Summer’s here! And if thunderstorms manage to stay out of your way, there is fine star gazing to enjoy during these precious warm months. Here are 7 ideas for lovely night sky viewing for even the most casual star gazer. No telescope required…
• The Summer Triangle. Get yourself oriented by finding the bright stars of the Summer Triangle. While not a constellation itself, the triangle is formed by three bright stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair, each of which belong to true constellations. In the late evening in July and August, the Summer Triangle is nearly overhead. You can follow it well into autumn months as it moves a little westward each night. The triangle can be seen south of the equator, too, where it’s called the “Northern Triangle” or the “Winter Triangle. The image below shows the Summer Triangle, and the constellations Lyra, Cygnus, and Aquila, as seen from mid-northern latitudes at 10 p.m. on July 20 .
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• The Milky Way. On a dark night, away from big-city lights, you see extending through the Summer Triangle and down to the southern horizon a band of knotted white clouds. This is a far-away section of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. While you can see 1,500 to 2,000 individual stars without a telescope on a clear, dark night, the star clouds of the Milky Way contain millions of unresolved stars, and they are a jaw-dropping sight to behold.
• The “Great Rift”. As you look at the Milky Way, see it seems split in two by a dark band running down its middle, with little rib-like appendages oozing over star clouds like molasses. Is this a big cloud blocking your view of the starry vista beyond? Yes, but it’s not an earthly cloud. This dark star-less river and its many tributaries are interstellar clouds of fine dust and cold gas that lie in between Earth and the distant stars of the Milky Way. It may seem strange for a stargazer to look at, well, blackness. But these clouds are fascinating in their own right. While they seem fixed over a human lifetime, these clouds are really churning, billowing masses as dynamic as a summer thunderstorm. They contain material which will one day coalesce into millions of new stars.
• A Globular Cluster. Look for the faint smudge of the Great Globular Cluster M13 in the constellation Hercules, not far from the star Vega in the Summer Triangle. The clusters is along one edge of the “Keystone” shape of Hercules (see map above). Just at the limit of human eyesight, M13 holds a million stars some 13 billion years old, nearly as old as the universe. While M13 lies a distant 25,000 light years from Earth, the solar system is actually moving towards it. Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Every passing hour brings the Solar System forty-three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules — and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress.”
• An Open Star Cluster. Look towards the southern horizon for the unmistakable winding shape of the constellation Scorpius, the Scorpion. The bright red star Antares marks the heart of the great beast. Nestled in the Scorpion’s tail just above the “stinger”, you’ll see a hazy patch of blue-white starlight. This is M7, a loose cluster of some 80 stars born 200 million years ago, just as the dinosaurs began to dominate the Earth. Linger awhile in this part of the sky. It offers splendid viewing for every stargazer.
• Meteors. Lie on a blanket or lawn chair on a warm night, stare up at the clear sky, and just wait for an occasional meteor to shoot by. And don’t forget the biggest meteor shower of the summer, the Perseids, on or about August 12. Try to look after midnight to see the most meteors during the Perseids… as many as one or two every minute.
• The Zodiacal Light. If you’re lucky enough to have very dark sky and a moonless night, see if you can spot whitish light extending along the constellations of the zodiac in the west after sunset, or in the east before sunrise. This eerie wedge of faint light, called the “zodiacal light”, is caused by sunlight scattering off dust particles in the plane of the solar system. You get the best view late in the summer and early autumn before sunrise.