Looking Up: Worth staying up for stars, fireflies
The other night unfolded crystal clear, without the moon anywhere in sight at the start of the night. Above our cozy homes, as most people kept their appointment with their pillow and lights blinked of, the canopy of stars flickered.
Constellations stood out boldly, and where manmade light pollution wasn’t much of an issue, a haze of fine, faint stars salted the blackness. The Milky Way Band gleamed in the east, coursing through the rising Northern Cross, officially called Cygnus the Swan. The spangle of stars were almost matched by the dazzle of shooting stars, not in the sky so much but darting hither and thither against the backdrop of the darkened yard or landscape. It is lightning-bug season, and their quick seemingly haphazard motion betrays any attempt to make constellations of them.
Those with eyes to see were doubly blessed if they had ears to hear. From the location this writer was stationed, he enjoyed the rising chorus of crickets and frogs. These nocturnal creatures, silent by day, await the night to lend their musical accompaniment to the grand parade of the universe that marches east to west night after night.
Alas, having a day job, it was all too soon past time to hit the hay. At last we have relatively warm nights, but the irony is the nights are short and you must wait till about 11 p.m. in early summer for twilight to end. Those who do venture out, or in the least gaze from a window, will be rewarded with a portal to the Great Beyond in which we are intimately connected, riding on our beautiful planet Earth.
Last Tuesday, June 24, hopefully you looked west as twilight deepened and the stars came out. Saturn and Mars were on either side of a star, Regulus, which was of similar brightness. Above the trio was a moderately bright star, forming what looked like a pyramid shape, with two sides showing. The dance of the planets makes interesting configurations with the constellations behind them all the time.
You can usually suspect you are seeing a planet if it shines with a steady light and does not “twinkle” as bright stars often do. The twinkling is due to the starlight being bent, or refracted, many times over through our turbulent atmosphere. In the same way, notice how the landscape shivers and shakes beyond the rising heat from a summer campfire. The heat causes the air to shake, and bends the light passing through. The star is essentially a point-like source since they are so distant their actual discs are not normally discerned. A bright planet does not appear to twinkle because its apparent width is vastly larger (visible even in a small telescope) than any star, and the refraction of the light from each “point” from the planet’s disc tends to be canceled out.
In late June/early July, Scorpius the Scorpion is well seen looking low in the south in the evening. A place with a very low horizon will reveal its full form. The advancing end is highest, with fairly bright stars marking its claws. Just a little lower and to the left is the heart of the Scorpion, the marvelous, bright red-orange star Antares. This star is a “red supergiant,” 700 times the sun’s width. If it replaced our sun, it would extend well past the orbit of Mars. The star is 600 light years away and has a much fainter star orbiting it.
A line of easily seen stars extends down to the left and becomes the tail of the Scorpion. The stars at the end are close together and are unofficially known as the “Cat Eyes.” If the sky is good and clear, as well as dark, you will notice the Milky Way Band extending across the east and disappearing at the south-southeast horizon at this hour, entangled with the Scorpion’s tail and the neighboring constellation Sagittarius the Archer. The very bright planet Jupiter is presently in Sagittarius, visible at this time. Jupiter presently stands at its highest, due south, around 2 a.m.
Binocular users will enjoy sweeping this region and discovering the “gems” among this region so packed with stars. Of note are some “fuzzy spots” that turn out to be globular star clusters, and cloudy wisps of cosmic nebulae.
Monday night, June 30, after dusk, look for Mars immediately above (3/4 the of one degree) the star Regulus, and Saturn 5 degrees to the upper left.
New moon is July 2; after that look for the crescent low in the west after sunset.
Keep looking up!
Peter W. Becker is managing editor at The Wayne Independent in Honesdale, Pa. He has been an amateur astronomer since the age of 12, in 1969. He may be reached at email@example.com.