It is a great year to take advantage of the recommendations to stay home over the Labor Day weekend by spending it under the stars. The early evening sky will be moonless, providing ideal stargazing conditions. You don’t even need a telescope to enjoy it.
CONSTELLATIONS & MILKY WAY
The constellations along the ecliptic from east to west include Pisces, Aquarius, Capricornus, Sagittarius, and Scorpius. Just north of Pisces is the great Pegasus with Perseus toward the east of him. You can find Ophiuchus and Hercules just north of Scorpius.
Light pollution likely blocks your ability to see the Milky Way as it does for over 80% of people on earth. But you can follow a string of constellations that swim in the stream of our galaxy.
Start at Sagittarius and look for the teapot asterism. This teapot has a pointy lid. Under a dark sky, it would look like steam was rising from its spout. That’s the Milky Way. Move your eyes a bit to the northeast to find Aquila. It reminds me of a hang glider in flight, with the brights star Altair at its tail. Head a little farther toward the northeast again to find Cygnus, the swan. The bright star Deneb is at its tail, and its neck stretches toward the south. Go a little farther toward the north to find the sideways “W” of Cassiopeia. The Milky Way runs right across these constellations from north to south.
Look directly overhead to the bright star of Deneb in Cygnus. Now look a bit toward the west to find an even more brilliant star. That is Vega in the constellation Lyra. Now look a bit toward the south for a third bright star. That is Altair in the constellation Aguila. Connect these three stars to form a tall triangle. Astronomers refer to this as the Summer Triangle.
Venus is the brightest object in the western sky after sunset. It is so brilliant because it is a nearby neighbor, and it has a layer of super thick white clouds. Be sure to take a peek at it on the evening of September 9 when the waxing crescent Moon makes a close visit…one of my favorite views in the night sky.
Jupiter is the other incredibly bright object toward the eastern sky. It is currently near the left tip of Capricornus. If you can get access to binoculars or a telescope, be sure to aim it toward this gas giant. You’ll be able to see its striped storm bands and the four Galilean moons.
Saturn is to the west of Jupiter. If you make a fist and hold it at arm’s length, Saturn is located two fist-lengths to the right of Jupiter. It is within the boundaries of Capripcornus right now. A view of Saturn through binoculars or a telescope is breathtaking! You will see its rings, and you will probably see a few moons.
For the best stargazing experience in your backyard, turn off all the exterior lights. If your indoor lights are spilling through the windows, turn those off, too. Give your eyes about 20-30 minutes to adjust to the dark. The more time you spend in the dark, the more light your eyes will be able to take in.
Keep your phone turned off. If you want to use an astronomy app to help you find the constellations, turn the brightness down and switch it to night shift before you go outside. Get your app up and ready so that you don’t have to fiddle with it in the dark.
If you must use a flashlight, use one that has a red bulb or cover it with a red filter. The red light helps your eyes stay adjusted to the dark.
A good laser pointer will let you help others locate the constellations. Just make sure that you never point it at airplanes, other people, or any surfaces nearby. It can have a blinding effect. I’ve also learned from experience not to shine it into a swimming pool because that can also stun your night vision.
To engage more deeply with the night sky, draw in a nature journal. Check out my interview with John Muir Laws, where we discuss keeping a nature journal of the night sky in Episode 22 of the Night Sky Tourist podcast.
RELAX AND CONNECT
Don’t let the continuing pandemic keep you down. Use it to your advantage. There is no excuse for not getting outside under a beautiful starry sky and learning how to find some cool stuff.