Prime Time Summer Stargazing!
I love this time of the year because we still have plenty of summer left and the nights are getting a little longer. There is almost another full hour of nighttime and the sky is dark enough for star hunting by 10pm. The late summer skies are filled with celestial gems!
We also have one of the best meteor showers of the year this month. The Perseid Meteor Shower, one of the best meteor showers of the year, which peaks early next week around August 11-13th. It will be wonderful this year because the moon will be pretty much out of the sky by then and the meteors or “shooting stars” will be much more visible in the darker skies.
The planet Saturn, the ringed wonder is still the brightest star-like object In in the low southern sky. Even with a small telescope you can easily see its ring system that' s over 130.000 miles in diameter but only 50 feet thick. You'll probably also see at least some of its many moons that resemble little stars swarming the planet. The only problem with observing Saturn this summer is that since it doesn't rise all that high in the sky it may show up a little fuzzy in your scope. It's still worth a look but just make sure you take long continuous looks so your eyes can acclimate to light level coming into your scope.
Near Saturn are two of my favorite constellations. There's Scorpius the Scorpion with the bright brick red star Antares at the heart of the Scorpion. It’s one of those few constellations that looks like what it’s supposed to be. In the low southeast sky is Sagittarius, which is supposed to be a half-man/half horse shooting an arrow. Forget about that, most people I know refer to it by its nickname, “The Teapot.”
The brightest star in the night sky right now is Arcturus parked in the high western sky. Arcturus is also the brightest star in the constellation Bootes the Hunting Farmer. Bootes looks more like a giant kite, with the orange reddish star Arcturus at the tail of the kite. The second brightest star in the evening heavens is Vega, the bright star in a small, faint constellation called Lyra the Lyre, or Harp. Vega is a brilliant bluish-white star perched high over the eastern sky, almost overhead. Vega and the small faint parallelogram just to the lower east of Vega are supposed to outline a celestial harp in the sky. If you’re quiet enough you may even hear the music.
As you continue to look eastward, you’ll notice two other bright stars that form a triangle with Vega. This is known as the “Summer Triangle”. The star to the lower left of Vega is Deneb, the brightest star in Cygnus the Swan, otherwise known as the “Northern Cross” for obvious reasons. The star to the lower right of Vega is Altair, the brightest star in the constellation Aquila the Eagle.
In the northern sky we have the famous dippers. The Big Dipper, which is actually the rear end and the tail of the Big Bear Ursa Major, is hanging lazily by its handle, or tail if you please, in the high northwestern sky. The Little Dipper, which is the same as the Little Bear, is standing up on its handle and is much dimmer than the Big Dipper. Sadly enough it’s darn near invisible in the metro area, with the exception of the outer ring of suburbs. The only really bright star in the Little Dipper is Polaris, otherwise known as the North Star, at the end of the handle.
Polaris is by no means the brightest star in the sky, but it is the “lynch pin” because every single star and planet, including the sun and moon, appear to revolve around it every 24 hours. That’s because Polaris is shining directly above the Earth’s North Pole, and as our world rotates all of the stars appear to us to whirl around the North Star.