This is the time of year for enjoying the Milky Way and all it has to offer for binoculars and telescopes. The Summer Milky Way is brighter and wider in appearance than the Winter counterpart, mainly because we’re looking in toward the center of our galaxy at this time of year.
Right at the end of evening twilight, the summer Milky Way is already arching right over the top of the sky. Of course it helps to get away from the city lights to see this. While many bright stars and planets can be seen from the city and its outskirts, the faint band of the Milky Way requires dark clear skies. Even a quick drive up up one of the canyons will help (you don’t have to drive miles and miles!).
This faint swath of light is actually the melded light of thousands of distant stars. Just look at it through an ordinary pair of binoculars and you’ll see what I mean – the “cloud” of light resolves into countless tiny stars. Remember, each one of these little specs is actually another “sun,” many with planets of their own (we’re now detecting them by the hundreds!). The truth is, that faint band of light is just a small section of our giant Milky Way Galaxy, a spiral shaped disk of stars, gas and dust over 100,000 light years across. In the show we’ll even take an imaginary journey outside the galaxy so we can see its true structure.
Observing in the Milky Way will also reveal a treasure trove of “deep sky objects” – star clusters and nebulae. A simple star chart or star atlas will show the location of dozens of them, many easily visible in binoculars or small telescopes. We’ll have several prime examples to show on the dome theater.
And what about planets? Venus is now shining brightly low in the west after sunset. Because it stays low to the horizon, the best time to look is after the sun has gone down but before evening twilight ends. Venus will be getting closer to Earth and therefore brighter as the Autumn progresses.