For sure the days are numbered, but it’s still summer and there are still plenty of summer constellations dancing across the night sky. What’s really nice is that your stargazing adventures can start earlier in the evening now as daylight hours are dwindling.
As soon as it gets dark, around 8:30 to 9:00 p.m., look in the really low south-southwestern Shamokin sky for the three brightest stars you can see. They’re actually the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. As September starts, Mars is still the brightest of the three, shining away with its orange-red glow. In late July, Mars was the closest it’s been to Earth in 15 years, and even though Earth and Mars are beginning to pull away from each other, Mars is still less than 42 million miles away, which is close for our Martian neighbor.
Normally, Mars is the only planet in our solar system where you can see the surface through a telescope. Even with a small to moderate telescope it’s possible to seeing some surface features on Mars, like its polar ice caps. However, this summer there’s been a massive dust storm that’s completely engulfed Mars and is hiding the surface. The storm is gradually subsiding, but in all honesty, as bright as Mars is, about all you’re going to see through even a larger telescope is a big orange red ball. Coupled with the dust storm even though Mars has been close to the Earth right now is that it’s not rising very high in the sky, at least not in these northern latitudes. Because of that, the blurring effect of Earth’s atmosphere is also wreaking havoc on telescope visibility.
A little below and to the left of Saturn in the low southern sky this month is one of my favorite constellations. It’s called “the teapot” because that’s what it actually looks like. The teapot is more formally known as Sagittarius, a centaur shooting an arrow at its next-door neighbor Scorpius. If you can see Sagittarius as a half man-half horse with a bow and arrow, you are kidding yourself. I’ll stick with the teapot.
The teapot is located in the direction of the center of our Milky Way galaxy, a little over 25,000 light-years away. If the sky is dark enough where you are, you’ll see a milky white band of light that runs all the way across the sky, from the Teapot in the southwest to the northeast horizon. You’re looking at the combined light of billions of distant stars that make up the main plane of our galactic home.
Nearly overhead is another signpost of summer, the summer triangle. Just look for the three brightest stars you can see around the zenith and that’s it. All three stars are the brightest stars in each of their respective constellations. Vega is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra the harp. Altair is the brightest in Aquila the eagle and Deneb is the brightest star in Cygnus the swan, also known as the “Northern Cross.”
There’s nothing really all that “summer” about the Big and Little Dippers since they’re visible every night of the year, but summer is a great time to spot them. That’s especially true for the Big Dipper, since it’s proudly hanging by its handle high in the northwest. The fainter Little Dipper is standing on its handle to the right of the Big Dipper with Polaris, the North Star, at the end of its handle.
In the northeast sky look for the sideways “W” that outlines the throne of Cassiopeia the queen. Just to the upper left of the queen in the northern sky look for the faint upside-down house with the steep roof, which is supposed to be Cepheus the king.
One of the prime autumn constellations, Pegasus the winged horse, is on the rise in the eastern sky after sunset. Look for the big diamond of stars that outlines the torso of Pegasus. This is called the “Square of Pegasus,” but because of the way it’s positioned in the sky this time of year, it’s also known as the “autumn diamond.”
Instructions for sky map
To use this map, cut it out and attach it to a stiff backing. Hold it over your head and line up the compass points on the map’s horizon to the actual direction you’re facing. East and west on this map are not backwards. This is not a misprint. I guarantee that when you hold this map over your head, east and west will be in their proper positions. Also use a small flashlight and attach a red piece of cloth or red construction paper over the lens of the flashlight. You won’t lose your night vision when you look at this map in red light.
(Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Contact him at email@example.com.)