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Summer 2018


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Ask an Astronomer!


Youth Astronomy

Night Sky

What you will see on a clear night in

July-August 2018

Constellations: The Big Dipper (part of the Great Bear), Bootes, Perseus, Cassiopeia, Scorpius and Saggitarius.

Double Stars: Alcor & Mizar

Solar System: The Moon, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter

Special Events: Perseid Meteor Shower, August 12.

The Perseid Meteor Shower

Have you ever seen a meteor shower? If you're on vacation August 12 at a cottage or a camp, look up and you'll be treated to a rare celestial event: the PERSEID METEOR SHOWER. Or, if you’re home  those two nights, have your parents drive you a few kilometres into the country—away from city lights—to see the special nighttime event.

The best way to observe the meteors is from a lounge chair as binoculars or a telescope is not required. The comets will likely originate in the northeast, in the area of the constellations PERSEUS (the Hero) and CASSIOPEIA (the Queen).  

Some observers refer to a meteor shower as "shooting stars." In fact, the shooting stars are not stars at all, but comet debris (dust and sand) that burns up in the Earth's atmosphere. A handful of meteors can usually be seen any summer night, as long as you are clear from light pollution.

Major Planetary Show Continues. The rare four-planet show which started in early spring has been reduced to two, Mars and Saturn. The warm summer weather will make it ideal to watch for the ringed planet and the red planet. Lean back in a lounge chair with a pair of binoculars to become familiar with not only the two remaining planets, but also constellations and other star groups.

The Big Dipper

The seven-star BIG DIPPER--the most well-known star configuration--is a circumpolar grouping, meaning we see it year-round because it is close to the North Star. The Dipper is part of the constellation Big Bear.

Big Dipper Locate the Dipper's bowl. If you draw an imaginary line beyond the two end stars of the bowl, you will find the NORTH STAR. Many people believe the North Star is the brightest star in the night sky. Not true; it's actually quite dim. However, it is in the same spot every night because it is above the Earth's axis.

The North Star is the lead star of the seven-star LITTLE DIPPER, which pours into the bowl of the Big Dipper. But you have to be at a very dark site, like a farm or a cottage far away from city lights, to be able to make out the Little Dipper (see Vacation Sightings). There is something unique about one of the seven stars of the Big Dipper. Look carefully at the second star from the end of the Dipper's handle and you'll see a double star, ALCOR & MIZAR. The star duo is more definitive with binoculars or a telescope.

You can use the Big Dipper to find ARCTURUS, the brightest star in the summer. If you draw another imaginary line, this one in the shape of an arc beyond the handle of the Big Dipper's handle, you will locate Arcturus. That's why some astronomers say, "Let's arc to Arcturus." Continue your imaginary line beyond Arcturus and you will spot another star, Spica. Thus the expression, "Speed on to Spica."


The warm summer weather will make it ideal to watch for the ringed planet SATURN, the red planet MARS, the largest planet JUPITER and the hottest planet VENUS. Lean back in a lounge chair with a pair of binoculars to become familiar with not only the four planets, but also constellations and other star groups.


In early July, JUPITER will appear high in the south as a large “star” –even brighter than the star Arcturus. By the end of August it will have dropped slightly the southwest. If trees, homes or buildings are obstructing your southwest view, ask your parents to drive you to Wilmot Line, a road that branches off Erb St., just past the Waterloo landfill. A good place to park on Wilmot Line is on a hill 2.2 km from Erb St., near a 60 km/h road sign.

Even though Jupiter looks like a star, it has a diameter 11 times than of Earth--the giant of the solar system. It takes 12 years to orbit the Sun--about the same time you've been on the Earth! The fifth planet from the Sun is a huge gas ball of helium and hydrogen so big that its volume would contain 1,300 Earths.


 Note: The Jupiter video shown here includes its four largest moons, called Galilean moons. Look closely and you will see the moons actually move around the planet! Even though they look like tiny stars through a good quality telescope, most of them are larger than our Moon.


