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Youth Astronomy


What you will see on a clear night in

July-August 2016

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

Double Stars: Alcor & Mizar

Solar System: Saturn & Mars, Jupiter & The Moon

Special Events:

        Perseid Meteor Shower, August 11-12.

Warm summer evenings will make it ideal to view the Big Dipper, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, the Moon, meteors, the Summer Triangle and other star groups.

The Perseid Meteor Shower

Have you ever seen a meteor shower? If you're on vacation August 11-12 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.

Saturn & Mars






In early July, SATURN and MARS appear as bright “stars” relatively close together in the south-southeast shortly after sunset. The two planets get even closer together during the summer as they move to the south-southwest, reaching their closest point on Aug. 25. Mars will continue to look brighter than Saturn.

Mars has an orange tinge—which can be verified with high-power, good quality binoculars—which is from the planet’s rust-coloured surface.

Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun, 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 Marineris 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!

You will need a telescope to find Saturn’s dramatic rings. 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 the gaseous planet appears tiny in a telescope, it is the second largest planet in the solar system. It would take 10 Earths to span Saturn’s diameter and 20 Earths to span its rings. 


In early July, JUPITER appears as a bright “star” in the west-southwest shortly after sunset. Even though Jupiter will continue to be brighter than Mars or Saturn, it will get progressively lower in the west throughout the summer. If trees, homes or buildings are obstructing your  view of the west, have your parents 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 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.


This video shows Jupiter`s largest moons in different positions.

Are you aware there are about 150 moons in the solar system? Because of the powerful magnetic fields of the four gaseous planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune), they have most of the moons. Since Jupiter has 65 moons, some observers refer to the giant planet as a mini solar system.

With binoculars, you may be able to make out Jupiter’s largest moons—called Galilean moons after the early astronomer who discovered them, Galileo. These four moons will pop out quite clearly if you view them with a telescope. In addition, you will likely see bands going across the planet; these are layers of gas.

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.  In July we have TWO full moons.  Our calendar month is slightly longer than a lunar month which occasionally gives us two full Moons in a single month.  This occurs about once in 3 years.  The second full Moon in the a single month is often called a Blue Moon, hence the expression: "Once in a Blue Moon".
Between July 21-31 and August 19-to-29, the Moon will display it's early evening phases:

  • July 8 and Aug. 7: crescent Moon
  • July 11 and Aug. 10: first quarter Moon
  • July 19 and Aug. 18: 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 & 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 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.