It's Time for the Best Summer Nights!
We have to wait awhile for summer stargazing to kick in, but it's in full swing now! This is prime time summer stargazing. There's much to gaze and ponder at. It's a fantastic time to get out to the countryside, or at least a little ways out of the city with the artificially lit up heavens. Wherever you end up get settled in under the stars laying on a blanket or a reclining lawn chair. Forget about the trials of the day and take in as much of the universe above you as you can handle!
In the northern sky you'll see the Big Dipper hanging by its handle high in the northwest. The pot and handle of the Big Dipper is actually the rear end and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, which is Latin for "Big Bear". See if you can spot a dim, skinny triangle of stars to the lower right of the pot. That's the Bear's head. To the lower right of the head and rear end hunt for two curved lines of stars that make up his legs. You need a fairly dark sky to see them. Not far from the Big Dipper (and Bear) is the fainter, upside down Little Dipper. It has Polaris, the North Star, at the end of its handle. The North Star is certainly not the brightest star in the sky, but it's an important shiner. As the world turns on its axis every 24 hours, all of the stars in the Minnesota/Wisconsin skies appear to make a counterclockwise circle around it. That's because the North Star shines directly above the Earth's terrestrial North Pole.
Scattered around the stationary North Star are stars that are always above the horizon in the northern sky. These are called circumpolar constellations, and besides the Big and Little Bears there are others like Cassiopeia and Cepheus, the king and queen respectively. I know you've seen Cassiopeia. It's that bright "W", and this time of year the queen sits in the low northeastern sky. The "W" outlines the throne and red carpet of her Majesty. Just above Cassiopeia, look for the faint house with a steep roof laying on its side. That's Cepheus the King. If you can make that sideways house into a king, more stargazing power to ya!
In the eastern sky is the famous "Summer Triangle", made up of three bright stars; Vega, Deneb, and Altair. They are the brightest stars in that part of the sky and each of them are the brightest in their individual constellations. Vega is the brightest star in Lyra the Harp; Deneb's the brightest in Cygnus the Swan, otherwise known as the Northern Cross; and Altair, the brightest shiner in Aquila the evil Eagle.
In the low southern skies are two of my favorite constellations, Scorpius the Scorpion and Sagittarius the Archer. Scorpius, featured in last week's edition of Skywatch, is one of those rare constellations that actually looks like what it's supposed to be. This summer Scorpius is lucky enough to be hosting the bright planets Mars and Saturn. Through a telescope, even a larger one, it's difficult to see many surface details, although you might see some dark markings that are part of its vast valley system. If your telescope gives you an upside-down inverted view as most do, look for a white tinge on the lower limb of the red planet. That's the northern polar cap of Mars. I know you'll get much more of a kick viewing Saturn with it's beautiful ring system and tiny star-like objects which are Saturn's many moons. One of its moons isn't so tiny though, and that's Titan, larger than the planet Mercury. Saturn and its posse of moons are almost 900 million miles away this month.
Just to the left of Scorpius in the low southern sky is Sagittarius, a constellation that doesn't look anything like what it's supposed to be. It's supposed to be a man with the legs and rear end of a horse shooting an arrow. If you can see that I want to party with you! Sagittarius actually looks much more like a teapot, and that's what most amateur astronomers refer to it as. The teapot is steaming with stars as it is in the direction of the center of our Milky Way Galaxy.
August is also the month for the Perseid Meteor Shower, the best of the year. Toward the end of next week we may see more than fifty to one hundred meteors or "shooting stars" per hour. They will be best seen from after midnight to the start of morning twilight. This should be a pretty good year for the Perseids because there will be very little or no moonlight to interfere with the show in the pre-dawn hours. I'll have much more on the Perseids next week in Skywatch!