VenusDuring the first week of July, look west--provided your view is not obstructed by trees or houses—and you will spot an unusually bright "star,” which is actually VENUS. If you don’t have a clear view of the west horizon, have your parents drive you to Wilmot Line, a road that branches to the right off Erb St., just past the Waterloo landfill. From there you will have a clear view of the planet. The brightest of the four planets will remain all summer, although it will drop towards the west-southwest by late August.

Even though Venus looks cold, it is the hottest planet in the solar system with a surface temperature of 500 deg. C, twice as hot as your mom's oven! The second closest planet to the Sun is broiling hot because the surface is like a greenhouse, covered by clouds of deadly sulphuric acid, trapping in the Sun’s heat. Venus so hot that all of the robotic probes that have landed on the planet burned up moments after landing!

 Believe it or not, the planet’s day is longer than its year! During its 225-day trip around the Sun, it hasn't quite rotated around once on its axis; it requires another 18 days. Venus is referred to as our sister planet since the two are similar in size. Venus is the solar system's brightest planet, so the best time to see it is just after dark. However, you should look for it RIGHT AWAY as it is dropping lower and lower. By late June will disappear below the horizon as it passes between the Earth and the Sun.



Mars will appear in mid-August as a reddish “star” above the southeast horizon. The planet’s reddish tinge, which can be verified using high-power, good quality binoculars, is from the planet’s rust-coloured surface. Of the five naked eye planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn), Mars is the only one that has colour. On March 5, Mars will be at its closest point in 2012: 100 million km or about 67% farther from the Sun than the Earth. On March 7 Mars will be above a nearly full Moon; by late April the planet will be in the south.

Mars is the only planet astronauts will ever visit because the other planets are too hot or are gaseous giants. Did you know that Mars has the longest canyon as well as the highest mountain of any planet in the solar system? Even though the diameter of Mars is half that of Earth, its Valles Marinaris Canyon is 4000 km long, ten times that of the Grand Canyon! Furthermore, the planet's extinct Mount Olympus volcano is 24 km high, more than twice as high as Mount Everest!



In mid-July SATURN with its rings will appear as a bright "star" in the southeastern sky. A good quality telescope will not only reveal the planet's rings; you may also see a "star" next to Saturn. That will be Titan, the largest of its moon family. Titan is about 50 per cent bigger than our Moon!

Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun; because it is about 10 times as far from the Sun as the Earth. Is there anybody in your family that's 30 years old? If so, that person has been on the Earth the same time it takes for Saturn to circle the Sun.

Even though the rings (and planet) will appear quite small, it is amazing to think that you’ll be looking at a planet that has a diameter of about 120,000 km, or almost 10 times that of the Earth.

The Summer Triangle

Just as the constellation Orion took centre stage in winter, the SUMMER TRIANGLE takes the spotlight this summer. Even though this bright triangle is technically not a constellation, its three stars become easier to spot overhead as the summer progresses.


Leading the western march is VEGA, the brightest of the three stars. The remaining two stars comprise DENEB in the north and ALTAIR in the south.

The three stars are in three constellations: Vega is in LYRA (the Lyre), Altair is in AQUILA (the Eagle) and Deneb is in CYGNUS (the Swan). Unfortunately, because of light pollution, we can't make out the rest of these constellations from our backyards.

The star Deneb serves as the swan's tail while the star ALBIREO at the far end is the swan's head. Albireo is inside the Summer Triangle. The swan's wings are at right angles to the body.

Cygnus is also known as the NORTHERN CROSS due to its shape. The swan's wings double as the arms of the cross while the swan's body doubles as the cross's shaft.

Albireo at the south end of the swan (or the cross) within the Summer Triangle is a double star. You will need binoculars or a telescope to pick out two stars of different colours; one is blue (hotter than the Sun) and the other is orange (similar to the Sun, although somewhat cooler).

Amateur astronomers use a special trick with their telescope to accentuate the colour of a star; they adjust their focus knob so that the goes out of focus. Vega is a prime example; by putting it out of focus, you will see that it is a bluish-white star.

