Your guide to summer stargazing in July

  • Fri Jun 29th, 2012 12:54pm
  • Life

By Mike Lynch

Take an afternoon nap and prepare to do some serious stargazing this month. It’s not truly dark enough in northwest Washington until after 11 p.m., but a summer night under the stars is well worth missing a few winks, especially if you’re out away from city lights, maybe camping.

Cut out the attached star map, or go to the online version of the article and print it, and take it with you.

Over in the low western sky look for the constellation Leo the Lion, a constellation that resembles a giant backward question mark leaning to the right. The star at the bottom of the question mark is Regulus, the brightest star in Leo. Regulus marks the heart of the lion and the rest of the question mark outlines the lion’s beastly head.

Not far away in the low southwestern sky are the planets Mars and Saturn. Neither planet is the best telescope target this month because they start the evening very low in the sky and set not all that long after evening twilight.

Through a telescope they’ll both be a little fuzzy or muddy looking because we have to look though more of our Earth’s blurry atmosphere to see them. Saturn extensive and beautiful ring system, even if it’s a less than pristine view, is worth your time.

Another shiner in the western half of the sky is Arcturus, the brightest star of the summer sky. At twilight’s end Arcturus is perched high in the western sky at the tail of a giant kite. That kite is more formally known as the constellation Bootes, the hunting farmer.

Arcturus is a giant star, more than 22 million miles in diameter and more than 36 light-years distant, with one light-year equivalent to about 6 trillion miles.

In the eastern heavens, you’ll see the prime stars of summer on the rise. As we move through July they will be a little higher at the start of each night as the Earth in its solar orbit passes in their direction.

The best way to find your way around the summer stars is to locate the summer triangle made up of three bright stars, each star the brightest in their respective constellation. You can’t miss them. They’re the brightest stars in the East right now.

The highest and brightest star is Vega, the bright star in a small faint constellation called Lyra the harp. The second brightest star on the lower right is Altair, the brightest in Aquila the Eagle. Altair is on the corner of a diamond that outlines the wingspan of the great bird.

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. I guarantee that when you hold this map over your head, East and West will be in their proper positions. Attach a red piece of cloth or red construction paper over the lens of a small flashlight. You won’t lose your night vision when you look at this map in red light.