Stargazers welcome August’s longer nights

  • Thu Jul 26th, 2012 3:45pm
  • Life

By Mike Lynch

I have mixed emotions about this time of year. I hate the fact that summer is starting to wind down. However, as an amateur astronomer, I love August stargazing because the nights are longer and you don’t have to deal with the autumn chill.

The sky is dark enough for star hunting by 10 p.m. Besides mere convenience for stargazers, the late summer skies are packed with good gazing.

In the low west-southwest sky, just after evening twilight, the planets Mars and Saturn are huddling together close to the horizon. This is your last chance to see them because by month’s end they will be pretty much below the horizon after evening twilight ends.

In the northern sky we have the famous dippers. The Big Dipper, which is actually the rearend and tail of the Big Bear Ursa Major, is hanging lazily by its handle, or tail, if you please, in the high northwestern sky.

The Little Dipper, which is the same as the Little Bear, is standing up on its handle and is much dimmer than the Big Dipper. Sadly, it’s darn near invisible in the metro area with the exception of the outer ring of suburbs. The only really bright star in the Little Dipper is Polaris, otherwise known as the North Star, at the end of the handle.

Polaris is by no means the brightest star in the sky, but it is the lynch pin because every single star and planet, including the sun and moon, appear to revolve around it every 24 hours. That’s because Polaris is shining directly above the Earth’s North Pole and, as our world rotates, all of the stars appear to us to whirl around the North Star.

The brightest star in the night sky right now is Arcturus high in the western sky. Arcturus is also the brightest star in the constellation Bootes the Hunting Farmer. Bootes looks more like a giant kite, with the orange reddish star Arcturus at the tail of the kite.

The second brightest star in the evening heavens is Vega, the bright star in a small, faint constellation called Lyra the Lyre, or Harp. Vega is a brilliant bluish-white star perched high in the eastern sky, almost overhead. Vega and the small faint parallelogram just to the lower east of Vega are supposed to outline a celestial harp in the sky.

As you continue to look east, you’ll notice two other bright stars that form a triangle with Vega. This is known as the Summer Triangle. The star to the lower left of Vega is Deneb, the brightest star in Cygnus the Swan, or the Northern Cross.

The star to the lower right of Vega is Altair, the brightest star in the constellation Aquila the Eagle.

In the low southern sky are the two signature constellations of summer. In the southwest is Scorpius the Scorpion with the bright brick red star Antares at the heart of the Scorpion. It’s one of those few constellations that looks like what it’s supposed to be. In the low southeast sky is Sagittarius, which is supposed to be a half man-half horse shooting an arrow. Most people I know refer to it by its nickname, “the Teapot.”

The biggest attraction in the sky this month will be the Perseid Meteor Shower, the best meteor shower of the year, which peaks next weekend, the nights of Aug. 11 12. The moon will be pretty much out of the sky by then, and the meteors or “shooting stars” will be much more visible in the darker skies. I’ll have more on the Perseids in next week’s Starwatch.

Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, “Washington Starwatch,” available at bookstores. Check his website,

The Everett Astronomical Society:

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’s horizon to the actual direction you’re facing. East and West on this map are not backward. When you hold this map over your head, East and West will be in their proper positions. Attach a piece of red cloth or paper over the lens of a small flashlight so you don’t lose your night vision when you look at this map in red light.