There’s plenty of summer left in the evening skies of September, and with earlier sunsets you can get some great stargazing in without a late bedtime.
By mid-September it’s dark enough by 8:30 p.m. to do some decent stargazing.
There’s a summer hangover in the Northwest evening skies called the Summer Triangle. Right after evening twilight, crane your neck to the overhead zenith or, better yet, lie back on a blanket or a reclining lawn chair and look up.
Just look for the three brightest stars you can see. That’s the Summmer Triangle. Now the triangle is not a constellation per say; instead, it’s what we call an asterism. This asterism is made up of three stars from three constellations, each star the brightest in its constellation.
The brightest star of the trio and second brightest star this evening is Vega, the franchise of the small constellation Lyra the Harp. It’s a large blue star more than 145 trillion miles away. While Vega is a grand star, there isn’t a whole lot to Lyra the harp. Just look for a small dim parallelogram next to Vega and that’s about it.
The next brightest star in the Summer Triangle is Altair, the brightest in Aquila the Eagle. Altair is at the corner of a big diamond that outlines the wingspan of Aquila, the evil eagle that acted as a hitman for Zeus, king of the gods.
The dimmest member of the Summer Triangle, Deneb, is actually the most noteworthy star of the trio. It’s certainly the farthest in distance, at least 1,500 light-years away (one light-year equals about 6 trillion miles).
The light we see from Deneb tonight left that star at least as early as A.D. 500. When you stargaze, you are looking through tremendous distances and back through time.
Deneb is the brightest star in the constellation Cygnus the Swan, but more people see Cygnus as the Northern Cross with Deneb at the head of the cross.
In the low southern skies are the classic summer constellations, Scorpio the Scorpion and Sagittarius the Archer. Scorpius resides in the southwestern sky and is one of those constellations that actually looks like what it’s supposed to be.
There’s a dark red star called Antares at the heart of the beast, more than 600 light-years away.
Next door, to the left of the scorpion in the low southern sky, is a constellation that doesn’t look at all like what it’s supposed to be. Sagittarius is supposed to be a half-man half-horse shooting an arrow, but most stargazers see it by its nickname, the Teapot.
Sagittarius is also in the direction of the center of our Milky Way galaxy, a little less than 30,000 light-years away. In the upper left corner of the Teapot’s handle is a star called Nunki, pronounced Nun-key. It’s one of my favorite star names.
Over in the northwestern sky, the Big Dipper is hanging by its handle, beginning its annual autumn descent in the evening sky. The fainter Little Dipper is standing on its handle in the midnorthern sky with Polaris, the North Star, at the end of its handle.
Contrary to what you may think, the North Star is not the brightest star in the sky. The brightest star this evening is Arcturus, an orange tinged star in Bootes the Hunting Farmer. Bootes actually looks more like a kite hanging in the western sky with Arcturus at the tail of the kite.
Just as evening darkness sets in, you’ll see what looks like a much brighter star on the rise in the eastern sky. That’s no star, that’s Jupiter, our largest planet in the solar system. It’s nearly at its closest approach to Earth this month. Jupiter will be dominant all through autumn, and I’ll spend a lot more time talking about the king of the planets in next week’s Skywatch.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, “Washington Starwatch,” available at bookstores and at his Web site www.lynchandthestars.com.
The Everett Astronomical Society welcomes new members at www.everettastro.org/
Instructions for sky map
To use this map, cut it out and attach it to a stiff backing. Hold it over your head and line up the compass points on the map to the compass points on the horizon where you’re observing from. East and West on this map are not backward. This is not a misprint. I guarantee that when you hold this map over your head, East and West will be in their proper positions.
Also use a small flashlight and attach a red piece of cloth or red construction paper over the lens of the flashlight. You won’t lose your night vision when you look at this map in red light.