Many summer vacations have been derailed this summer by the global pandemic. With Americans restricted from entering many countries, favorite campgrounds closing, and states in varying degrees of closure, vacation plans are uncertain.
We have always been resilient and resourceful, so make plans for an amazing stargazing adventure in your own backyard instead.
In its simplest form, stargazing only requires your own eyes. But a few pieces of equipment can do a lot to enhance the experience.
Although a telescope is not required for a fun experience under the stars, it can surely increase the WOW factor. In my experience, cheap children’s telescopes are frustrating to use. To get the best bang for your buck, I recommend a telescope with a 6-inch mirror.
If a telescope is not in your budget or you don’t have space to store a telescope, a good set of binoculars will do the job. You’ll be surprised how they can enhance your viewing experience.
RED FILTERED FLASHLIGHT
Regular flashlights can cause the pupils of your eyes to restrict, making it more difficult to see the fainter stars. Skip the bright flashlight, keep indoor lights dim as the sun goes down, and turn off outdoor lights to allow your eyes to adjust to the dark before your stargazing activities begin. If you need to use a flashlight, buy one with a red light or place a red filter over your existing flashlight.
A good laser pointer allows you to help others locate the constellations, individuals stars, and even the planets. People who are unfamiliar with the night sky, especially children, can benefit from a strong laser that can lead their eyes to the exact location of cosmic objects.
Also known as a planisphere, a star wheel is useful for finding seasonal objects in the night sky. Simply dial in the date and time, use the compass points to get physically oriented with the sky, and look for a wide range of constellations, bright stars, and more. Be sure to take into account Daylight Savings Time. If you are in Spokane, Washington at 10:00 pm in July, you’ll need to dial in the wheel to 9:00 pm to adjust for Daylight Savings Time.
IDENTIFY OBJECTS IN THE NIGHT SKY
As Earth makes its journey around the Sun each year, we experience a different view of the night sky. Although Orion is the most prominent thing in the Winter night sky, you won’t see him in July because he’s located on the other side of the Sun.
Here is a list of objects you can find with the naked eye during the month of July.
For many people, the Big Dipper is the only constellation they can identify in the night sky. It looks like a giant dipper or cooking pot. To find it, look toward the North. You can use the Big Dipper to help you find the North Star (Polaris). Some people think that the North Star is the brightest star in the sky. Depending on the time of year, that could end up being Venus, Jupiter, or Sirius, none of which appear in the North.
To find the North Star, follow the outside edge of the dipper as it points straight to the North Star, the small point of light that has helped both land and sea navigators find their way around our planet for many centuries.
If you look toward the South at night in July, Scorpius is the easiest thing to find. Unlike some constellations whose shapes don’t make sense (Virgo, the virgin or maiden), Scorpius is unmistakably a giant scorpion in the sky.
Its brightest star is Antares, the fifteenth brightest star in the sky. It has a distinctly reddish color, but when you look at it with a telescope, you might see it flashing red, green, white, and maybe even yellow. It is referred to as the “heart of the scorpion”, and you can clearly see why. Antares is 12 times the mass of our Sun.
In ancient Egypt, Antares was the symbol of the goddess Isis in pyramid ceremonies. On the official flag of Brazil, Antares represents the state of Piaui.
Near Scorpius is the constellation Sagittarius. For some, it looks like an archer with his bow and arrow drawn and aimed. For others, including myself, it looks like a teapot with a pointed lid. If you are in a dark sky location away from light pollution, you can see the band of the Milky Way stretching across the sky. It looks like steam rising out of the teapot’s spout, or like milk being poured out across the sky.
In Greek mythology, Sagittarius is associated with Chiron, the half horse, half human mentor of Achilles, that famous Greek hero of the Trojan War. Chiron trained Achilles in archery.
Although this large constellation has no major stars that stand out to the naked eye, it’s not difficult to find outside of heavily light-polluted areas. Fifteen of the stars that make up the constellation Hercules are known to have planets orbiting them. It is also the region of several fascinating deep space objects. A large, astronomical explosion, possibly a supernova, was seen here in 2018. It contains 2 bright globular clusters, one that is visible to the naked eye, and one that appears as a fuzzy star with binoculars. There is a planetary nebula that is visible to good telescopes, a cluster of galaxies, and the Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall, the largest known structure in the universe. There’s a lot going on in this seemingly average-looking constellation.
