Looking Up column: Don’t miss the summer Milky Way
With a new moon Aug. 18, we have the promise of skies as dark as they get, offering a view of the Milky Way.
A view from a truly dark rural site on a very clear night can be astonishing for anyone not accustomed to such skies. The billowing Milky Way arches through the summer evening sky, with a myriad stars - ranging from bright to very dim, sparkling over your head and on every side.
Yet it’s a great time to look even in semi-rural conditions. The Milky Way is so bright, it may still be dimly seen, and the constellations are impressive as always.
Note: A hazy atmosphere will hide most of the Milky Way. Also, avoid street, town and neighborhood lights as much as you can.
Most brilliant of all this summer is the planet Jupiter and, to the left of it, planet Saturn, also very bright. Our giant neighbors in the outer solar system stand out in 2020, beacons of the night sky and easily seen even in an urban sky.
Do what you can to trace the Milky Way. Looking at around 10 p.m. in mid-August, once the sky is dark, the Milky Way stretches from the northeast, creating a backdrop for the famous W-shape of the constellation Cassiopeia, reaching overhead through the Northern Cross (part of Cygnus the Swan), down through Aquilia the Eagle and leading to Sagittarius and Scorpius in the south (low in the south if viewed from mid-northern latitudes).
It is here, in the area of Sagittarius, where the Milky Way is widest. We are literally looking at the central hub of the great spiral galaxy where we live, known collectively as the Milky Way.
The rest of the Milky Way band, which completely encircles the sky, is made up of the spiral arms of this galaxy. The sun and its planets - including Earth - is right in the midst of these arms, about halfway from the edge towards the central hub. We have an inside look at the arms, which from our perspective are overlapping and blend together.
With even a simple pair of binoculars or a telescope of any size, sweep across the Milky Way and see how this hazy band bursts into faint stars. Obviously, the larger the telescope and depending on how dark and clear your skies are, the more you will see and enjoy.
Part of Sagittarius constellation, the stars marking the outline of the “Teapot” is well placed, with the puffy-appearing Milky Way seeming to rise like celestial steam from the Teapot’s “spout.”
Just with the naked eye, observe how the Milky Way band is curiously split as you look up from the southern sky and Sagittarius, up through Aquilia and Cygnus.
What you are seeing is not a gap, but evidence of a cast, dark nebula of dust obscuring the light of the distant spiral arm stars in the background. You may be a fastidious housekeeper and keep chasing away dust bunnies, but the fact is, dust is everywhere. Dust, as well as gas, permeates the galaxy; from certain nebulous regions, stars are formed.
As you explore the Milky Way deeper with binoculars or a telescope, you can find many more dark nebulae, which are plotted on detailed star atlases.
Also abundant through the Milky Way band are star clusters, some rich and bright, some sparse, some dim and small, but each fascinating to fathom and compare. These star clusters are gatherings of stars, siblings as it were, from the same nebulous star cradle, on their journey in space - bound by gravitation and, I like to muse, mutual affection.
Look for the many-colored stars. White, blue-white, orange and red are common. They bespeak of stellar “life cycles” and variations in temperature, luminosity, chemical makeup and age. Many stars vary in brightness. We are also concluding that most may have planets of their own, evoking our imagination.
Use a star map to delve into the central hub, in the south on a mid-August evening. There are several bright and beautiful nebulous clouds (with names such as the Lagoon, Trifid, Horseshoe and Eagle), “star clouds” and amazing star clusters.
Jupiter and Saturn adds to the heavenly show, to the left of the “Teapot.”
This show is free and waiting for you to go out and see.
Keep looking up at the stars!
Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at email@example.com. Please mention in what newspaper or website you read this column.