Summer stargazing heats up
I have mixed emotions about this time of year.
I hate the fact that summer is starting to wind down and vacation season is coming to an end. However, as an amateur astronomer, I love August stargazing, because the nights are longer and you don’t have to deal with the autumn chill yet.
There is almost another full hour of nighttime and the sky is dark enough for star hunting by 10 p.m. Thanks to my other life, where I am a morning meteorologist at WCCO Radio reporting for duty at 5 a.m., the earlier it gets darker the better.
Besides mere convenience for stargazers, the late-summer skies are ripe with good stuff to gaze at.
In the low west-southwest sky, just after evening twilight, Mars and Saturn are huddling together close to the horizon. This is your last chance to see them because by month’s end they will be pretty much below the horizon after evening twilight ends.
In the northern sky we have the famous dippers. The Big Dipper, which is actually the rear end and the tail of the Big Bear Ursa Major, is hanging lazily by its handle, or tail if you please, in the high northwestern sky.
The Little Dipper, which is the same as the Little Bear, is standing up on its handle and is much dimmer than the Big Dipper. Sadly enough, it’s darn near invisible in the metro area, with the exception of the outer ring of suburbs. The only really bright star in the Little Dipper is Polaris, otherwise known as the North Star, at the end of the handle.
Polaris is by no means the brightest star in the sky, but it is the "linchpin" because every single star and planet, including the sun and moon, appear to revolve around it every 24 hours. That’s because Polaris is shining directly above the Earth’s North Pole, and as our world rotates all of the stars appear to us to whirl around the North Star.
The brightest star in the night sky right now is Arcturus, parked in the high western sky. Arcturus is also the brightest star in the constellation Bootes, the Hunting Farmer. Bootes looks more like a giant kite, with the orange reddish star Arcturus at the tail of the kite.
The second brightest star in the evening heavens is Vega, the bright star in a small, faint constellation called Lyra the Lyre, or Harp. Vega is a brilliant bluish-white star perched high over the eastern sky, almost overhead. Vega and the small faint parallelogram just to the lower east of Vega are supposed to outline a celestial harp in the sky. If you’re quiet enough, you may even hear the music.
As you continue to look eastward, you’ll notice two other bright stars that form a triangle with Vega. This is known as the "Summer Triangle." The star to the lower left of Vega is Deneb, the brightest star in Cygnus the Swan, otherwise known as the "Northern Cross" for obvious reasons. The star to the lower right of Vega is Altair, the brightest star in the constellation Aquila the Eagle.
In the low southern sky are two of my favorite constellations, and as far as I’m concerned they’re the signature constellations of summer.
In the southwest is Scorpius, the Scorpion, with the bright, brick-red star Antares at the heart of the Scorpion. It’s one of those few constellations that looks like what it’s supposed to be.
In the low southeast sky is Sagittarius, which is supposed to be a half-man, half horse shooting an arrow. Forget about that — most people I know refer to it by its nickname, "The Teapot."
The biggest attraction in the sky this month will be the Perseid Meteor Shower, the best meteor shower of the year, which peaks the night of Aug. 11-12. It will be wonderful this year because the moon will be pretty much out of the sky by then and the meteors, or "shooting stars," will be much more visible in the darker skies.