“Gateway to the Stars” July 5: What’s In The Summer Sky?

Mike Murray

The summer night skies hold many astronomical treasures, and the warmer weather makes it more comfortable to observe them for longer periods of time. Star clusters, nebulae, the Milky Way, planets, meteor showers and much more await.

Whether you’re camping under the dark skies of the country or star gazing from the suburbs, there are myriad wonders to see. And they don’t all require telescopes to enjoy. One of the best techniques to practice at this time of year is called “star hopping.” This is the popular technique for jumping from one star pattern to another, making it easier to locate other bright stars, constellations, planets, and even deep sky objects (star clusters, nebulas, and galaxies).

For example, the Big Dipper is high in the northwest sky at this time of year. We can use the curve of its three handle stars to “Arc to Arcturus” and then “Spike to Spica.” Arcturus is the bright yellowish star in Bootes the Herdsman, while Spica is the brightest blue star in Virgo the Goddess of Harvest. Using bright stars like these as your guideposts, you can work from a simple sky chart to “star hop” and find the rest of the stars in a constellation or track down specific features in the sky.

M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules

M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules

Star hopping allows you to pinpoint targets in the sky for your binoculars and telescopes. For example, we’ll show you how a simple star hop from Bootes can get you to Messier 13, a beautifully rich globular cluster holding hundreds of thousands of stars. Or how another hop from Spica can help you find the planets Mars and Saturn.  In fact on the date of the show (July 5), the First Quarter (half lit) Moon will be a mere 0.2 degrees from Mars!  That’s half the width of the Full Moon.  This will make for a wonderful sight in binoculars because you’ll see Mars as a little orangish dot just to the right of the Moon. Only two nights later on July 7, the Waxing Gibbous Moon will make a similar close conjunction with Saturn.

One of the best groups of stars to help with summer stargazing is called The Summer Triangle. Three exceptionally bright stars make a huge triangle in the eastern sky after twilight. The brightest and highest up in the sky will be Vega, a bluish star in the small constellation of Lyra the Lyre. The shape of the constellation looks like a parallelogram, and that’s your key to locating another “M” object – M57, The Ring Nebula.

The Ring Nebula in Lyra

M57, the Ring Nebula in Lyra

These and many other treats await in this month’s installment of Gateway to the Stars. Come and join us at 6:45 pm Saturday, July 5 in the Hansen Dome Theatre and immerse yourselves in the rich skies of summer!

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