On June 18, a month shy of 40 years after Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, NASA launched two unmanned space probes in preparation for a manned return to the moon in 2020.

One, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, will send back detailed three-dimensional maps of the lunar surface. The other, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensor Satellite, will be smashed into the floor of a crater at the moon’s south pole on Oct. 9. The probe, accompanied by a spent portion of the Centaur rocket that carried it to the moon, will hit the lunar surface at 5,500 mph. A specially equipped satellite will fly through the plume of dust and debris thrown up by the impact to analyze it for traces of water.

This preliminary step in humankind’s return to the moon costs $583 million; the probe being destroyed in the impact experiment is about $65 million of the total.

Focus on the planets

Mercury opens the month low in the northeast shortly before dawn. Look for the innermost planet to the lower left of Venus before it vanishes in the glare of the sun in a few days’ time.

Venus is high in the east an hour or so before dawn and still is shining brightly at sunrise.

Mars is a dim tiny dot to the upper right of Venus as July opens. The reddish star Aldebaran, located below Mars and to the upper right of Venus, might be mistaken for the Red Planet.

Jupiter rises shortly after midnight and dominates the east-southeast during the predawn hours. Viewers with telescopes will easily pick out Jupiter’s equatorial belts and its four major moons as they orbit the equator.

Saturn is low in the west at twilight. Saturn’s ring system is nearly edge-on allowing its planets, particularly Titan, to put on a display as the latter transits the face of the planet.

Neptune stays close to Jupiter throughout July and may be seen as a blue-gray disk in the same field of view by telescope.

Uranus rises in the southeast during the late-night hours within the Circlet of Pisces but will be hard to spot before dawn light obscures it.

July events
1  Sunrise, 4:53 a.m.; sunset, 8:25 p.m.

2  The midpoint of the year occurs at 1 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.

3  The Earth is at aphelion or farthest distance from the sun for the year today. Perihelion or closest approach to the sun was Jan. 4. Look for the nearly full moon just to the right of Antares shortly after darkness falls.

7  Full moon, 5:21 a.m. The full moon of July is called the Hay Moon, Thunder Moon, or Buck Moon. The moon is at apogee or farthest distance from Earth today.

15 Moon in last quarter, 5:53 a.m.

18 Look to the eastern horizon about an hour before dawn for a spectacular lineup of planets and stars. From the top, the Pleiades, Mars and Aldebaran form a vertical line with Venus just to the lower left at the bottom. The moon is beside Mars.

20  The sun enters Cancer on the ecliptic.

21  The moon is at perigee or closest approach to Earth. This is the closest to Earth the moon will be for the year and this, coupled with the new moon being only hours away, will make for astronomically high tides.

22 New moon, 10:34 p.m. The sun enters the astrological sign of Leo but astronomically has just entered Cancer.

24 Saturn is a golden globe directly above the moon on the western horizon shortly after sunset.

28  This is the peak night for the Delta Aquarid meteor shower which should provide about 10 or more faint meteors per hour from Aquarius in the vicinity of Jupiter. Moon in first quarter, 5:59 p.m.

31  Sunrise, 4:19 a.m.; sunset, 8:03 p.m.

Send astronomical queries to Clair Wood at cgmewood@aol.com or care of the Bangor Daily News, Style Desk, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402.