Summertime stargazing

When asked, “What is your favorite view in the night sky?” many astronomers will not cite some far off view of a nebula or planet. Passionate stargazers frequently claim a dark sky view of the summer Milky Way as their favorite observation. Often mistaken for wispy clouds, the view toward the center of our galaxy is stunning.

The photo is towards the center of the Milky Way in the Scorpius-Sagittarius region. Many star clusters and nebula are visible. Photo courtesy of Stan Dvorak

The summer Milky Way is visible from the North County on moonless nights, as a fuzzy ribbon running north to south and traversing across the sky from the east to west throughout July to October. You do not need serious scientific equipment to enjoy the spectacle. Binoculars transform the haziness into an explosion of starlight.

Now that the marine layer is diminishing (fingers crossed), we can begin stargazing again. In the summer months, the northern hemisphere is pointed toward the center of our galaxy. This is the reason for the magnificently glowing Milky Way. In the winter, we are pointed out toward inter-galactic space, resulting in a diffuse view of our galaxy.

In summer, looking south, we come to the constellation Scorpius with a bright, red star, Antares — the heart of the scorpion. Moving east, we come to Sagittarius, easily recognized by the Teapot asterism. An asterism is a recognized pattern of stars within an established constellation i.e. the Big Dipper in the constellation Ursa Major. Between Scorpius and Sagittarius lies the galactic center. Millions and millions of stars gathered in clusters and clouds. Dark lanes of light-obscuring dust feather this region. There are many catalogued stars clusters and nebula in this region.

Following the Milky Way north and overhead, the constellations of the Summer Triangle dominate the sky. The bright stars — Altair in Aquila the Eagle, Vega in Lyra and Deneb in Cygnus the Swan (asterism The Northern Cross) — compose the triangle. The myriad of exo-planets making the news these days are found within the boundaries of the Summer Triangle.

The NASA space satellite, Kepler, has its mirror pointed toward the wing of Cygnus, discovering planets as they orbit distant stars. Looking North, the Milky Way continues through the constellations Cepheus and Cassiopeia, the vain queen. Cassiopeia is easily found as the asterism of a “M” or “W.”

The summer Milky Way from a truly dark site, such as the High Sierra, is a visual pleasure that everyone should behold. It is so bright from the collective light of stars from billions of miles away, that it actually casts shadows. There is a story of people calling 911 during an urban blackout because of a strange light in the sky. It turns out that it was the Milky Way glowing like the people had never seen before.

 

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