, on the other side. Since Herodotus, the Greek historian, the bird of Phoenix was associated with the Sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor and it can live for 1400 years at the time.

And there is also a flying fish: Volans. It’s tail is pointing at the Large Magellanic Cloud and it’s head is half way through between Miaplacidus and Avior in Carina.

Avior itself was named in the late 1930s during the creation of The Air Almanac, a navigational almanac for the Royal Air Force. Only Epsilon Carinae and Alpha Pavonis had designations instead of names and the RAF insisted that all of the stars must have names, so new names were invented. Alpha Pavonis was named “Peacock”, a translation of Pavo (the peacock), whilst Epsilon Carinae was called “Avior”.

And last but not least, not sure if unicorns can fly but we are mentioning here just in case: the elusive Monoceros is between Sirius and Orion and its stars are so faint that I have always just barely made the shape of it. Monoceros is visible on the morning sky.

Pegasus, the horse that can fly is visible after 3AM this time of the year on the Northern Horizon.

Bright stars in the Milky Way

Starting from the West and looking south after sunset is Sirius very low on the horizon then Canopus (which is not really in the Milky Way but is not far from it either) then following the Milky Way to the south are Suhail al Muhlif and Avior in Vela. High in the sky is the Southern Cross, which around mid-July and after sunset is at its highest position on the circumpolar zone. Alpha and Beta Centauri are to the left of the Southern Cross and on the south eastern horizon close to the centre of the Milky Way are Antares and Shaula in Scorpius, Nunki in Sagittarius and last but not least, after 10PM, Altair and Vega are just grazing the northern horizon.

Orion and Scorpius

Orion and Scorpius were mortal enemies for the ancient Greeks as they are in the sky almost 180 degrees from each other. Orion is visually towards the edge of our galaxy and Scorpius is near the galactic centre. Due to Earth’s tilt, in Europe they are never in the sky at the same time, however in New Zealand, they can be. This is because the southern hemisphere points towards the galactic centre.

 

In the northern hemisphere traditionally Orion is the winter constellation (December to February) and Scorpius is slowly crawling the summer southern horizon, like a scorpion across the desert. In New Zealand however…

 

Here is what they are doing this month:

Orion is both on the western horizon at sunset, the three stars of it’s belt plunging vertically into the ocean, Rigel to the left and Betelgeuse to the right touch down almost at the same time and Saiph is the last to sink. Then in the morning sky, will rise around 6AM, Rigel first, which here is known as Puanga or Puaka then the belt and last to appear is Betelgeuse. The heliacal rising of Puanga is the alternative to observing the Maori New Year as due to the mountain ridge to the east in the Taranaki region the Pleiades are too low in the sky

Bright stars on the ecliptic

Nothing changed from last month, the same bright stars are on the ecliptic: Regulus from Leo (which is extremely close to the ecliptic) then Spica, the blue giant in Virgo, Zubenelgenubi, another star grazing the ecliptic and Zubeneschamali just beneath it. Zubenelgenubi means the northern claw and Zubeneschamali the southern claw, alluding to these two stars that have been the claws of Scorpius before they were chopped off and turned into the current constellation of Libra. They are followed by Antares in Scorpius which is both on the ecliptic and in the Milky Way, this is roughly where the planes of the two intersect.

Circumpolar Objects to New Zealand

Even though the circumpolar objects are always in the sky sometimes some of them are in a better position to observe than others.

The beautiful Southern Cross and the pointers are high in the sky. Omega Centauri is in a great position to observe, as well as Musca, Vela, Carina and their Diamond Cross, and False Cross and the Large Magellanic Cloud and its Tarantula Nebula.

Deep sky Objects in July

In Leo

Leo is very close to the western horizon so just after sunset. Denebola sinks beyond sunset around 10PM. Close to the area south of the triangle that marks Leo’s hips…M65, M66 and NGC 3628, which will be visible depending on the size of your binoculars they are also known as the “Leo Triplet”. Also in Leo, M105 is an elliptical galaxy. Last but not least M96 another galaxy in Leo lies at about 35 million light years away.

In Virgo

Notable deep sky objects in Virgo include the bright galaxies Messier 49, Messier 58, Messier 59, Messier 60, and Messier 87, the Sombrero Galaxy (M104), the Eyes Galaxies, the Siamese Twins, and the quasar 3C 273.

Virgo has 11 Messier objects so you are in for a treat with this constellation.

You can get a map and look for all these objects. Or, if everything else fails, simply take your binoculars and swipe the Milky Way from one edge to the other. You might not figure out exactly which objects you are looking at but you would definitely find amazing sights, especially in the region close to Carina.

Carina region

You will find there IC2602, NGC3114, NGC353, NGC2516 that are all open clusters then in Crux NGC4755 which is another open cluster, NGC2451 in Puppis and IC2391 in Vela.

Lower down, Omega Centauri, is a globular cluster in Centaurus. In Scorpius there are the Butterfly Cluster, M7 open cluster and NGC6231 open cluster.