Looking Up: The short nights of summer
Days have been getting longer, heading toward the first day of summer on June 21. It is a time of year that seems so distant in the dark cold of winter. We long for the times when the sun is still up as we had home from work, and the golden rays of sunset cast long shadows well past 8 p.m. for those of us in the mid-north.
This year, the moment of summer solstice occurs at 1:21 p.m. EDT. At this moment, the North Pole of the Earth will be at its maximum tilt toward the sun. At the Tropic of Cancer, 23.44 degrees north of the equator, the sun will be directly overhead at noon time. Down below the equator, the first day of winter will have arrived, where they are noting the winter solstice.
It is interesting in the summer time to note both how high the sun appears in mid-day, and how low the moon stays in its full phase. The summer moon has its own attraction, with its lovely face glowing low among the tree line. It is the direct opposite of the sun; in the depths of winter, the moon stands at its very highest, painting the landscape with its soft light, while the sun struggles to rise enough to give us much warmth.
At this time of year, twilight is at its longest. Due to the high angle at which the sun descends in the northwestern sky, the full darkness of the night is most tardy. Those who need to turn in early to bed may miss the richness of the late summer night. Stars are appearing between 9 and 10 p.m., and continue to appear until the last of twilight fades away, at nearly 11 at night.
Part of this lateness of course is due to daylight saving time. Perhaps avid star watchers like you and me should petition for equal time and have instead nighttime saving time - turn the clocks BACK AN HOUR in the spring so we don’t need to wait as long for the stars!
If you do have a chance to stay up late on a clear night, be certain to cast your eyes heavenward. Take in the sounds of the crickets and the added delight of spring lightning bugs trying to compete with the stars above.
As the dark of these short nights envelopes the land, the neighborhood likely will be at its most serene. Although many people unfortunately leaves lights on needlessly, as midnight approaches and the wee hours begin, we have the minimum of manmade light to quench the starry host above us.
If you look south at around midnight in the early summer, the brilliant red star Antares will be glowing low in the sky - again, if you live in mid-northern latitudes. The farther south you live, the higher Antares, and all stars in the southern sky will appear.
Overhead will be the constellation Hercules, the mythical strong man, bearing a what appears in binoculars as a dim fuzzy star, the great globular cluster of stars, M13. In the west, late at night, take note of constellations of spring descending towards the western horizon. Arcturus, a bright orange star, is yet high up in the southwest, around midnight.
In the northwest, the Big Dipper will be slipping down, bowl-first, its handle stars trailing high. The North Star, seemingly fixed, remains at nearly the same point, due north, about a quarter of the way up in the sky or a bit less, for most of us in United States latitudes. Again, if you live far north, you will see that the North Star is correspondingly higher. Look opposite from the Big Dipper, low in the northeast, for the five stars of Cassiopeia, shaped like a “W.”
Glancing east, welcome the ascension of more constellations we associate with summer evenings, marked by a few bright stars, notably brilliant blue-white Vega, high up in the east late in the evening.
If you are away from town lights and there is no moon, look for the rising Milky Way Band, the hazy river of soft light, extending from Cassiopeia in the northwest, through the cross-shaped figure of Cygnus the Swan down to the south-southeast, and the constellation Sagittarius.
Last-quarter moon is June 23.
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Keep looking up!