Summer sky encore in September
For sure the days are numbered, but it’s still summer and there are still plenty of summer constellations dancing across the night sky. What’s really nice is that your stargazing adventures can start earlier in the evening now as daylight hours are dwindling.
As soon as it gets dark, around 8:30 to 9 p.m., look in the really low south-southwestern Marshall sky for the three brightest stars you can see. They’re actually the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. As September starts, Mars is still the brightest of the three, shining away with its orange-red glow. In late July Mars was the closest it’s been to Earth in 15 years, and even though Earth and Mars are beginning to pull away from each other Mars is still less than 42 million miles away which is close for our Martian neighbor.
Normally Mars is the only planet in our solar system where you can see the surface through a telescope. Even with a small to moderate telescope it’s possible to seeing some surface features on Mars, like its polar ice caps. However, this summer there’s been massive dust storm that’s completely engulfed Mars and is hiding the surface. The storm is gradually subsiding but in all honestly as bright as Mars is about all you’re going to see through even a larger telescope is big orange red ball. Coupled with the dust storm is the fact that as close as Mars has been to the Earth right now is that it’s not rising very high in the sky, at least not in these northern latitudes. Because of that the blurring effect of Earth’s atmosphere is also playing havoc on telescope visibility.
A little below and to the left of Saturn in the low southern sky this month is one of my favorite constellations. It’s called the Teapot because that’s what it actually looks like. The Teapot is more formally known as Sagittarius, a centaur shooting an arrow at its next-door neighbor Scorpius. If you can see Sagittarius as a half man-half horse with a bow and arrow, you are kidding yourself! I’ll stick with the Teapot.
The Teapot is located in the direction of the center of our Milky Way galaxy, a little over 25,000 light-years away. If the sky is dark enough where you are, you’ll see a milky white band of light that runs all the way across the sky, from the Teapot in the southwest to the northeast horizon. You’re looking at the combined light of billions of distant stars that make up the main plane of our galactic home.
Nearly overhead is another signpost of summer, the Summer Triangle. Just look for the three brightest stars you can see around the zenith and that’s it. All three stars are the brightest stars in each of their respective constellations. Vega is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra the Harp. Altair is the brightest in Aquila the Eagle, and Deneb is the brightest star in Cygnus the Swan, also known as the “Northern Cross.”
There’s nothing really all that “summer” about the Big and Little Dippers since they’re visible every night of the year, but summer is a great time to spot them. That’s especially true for the Big Dipper since it’s proudly hanging by its handle high in the northwest. The fainter Little Dipper is standing on its handle to the right of the Big Dipper with Polaris, the North Star, at the end of its handle.
In the northeast sky look for the sideways “W” that outlines the throne of Cassiopeia the Queen. Just to the upper left of the queen in the northern sky look for the faint upside-down house with the steep roof, which is supposed to be Cepheus the King.
One of the prime autumn constellations, Pegasus the winged horse, is on the rise in the eastern sky after sunset. Look for the big diamond of stars that outlines the torso of Pegasus. This is called the “Square of Pegasus,” but because of the way it’s positioned in the sky this time of year it’s also known as the “Autumn Diamond.”
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is also the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and at adventurepublications.net.