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Youth Astronomy


What you will see on a clear night in

July-August 2014

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

Double Stars: Alcor & Mizar

Solar System: Saturn, Mars & The Moon

Special Events:

        Perseid Meteor Shower, August 11-12.
        Saturn-Moon conjunctions on July 7, Aug. 3 & 4.

Warm summer evenings will make it ideal to watch for the Big Dipper, Saturn, Mars the Moon, meteors, constellations and other star groups from a lounge chair.

The Perseid Meteor Shower

Everyone loves to see meteors shooting through a dark sky on a warm summer night. Unfortunately, a very bright Moon is going to all but wipe out the famous mid-August PERSEID METEOR SHOWER. However, even though the almost-full moon will be like a giant flashlight, some meteors will still be visible opposite the Moon, in the northwest sky. If you are home on the evening of Aug. 12-13,  have your parents drive you a few kilometres into the country—away from city lights—to see the special nighttime event. Viewing will be even better if you are at a camp or cottage, away from city lights. 

On Aug 12 & 13, the best way to observe the meteors is from a lounge chair as binoculars or a telescope is not required. If you're lucky, you might see as many as 50 meteors per hour, although most of us will see about 1 meteor every 10 minutes.  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.

Saturn & Mars






All summer long, SATURN and MARS will appear as “stars” like all naked eye planets. Mars has an orange tinge—which can be verified with high-power, good quality binoculars—which is from the planet’s rust-coloured surface. You will need a telescope to find Saturn’s dramatic rings. If you see a “star” next to the planet through the scope, it will be the moon Titan. As of mid-late June, both planets were well above the horizon (both at the same altitude), with Saturn in the south and Mars in the southwest. The ringed planet will continue to follow Mars; both will be in the west by August.

Saturn and Mars will drop lower and lower every week, so clear views of the southwest-west sky is a must. If trees, homes or buildings are obstructing your view of the night sky, 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.  

Saturn-Moon Conjunctions

During July and August, a number of conjunctions—when Saturn will appear close to the Moon—will occur. As noted above in Special Events, Saturn will appear close to the Moon on July 7 as well as on August 3 & 4. In fact, because Saturn is so much farther from the Earth than the Moon, it is no wonder the planet looks like a star!

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 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 2-to-12 and August 1-to-10, the Moon will display it's early evening phases:

  • July 2 and Aug. 1: crescent Moon
  • July 5 and Aug. 3: first quarter Moon
  • July 12 and Aug. 10: full Moon

This photo shows the Moon between crescent and first quarter.


As mentioned above, the Moon will appear close to Saturn on July 7, as well as Aug. 3 and 4.

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. However, using binoculars, you can view thousands more.

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 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.

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.