Summer nights are a wonderful time to get outside. In the Nature Connection’s Seasonal Spotlight, we’ve learned about mammals that become active at night and discussed the symphony of noises we can hear when it gets dark, but while you are out observing bullfrogs, chorus frogs and treefrogs, you should also be looking up.
Did you know the summer night sky is different from the winter sky? Some constellations can be seen year-round, but others are seasonal and can only be seen for part of the year. There are 88 constellations that make up the entire sky surrounding our globe, often named after mythological creatures or people. Many constellations have been described for thousands of years, as they were used to help navigate at night and to herald in the seasons. There’s so much to see and learn in our night sky and the darker it gets, the more there is to see! Stargazing can be a rewarding experience for all ages, so here are some basics to get you started:
- To make stargazing more enjoyable for the whole family take a blanket and some bug spray and make yourself comfortable
- Find a dark place away from lights and give your eyes time to adjust to low light- that means no phones
- If you are stargazing in your own yard, turn off any lights that reach you and, if possible, try to physically block your view of any nearby lights you can’t turn off
Here are some sights to look for in our summer night sky:
Ursa Major and the Big Dipper
In the Northern Hemisphere, one can always see Ursa Major or the Great Bear. This constellation is one of the largest and most recognizable in the night sky, but what most people recognize is the asterism within called the Big Dipper. An asterism is a grouping of relatively brighter stars that form shapes, whereas a constellation may include many more stars within an area that don’t create part of the shape. One asterism can sometimes include stars from several constellations. To find Ursa Major using the Big Dipper, face northwest and look for the brighter stars in the sky that form an arc with a large rectangle/scoop/bowl shape. Some say it also looks like a kite with a string.
Follow the arc to Arcturus! If you follow an imaginary arc created by the ‘handle’ of the Big Dipper, it should help your eyes find the star, Arcturus. This star is the 4th brightest star in the sky, but the brightest star north of the celestial equator. It is part of the constellation Boötes.
Ursa Minor and the North Star
You can use Ursa Major to find Ursa Minor, the Little Bear. Create an imaginary line through the two stars that make the end of the ‘dipper’ shape, then extend it out about 5 times farther and it will take your eyes to the North Star. Also called Polaris, the North Star has been used by navigators throughout human history because it’s position in our night sky doesn’t appear to change overnight and it can always be found while facing directly North. This star forms the beginning of the ‘handle’ in the Little Dipper asterism within Ursa Minor.
The Summer Triangle and the Northern Cross
The Summer Triangle is not a constellation, but rather an asterism, like the Big Dipper. The shape is made up of three bright stars from separate constellations that form a large triangle; Vega, Deneb and Altair. During summer, the triangle can be found high in the sky. Face east and aim high!
Vega, the highest in the sky of the three stars will be one of the brighter stars you can see in the sky. Vega belongs to the constellation Lyra the Harp which may appear as a small cluster of stars below it. Altair is comparatively dimmer than Vega, and is located lower in the sky and to the right just a bit, but can be identified by its pair of nearby stars on either side of it that join it as part of the constellation Aquilla, the Eagle. The last star, Deneb, belongs to the constellation Cygnus the Swan, which is also referred to as the Northern Cross (yet another asterism!). The cross is made using the stars in the swan’s body and wings and its neat ‘cross’ arrangement can help you to identify it. Deneb is an incredibly bright star, but its immense distance from earth puts its brightness on par with other visible stars in our sky and makes it the dimmest point of our Summer Triangle.
Cassiopeia is a constellation that gets easier to find once you’ve spotted it. The distinct “W” shape becomes familiar. To find Cassiopeia in the summer night sky, look toward the N/NE. It will be closer to the horizon just after dark and rise higher as it gets later. If you have already found the Summer Triangle and Cygnus, use the cross in Cygnus which points straight to Cassiopeia!
Coming Soon to a Sky Near You
The Ghost of the Shimmering Summer Dawn Returns - Late July
If you look to the east right before dawn, you may notice a familiar constellation rising low on the horizon. Orion, The Hunter, a well-known and easily identified winter constellation makes its return to our night skies just before dawn. Most people identify Orion by his Belt; three distinct, linear stars. By winter, Orion will be high in the sky every night. If you can spot Orion, you may also notice a very bright object just above it that doesn’t belong to a constellation. That object is the planet Venus which can also be seen before dawn to the east right now.
Perseid Meteor Shower - Peaks August 11-13
The Perseid Meteor Shower happens faithfully every year as debris from a comet streaks through Earth’s atmosphere. You can see meteors throughout all of August, but the peak (most meteors per hour) occurs mid-August. The best viewing occurs after midnight into the early morning hours when the sky is darkest.
Bonus! Astronomy Nights take place at Annie Louise Wilkerson Nature Preserve starting on Wednesday, August 12, 2020 8:00 pm, with additional nights to follow. Sign up at reclink.raleighnc.gov.