The Greek historian Dionysius describes Hercules as kneeling in prayer to Zeus for help against his opponents. Hercules is also associated with Gilgamesh, the ancient mythological hero of the Sumerians.
When I look at Bootes, I always see a kite or an elongated diamond with a bright star at its pointest end. The ancients had greater imaginations, though. Some saw the Big Dipper as a plow and Bootes as the leg of an ox that was being driven by the plow.
Others associated its bright star Arcturus with an elaborate story where Arcturus was actually Arcas, a son of Zeus and his affair with Callisto. In this story, Zeus fathers a child with Callisto, but when his wife Hera finds out about it, she turns Callisto into a she-bear. When Arcas is older, he goes hunting in the woods and comes across a she-bear, not knowing it was his mother. Callisto, excited to see her son once again, runs to embrace him. Arcas thinks he is being attacked and raising his bow and arrow to kill her. Zeus intervenes by turning Callisto into a constellation and placing her in the sky where she became Ursa Major, the Big Bear (the Big Dipper is a smaller asterism that makes up Ursa Major).
In some stories, Arcas is also turned into the bear, becoming Ursa Minor, or Little Bear, containing the asterism of the Little Dipper where the North Star can be found.
Bootes means “Bear Watcher” and Arcturus means “guardian of the bear”.
Virgo is still visible in the early nighttime sky. It’s easy to locate Virgo once you find its brightest star, Spica (pronounced spike-uh). The find Spica, start at the Big Dipper. Trace the curve of its handle and continue the “arc” to Arcturus, located in Bootes. From Arcturus, imagine a straight line “spike” to Spica.
Virgo has 35 known exoplanets that orbit 29 stars. It also contains several galaxy clusters, the famous Sombrero Galaxy, a black hole with a mass of 1.2 billion Suns, and the first quasar to ever be identified.
In Greek mythology, Virgo was the last immortal to abandon Earth when the gods fled to Mount Olympus at the end of the Silver Age. In the Middle Ages, she was associated with Christianity’s Virgin Mary.
JUPITER & SATURN
They’ve been out of view for a few months, but Jupiter and Saturn are back in the night sky. Jupiter is easy to spot as the super bright star in the east after dark. Saturn follows right behind. Point a telescope toward Jupiter and you will immediately see some of its super bright moons, all lined up in a perfect row. Depending on the telescope you use, you might even see the planet’s colored bands.
Saturn’s distinctive rings are unmistakable when viewed with the telescope. Saturn is nearly twice the distance from the Sun as Jupiter, so it takes a powerful telescope to get a clear image of the rings. My 6-incher can capture the hazy essence of the beautiful planet and its rings.
TRACK THE MOON’S PHASES
As if the stars are not enough reason to get outside at night, tracking the Moon’s cycle throughout the course of a month is a fascinating exercise. Find a blank Moon phase chart online and go out each night to observe and record the changes of the Moon. What time did it appear in the sky? What location of the sky? Was the sky dark or still light? What was the shape of the Moon?
Much can be learned about the Moon by doing this for one month. For example, you’ll discover that the Moon rises about 49 minutes later from one night to the next. This is why it can sometimes be seen during the day.
I encourage you to grow familiar with the night sky without the aid of digital devices. However, using a good astronomy app can increase your knowledge of the night sky and help you find things you didn’t know were there. Some of them can even show you the location of the International Space Station.
The apps I have on my phone are:
- Sky View Lite (there is an upgrade for a fee)
- Sky Guide (I paid a small fee for this one)
MYTHOLOGICAL STORIES OF THE STARS
Instead of telling ghost stories around a campfire, you can read the mythological stories while looking at the constellations they represent.
- What We See in the Stars by Kelsey Oseid
- Star Stories: Constellation Tales from Around the World by Anita Ganeri
- Star Stories: Constellations and People by Anthony Aveni
While it’s thrilling to go to a dark sky location to experience the night sky, you can create a magical experience in your own backyard. Perhaps you’ll feel like the ancient astronomer Claudius Ptolemy who said, “I know that I am mortal…but when I search out the massed wheeling circles of the stars, my feet no longer touch the Earth.”