Getting Drenched in Summer's Milky Way Skies

CAPTION:   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 least, eye-opening.

    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!

Clear Skies

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

The Lawnchair Astronomer

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