by Mark Breen
On a warm summer evening, the fireflies begin to flit around while the sparks from a dying campfire rise into the night, appearing to cling to the black velvet dome of the sky. It is almost magic, and summer is a great time to discover some of that magic. With the weather warm and the clouds less frequent, the season offers the perfect opportunity to become familiar with the diamond-like stars glimmering above.
Comfy and cozy
If you are going to go out and enjoy the night sky, one very important consideration is to be comfortable. Summer nights may be warm, but mosquitoes and gnats can be a challenge, so bug spray is almost a necessity. Those same warm nights can turn surprisingly cool for anyone outside over a long period of time, so dress for temperatures about 20 degrees colder than the thermometer might read as you begin your outing. Of course, you might also want a little snack, your favorite beverage, and a comfortable chair. If all this sounds rather extravagant, it has its purpose. The more comfortable you are, the longer you will stay outside, and the longer you stay out, the more you will see and become familiar with the night skies.
The Big Dipper is a big help
One step outside on a clear, moonless night in Vermont and you could be overwhelmed by the thousands of stars strewn across the sky, so you need a simple, reliable place to start. Look high in the northwest for seven medium-bright stars appearing fairly close together. Many people are already familiar with these stars, known as the Big Dipper. Although not the brightest feature in the sky, the Big Dipper is unique and gives you an anchor point from which you can go in many directions. Speaking of directions, using the two stars on the outside edge of the Dipper’s bowl (called the pointer stars), draw a straight line from the edge of the bowl “up.”This is actually toward the right in summer, and more upwards in the Fall as the Dipper gradually moves lower, toward the northwest horizon. This line points you to another medium-bright star, the North Star, or Polaris, famous not for its brightness, but for its location exactly above the northern horizon. It is also the end star in the handle of the Little Dipper. Knowing the Dippers and the North Star will always help you find your directions at night, and get you started exploring the sky. Using the pointer stars to draw a line in the opposite direction will land you on the back of Leo, the Lion, visible in the west through mid-summer before it sets below the horizon in late July. Look for a sickle shape or backwards question mark that forms Leo’s head and shoulders, while higher up is a modest triangle forming his hind quarters. His pose is much like the Sphinx of ancient Egypt, and indeed Leo is one of the oldest known constellations in the sky. The bright pairing of stars in Leo is not what it seems. The star on the right is Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, sometimes called his heart. To the left, the object is not another star, but a planet famous for its rings, the planet Saturn.
Saturn is finishing up its visit with Regulus, and will move very slowly away. It is so slow that you’ll have to wait until next year to see the difference. Still, this motion is interesting, because it is how the word planet came into being. Planetos in ancient Greek means wanderer, referring to this “star” as a wandering star. The patterns of the stars remain essentially fixed; however, the planets, in their travels around the Sun, gradually move among the stars. Mars is also on display in early summer. It will appear in just about the same place as twilight fades, in the western skies about 9:30 pm. It will slowly settle closer to the horizon, while Saturn and Regulus come to join it. The trio will be close together through the first week of July, then all of them will slip into the sunset and fade away. That gives Jupiter its chance to shine. Looking low in the southeast in June, in the south in July and August, and in the southwest from September into October, Jupiter is the brightest object you’ll find, except of course the Moon and the Sun!
Sauntering into the South
Returning to the Big Dipper, its handle will guide us into the southern skies. The handle’s gentle curve or arc will lead you to the bright star Arcturus very high in the southwest in June, and lower in the west in July and August. As you continue past Arcturus, make a straighter line to the next bright object, the star Spica.
Well to the left of Spica, low and in the south through mid-July, then slipping slowly into the southwest in late summer and fall, a reddish star catches your eye. It looks a lot like Mars, but it is the star Antares. Its name comes from the Greek word meaning, not Mars. Antares marks the heart of Scorpio, the Scorpion.
This constellation’s head and claws are to the right of Antares, while a tail curls just along the horizon to the left. Farther to the left of the Scorpion lies a group of stars, known officially as Sagittarius, the archer. However, this constellation really looks more like a teapot than what is traditionally depicted, a centaur drawing back a bow and arrow. (It really makes you wonder how the ancient civilizations came up with such pictures!)
Between the teapot and the Scorpion, you’ll notice some patchy, fuzzy light that arcs higher into the east and then back down into the north: the broad expanse of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Composed of millions of distant stars, they are individually dim, but altogether are easy to see from a dark location. Three bright stars highlight the Milky Way, forming what has come to be known as the summer Triangle. The highest and brightest of the three is called Vega, from an Arabic word meaning soaring eagle. More toward the south is the star Altair, a name that means falling or swooping eagle. Finally, the least bright of the trio of stars is Deneb, the tail star of Cygnus, the Swan. Don’t let the summer Triangle’sname fool you. You can enjoy gazing at it right through the fall.
One highlight you don’t want to miss is the Perseid meteor shower in August. This annual display of “shooting stars” occurs each August between the 10th and the 14th. A great way to enjoy this is to simply relax on a blanket or lounge chair, watching and counting the meteors. Up to 20 to 30 per hour can be seen in the hours from midnight to 4:00 am. There are a few other meteor showers later in the year: in the fall, the Draconids occur near October 9, and the Orionids near October 20.
Sometimes, the joys of star gazing are not necessarily linked to knowing and identifying the innumerable objects above. Just going outside and experiencing that sense of wonder, gazing out into the vastness of the universe, is quite enough for anyone. The most important thing is getting out there, sharing it with family and friends, and maybe giving yourself an opportunity to gain appreciation for the treasures of the night skies.
Mark is the senior meteorologist at the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium, and for over 30 years he has been heard on Vermont Public Radio’s an “Eye on the Sky” each weekday morning. Along with weather forecasting, his work at the Museum involves teaching weather and science, as well as serving as the Planetarium Director in Vermont’s only public planetarium.
The amazing night sky images accompanying the article are the work of local photographer Chris Diegel. Want to see more of Chris’s jaw-droppingly beautiful work? Go to www.chdiegelphotography.com
Check out the daily Eye on the Night Sky stargazing forecast. Designed to help you find and observe constellations and other objects visible to the eye in the night sky. https://www.fairbanksmuseum.org/planetarium/eye-on-the-night-sky