Star groups such as the Summer Triangle and constellations like ORION THE HUNTER--which are far from the NORTH STAR-- rise above the eastern horizon and then disappear below the western horizon during a portion of the year.

During July and August, you will see the Summer Triangle move from the eastern sector of the sky to the western sector. Most constellations relocate from east to west as the Earth rotates around the Sun. Star groups (such as the Summer Triangle) and constellations such as ORION, which are well below the NORTH STAR, rise above the eastern horizon and then disappear below the western horizon during a portion of the year. Orion will return next winter at which time The Summer Triangle will disappear.

The Moon

Some astronomers say the most rewarding object in the night sky is the MOON.  Between July 16-27 and August 15-26, the Moon will display it's early evening phases:

  • July 27 and Aug. 26: full Moon
  • July 16 and Aug. 15: crescent Moon
  • July 19 and Aug. 18: first quarter Moon

This photo shows the Moon between crescent and first quarter.


Craters and "seas" (the grey areas of the Moon) can be easily picked out with binoculars or a low power telescope. The secret to viewing the night sky with binoculars is to keep them as steady as possible: either mount them on a tripod or sit back in a lawn chair that has a tilted back.

Where to look for the Moon? The crescent phase will appear in the west, the quarter phase in the south and the full Moon in the east.

Did you know that the Moon's craters are the result of our closest celestial object being pummelled and battered by giant space rocks or asteroids? If the Moon had an atmosphere, the craters would have long eroded away from wind and water erosion like what happened here on Earth. But because there is no atmosphere on the Moon, the craters have not changed ever since they were formed.

The Moon's craters and mountains are most dramatic if you look near the terminator, the line that separates the dark side from the sunlit side. That's because the shadows created by the Sun are the longest. If you look through a telescope, you can even spot crater walls disappearing into the shadows.

Other Vacation Sightings

Have you ever been to a cottage or a camp in the summer and gazed at a band of stars that snakes across the sky? That is the MILKY WAY-- our home galaxy. You were seeing the galaxy edge-on, similar to looking edge-on at a dinner plate.

Since it is impossible to view the Milky Way in such a dramatic way in the city because of light pollution, make sure you have a look at it while you are on vacation with your family. (Technically speaking, the handfuls of stars you see year-round in your backyard are part of the Milky Way, but they pale in comparison to what you'll see at the cottage or camp).

The best way to scan the Milky Way is to lie on the grass, the beach or the boat dock and look straight up. With your naked eye you will see thousands of stars; using binoculars, you can view thousands more. Note how the Milky Way cuts right across the Summer Triangle. To the north the Milky Way passes through the W-shaped constellation CASSIOPEIA (the Queen). As you count the seven stars of the Big Dipper, see if you can locate all seven stars of the Little Dipper as it pours into the big one.

Professional astronomers estimate that our galaxy consists of more than 200 billion stars. Some of you may ask, "If there are that many stars in the Milky Way - and each star is a sun--how come we're not blinded by the bright light of so many suns?" That's because 99% of the light is hidden by dust and gas in the Milky Way.

All astronomy books contain overhead illustrations of the Milky Way, showing it as a spiral galaxy. Granted, it's impossible to make out the galaxy's 200 billion stars. But here's an easy way to grasp that number: if you represent just one star with a single grain of sand, then a heaping wheelbarrow of sand would represent 200 billion stars!

If you have your star finder that you got in class, you will see that the largest portion of the Milky Way appears at the southern horizon in summer. If you rotate the planisphere all the way around, the galaxy will change position in the sky. That's because we see the Milky Way in different parts of the sky as the Earth travels around the Sun.

The star Arcturus is the main star in the constellation Bootes. From your backyard this star is big, but all by itself. From the cottage, however, the five remaining stars of Bootes pop out.

If you can find a hill that overlooks the southern horizon, you'll be able to spot two constellations that make up the widest part of the Milky Way, SCORPIUS (the Scorpion) and SAGITTARIUS (the Archer). Between these two constellations is the galaxy's centre.