Getting Drenched in Summer's Milky Way Skies
Mid-June sees the rise of the Summer Milky Way above the southeastern
horizon, accompanied by the glorious Saturn embedded among its massive
star fields. Jupiter also begins its slow exit from evening skies
in the west to return to morning skies after travelling behind the Sun.
Finally, the Earth's molasses slow tilt reaches its
end point, or as we know it, the Summer Solstice on June 21st at just
after midnight on the east coast. From here sunsets will begin
reversing their recent trend and begin shaving a few minutes of
daylight off each late afternoon. Fortunately its molasses in the
opposite direction too.
Begin any June adventure where the sky is very dark,
away from any cities or large towns, especially to the south.
Then, facing south after 10 p.m. on, both Jupiter and Saturn are
unmistakable beacons high above the southwestern and southeastern
horizons. Both are perfectly situated for long unobstructed
viewing, each with their famous attributes to gaze over. Be
prepared to endure long lines at the eyepiece, should you be sharing
the experience with fellow enthusiast and/or novices. Don't fault
them for lingering. It can quite often be a rare opportunity for
most. Seeing these two massive planets in person is, to say the
While not needed to locate, see and differentiate
these two jewels from the stars, (they don't "twinkle") having a good
pair of binoculars or a small to medium telescope on hand will really
make the evening's adventure especially rewarding. This is the
time of year when the center of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, begins
its rise off the southeastern horizon (See Map).
With eyes alone, from a very dark sky vantage point,
this glowing area of sky is one of the most remarkable sights that can
be witnessed by just about everyone. Once your eyes are truly
dark-adapted, twenty to thirty minutes or so, you should be able to
recognize this profound phenomenon. It mimics the light pollution
that comes from a city or town's combined outdoor lighting. But,
in this case, of course, without the actual city.
The number of stars we can see with our eyes alone
are miniscule compared to the sheer number of stars that are beyond our
eyes ability to detect. A relation to distance mostly, the few
thousand stars we can see are dwarfed by the humongous numbers of stars
actually comprising our little spiral island of a galaxy, on the scale
of 200 to 300 billion.
We're living in one of the outer spokes of the Milky
Way spiral, the Orion Arm to be exact. Looking inwards toward the
center, our view of the actual core is interrupted by both these
innumerable stars, but also the dark gas and dust clouds, what we see
as coal black fingers in front of and blocking our view of yet more
millions and billions of stars beyond these effectively opaque
spoilers. These are dark nebulae.
So what we do see in the skies this month is the
glow of these tens of millions of stars between us and the center of
the galaxy, which can be found in the direction of the constellation
Sagittarius rising off the southeastern horizon. As the night
progresses, this whole area of sky rises clock-hand-like and its famous
Teapot shape becomes more and more obvious as it climbs higher off the
horizon. Looking in the direction of the Teapot, is essentially
looking into the heart of the Milky Way.
A sweep of the area highlighted on this month's map
with a pair of binoculars will reveal the cause behind this unique
phenomenon. With a small or medium sized telescope you'll have
the ability to zoom in on some of the embedded jewels that are
sprinkled throughout this area. Of note are the enigmatic Trifid
and Lagoon Nebulas above the teapot's spout and the the east of
Saturn. To the west of the spout is M-7, also a must-see
destination as you travel in and around this star-filled section of sky.
To the west (right) of Sagittarius is Scorpius, headlined by the very
bright red Antares, another of the heaven's most likely candidates to
explode into a fantastic supernovae. It's also embedded in
the Milky Way's glow and nebulosity. Another recommended stopping
point in your deep-sky adventures is M-4, next to Antares, to the west
(right). This has also long been one of the most admired DSOs,
fourth on comet hunter Charles Messier's famous original list of
deep-sky objects. He created the list so he wouldn't confuse
these objects with the comets he was hunting.
There are all sorts of DSOs - bright and dim
nebulous gas and dust clouds, loose and globular star clusters - to
capture throughout this relatively small area of sky. And I'll
guarantee that should you share these Lawnchair adventures with friends
and family, you will indeed create cherished lifelong memories.
And from there, it's an easy step toward favorite aunt, uncle, grand
paw or me maw status!
The Lawnchair Astronomer
Gerry Descoteaux is the author of “The Lawnchair Astronomer,” a Dell
Trades paperback. He has been writing about astronomy for more than 25
years. He also played an integral role in the development of America
Online’s pioneering distance education program known as AOL’s Online
Campus and served as Professor of Astronomy there for 10 years. He can
be reached at TheStarMan@thelawnchairastronomer.com.