What you will see on a clear night in
Constellations: The Big Dipper (part of the Great Bear), Bootes, Perseus, Cassiopeia, Scorpius and Saggitarius.
Double Stars: Alcor & Mizar
Special Event: Perseid Meteor Shower, August 12-13.
Summer is the best time of the year for stargazing. Lean back in a lounge chair with a pair of binoculars to become familiar with constellations and other star groups. Use a telescope to observe double stars, Saturn's rings, as well as the Moon's craters, mountain ranges and "seas."
The seven-star BIG DIPPER-the most well known star configuration--is a circumpolar grouping, which means that we see it year-round because it is close to the North Star. The Dipper is part of the constellation Big Bear.
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 away from city lights, to be able to make out the Little Dipper (see Vacation Sightings).
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."
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 spot
a double star, ALCOR & MIZAR. The star duo is more definitive with binoculars or a telescope.
Saturn continues to be the solo evening planet. As of late June, Saturn was high in the south. During July and August, the ringed planet will continue drifting to the west. Here's how to find Saturn: locate the Big Dipper high overhead. Then spot Arcturus followed by Spica. Saturn will be to the right of Spica. The best way to see the planet's rings is through a telescope.
Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun. Is there anyone in your family 30 years old? That's how long it
takes the ringed planet to orbit the Sun. Although tiny in a telescope, the gaseous planet is the second largest in the solar system.
It would take 10 Earths to span Saturn's diameter and 20 Earths to span the rings.
Just as the constellation Orion takes centre stage in winter, another star group takes the spotlight in July & August--aptly named THE SUMMER TRIANGLE. 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 brightest star in the summer sky is Arcturus, replacing Sirius, the titleholder last winter. Here's how you find Arcturus: First, locate The BIG DIPPER high overhead. Then draw an imaginary arc-shaped line beyond the handle of the Big Dipper and you will see Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation BOOTES (The Herdsman).
Some astronomers say the most rewarding object in the
night sky is THE MOON. Between March 18-to-29 and April 17-to-28, the
Moon will display it's early evening phases; from crescent, to first
quarter, and then full Moon.
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
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.
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. However, using binoculars, you can view thousands more.
Note how the Milky Way cuts right across the Summer Triangle. If you are at a cottage or camp, the Milky Way will
likely bury the Summer Triangle!
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 can get your hands on a star wheel (planisphere), you will discover 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.
As mentioned above, 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.
Directly overhead the Milky Way cuts through the Summer Triangle. To the north the Milky Way passes through a
W-shaped constellation known as CASSIOPEIA. Finally, 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.
If you're on vacation on August 12-13, and the sky is clear, look straight up and you'll likely be treated to a rare celestial event:
the PERSEID METEOR SHOWER. Even though the meteor shower may be seen in various parts of the sky, it will generally 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 tiny sand-size
meteoroids that burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. The Perseid meteor shower is the most popular because it occurs in mid-summer when weather is
ideal for skywatching.
If you're lucky, you might even see fireballs, which are very bright meteors that leave a smoke trail.
The best way to observe the Perseid meteor shower is from a lounge chair.