Welcome to summer and a beautiful night sky filled with stars, four bright planets, the Milky Way, and even shooting stars. If only we could stay up long enough for it to get dark! Here at the summer solstice, the sun does not set until 9 p.m. and it does not get really dark until a couple of hours after that.
If you do stay up, probably the first star you will see will be Arcturus, an orange-colored star high in the south just before it gets completely dark. It is the fourth-brightest star in the entire sky, winter and summer, and relatively close to us, astronomically speaking of course. If you plan to visit Arcturus, you might have to take some extra vacation time. The trip on our fastest rocket ship would take about 700,000 years one way.
Over in the east, the Summer Triangle, made up of the three bright stars Vega, Altair, and Deneb, will come into view shortly after Arcturus. They will be around all summer and into the fall. As summer progresses they will move into the west, which is caused not by their movement, but rather our movement around the sun.
You may have noticed that the really bright object which has been hanging around in the west after sunset is no longer there. What happened to Venus? She rode off into the sunset and is now hanging out in the east just before sunrise. You have to get up early to see her, but she’s worth it, a brilliant light low to the eastern horizon.
Jupiter and Saturn
The big attraction this summer will be Jupiter and Saturn quite close together in the southeast. Drag that telescope out of the attic that you have not used for years, and you will be able to spot the rings of Saturn and the four largest moons of Jupiter. Jupiter is the bright one to the right of Saturn.
Farther left of the pair of planets, look for a reddish object shining a little brighter than Saturn. Guess what that is? I bet you know — Mars. Watch it get brighter all summer as we catch up to it in its orbit around the sun. In October it will be at its closest and may even outshine Jupiter.
The grandest sight up there in the summer is the Milky Way galaxy, our home in the vast cosmos. Look for it in the east, a band of light stretching clear across the sky. It has to be completely dark without a moon to get a good view of it. Later in the summer, it will be easier to spot when it goes up right overhead and you do not have to stay up so late.
The Old Faithful of meteor showers is coming in August, but I will talk about that later.
Enjoy the wonders of the night sky and do not forget to bring your mosquito repellant.