This is a great time of year to take a different look at the skies. These days, night doesn’t fall as much as it arrives, casually and late, like someone in a seersucker hat with an iced bucket filled with good wheat beer. With a relaxed calm, the Sun sets and turns the blue to yellow, orange, purple, and then black as the stars slowly poke through.
I don’t know if it’s really fair to call it an asterism, though the thing I love about asterims is that all is fair, but if you have a few extra minutes, you can see another one of my favorite groups of stars. When I was young, I’d find my way to a low and flat place, not hard to find on Long Island, or I’d drive out to the beach and look, and use these stars to learn my way around the summer sky. You’ll need a really good sky in all directions for this.
As the stars make their way through the dusk, find your way to the Big Dipper. Its bowl will be pointing downward, spilling water balloons all over the neighborhood. That way’s north. If you turn to the west; to the left, and look low in the sky, you’ll see the bright star Capella (in Auriga), and if you keep turning, and you’ll see the twins, Castor and Pollux (Gemini), the last stars of the Winter Circle, about to head off on their summer vacation. Have a look at the Stellarium shot below, if you like.
As you keep turning, higher now, you’ll find the kingly Regulus (Leo), whose light started crossing the emptiness on its way to your eye 80 years, a lifetime ago. It’s spending its time with Jupiter, the kingly planet, whose light has been traveling for 45 minutes, the length of an episode of NCIS, these days. If you keep going, high in the sky, you’ll see Arcturus (Boötes), and below it Spica (Virgo) before you get to Antares (Scorpius), which is traveling with Mars and Saturn for now. As you turn, you’ve made it all the way around to the north now, with the Big Dipper high above you again.
Also, just starting to make its way into view to the northeast is Vega (Lyra), which, as part of the Summer Triangle, will soon dominate the night sky clear through until the leaves start to change, and Capella, Castor, and Pollux come back for the night shift. Together, those stars, very far apart in the sky, bookend the middle part of the year. Vega arrives just in time for Capella, Castor, and Pollux to split the scene. Then, those three come back, just as Vega has had enough. The cycle goes on and on.
No, maybe the summer’s sky isn’t as easy as it as at other times of the year, but it’s worth taking time to sit outside with some friends and see what’s going on; no tools needed other than your own eyes and your own love of the skies. Come back later this week, we’ll talk a bit about one of those stars. I know, the suspense is killing me, too!
Clear skies, everyone!