The Low Sky of Spring

Hey, sky fans!

Here we are in May, which has been raining and cool so far, and seems more like November around about where I live than I think most of us were hoping. The warm weather seems as real as a unicorn riding a roller coaster. Anything to extend stout season, though, isn’t all bad. It’s amazing we’re already more than a quarter of the way around, like a bunch of kids riding their Big Wheels around the block over and over. It’s been a busy and tiring year so far for many people I know. I hope you’re making through okay so far, and thanks, as always for taking the time and tuning in again.

May’s not just a transitional month as far as the seasons and the weather go; there’s transition in the skies, too. Sirius, Aldebaran and the rest of the winter’s stars are still just barely with us, setting low and early in the west, while Deneb, Vega, Altair, and the rest of the gorgeous high summer stars haven’t started to show their faces again yet. Those three are some of my favorites, moving across the sky together, making for a spectacular show every summer.

The other night on the way home from a late and urgent trip to the store for some Apple Jacks, I took a minute to take a look around. There’s this road that runs through my neighborhood, curving as it climbs a hill between cars parked along the sidewalk. As it reaches the top of the hill, it cuts between two old pin oaks that spend their springs polluting my neighbors’ sidewalks and the sinuses. At that spot, it sits in such a way that there’s a small gap of low darkness where the sky just about meets the street; a pocket of suburbia without any streetlights. Acturus and Regulus were shining, with Jupiter nearby and very bright, a strange milky green—almost the color of a mint-flavored milkshake.

As I looked around, I caught a lone reddish star twinkling in at the end of the road, down between the oaks and between buildings at the top of the hill. It always makes me smile to see something there. It reminded me of a low, reddish sunset or a moonrise. Some things low in the sky tend to be redder than things higher because their light needs to travel farther, so it gets scatted more. The long red wavelengths scatter less.

The Big Dipper was high overhead, as it is every early spring, so I took a good long look before grabbing my cereal and heading in. Back inside, I took a look at my old, out-of-date copy of the Audubon Field Guide to the Night Sky, a terrific book, and found my way. I like to think of that one as always being covered with a thick and fluid layer of dust, which I can blow off and then wave away like a kid finding in their great-grandparents’ attic.

There is was in the maps. It was the star Vega, sitting at the top of the summer constellation Lyra, the lyre, just starting to show its face. It’s a nearby star. . If you know someone who’s about 20 years old, they were born right around the same time Vega’s light started traveling through all the huge and empty space to get to their eye. Before long, it’ll be making its way higher and higher, along with Deneb and Altiar of the famous Summer Triangle, earlier and earlier, as the weather warms and the air gets thick and heavy. Seeing Vega in this cold and tiring spring was terrific and comforting. If you wait, and if you’re patient, summer will come again. Clear skies, everyone.

The Big Dipper

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