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The Night Sky and You

The Night Sky and You Image

Sidney Hall [Public domain] (restoration by Adam Cuerden), via Wikimedia Commons

on June 13, 2017

By: Dawn Davies, Public Advocacy Volunteer

IDA Public Advocacy Volunteer and amateur astronomer, Dawn Davies, shares the hidden wonders of the night sky to engage our sense of wonder and inspire exploration of the night.

The summer months are a time of travel, adventure, and most of all, nights under the stars. Whether you are out in the wilderness or pitching a tent in the backyard, the sky is your entertainment. Let me show you some of my favorite highlights to look for in these days leading up to the solstice.

What You’ll Need
A compass, or basic navigational orientation
Access to the outdoors
A pair of binocular (optional)

Best Time to View
One to two hours past sunset and one to two hours before sunrise

What You’ll See
Planets:
Jupiter, Saturn, Venus

Constellations1:
Corona Borealis, Hydra, Cancer, Draco, Hercules, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Cygnus, Aquila

Deep Sky Objects:
R Hydrae, Southern Pinwheel Galaxy, Nu Draconis

Stellar Phenomena:
June rho Cygnids, June Aquilids

Our favorite gas giants still grace our nighttime skies tracing a path from south-southeast to north-northwest. Jupiter and Saturn will cross our skies earlier and earlier as the summer progresses until they will only rise during daytime hours.
If your idea of taking in the universe’s wonders involves a dark sky, grassy field, and picnic blanket then this week is for you. Staring upward means your gaze is drawn to Zenith, also known as 90 degrees or straight up. This view takes you into the realm of some lesser known but delightful constellations.

In the northern hemisphere, we have Corona Borealis. This seven-star constellation appears high in the sky and appears in many myths across the cultures. The Native Americans see this curved display as a sweat lodge while Nordic cultures have stories that tell of a giant’s toe. As this constellation is visible in some southern hemisphere locations it is no surprise that the aboriginal cultures of Australia refer to it as a boomerang. The name is derived from Latin meaning northern crown. The southern sky has a sister constellation called Corona Australis which is visible later in the year seated in the vicinity of Ara, Telescopium and adjacent to Sagittarius and Scorpius.

Trailing off from zenith in the southern skies, we have Hydra, the largest of the constellations. It spans just past the midpoint in the sky almost down to the horizon stopping just shy of Cancer. It has a total of 17 main stars and is one of the serpents of the sky. It weaves its way past many other constellations and is home to many double stars as well as nebulae and messier objects. With a pair of binoculars, you can make out a variable star named R Hydrae, the third star in the tail of Hydra. Variable stars are stars that vary in their brightness as seen from earth. With a telescope, you can view M83, also known as the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy, just down from R Hydrae. Hydra is also home to two types of meteor showers; the Alpha Hydrids and the Sigma Hydrids. The Alpha Hydrids are active in mid to late January while the Sigma hydrids can be seen in early to mid-December.
Though not as sky spanning as Hydra, the northern hemisphere boasts its own serpent in the constellation Draco. Its head appears as a rhombus in the sky just a way off of zenith near one of the legs of Hercules. Draco is a circumpolar constellation meaning it can be seen year round and never sets. It weaves through the sky adjacent to eight other constellations including the well-known Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. It sports 14 main stars including Nu Draconis, a double star that appears quite stunning through binoculars. There are many myths that include this sweeping constellation. It is everything from its Latin namesake of a dragon to the Arabic depiction of two hyenas attacking a baby camel2. The Draconids meteor shower peaks in early October.

If you cannot wait to view these serpent showers you are in luck. As you stare into the darkened sky above you may see meteors grazing the atmosphere of the earth. Though small in frequency there are some classes of meteors that might catch your eye. In the coming days, we have the June rho Cygnids and the Northern June Aquilids. Meteor showers are named after the constellation they appear to emanate from. In this case Cygnus and Aquila; two of the summer triangle stars.

As we quickly approach summer, here in the northern skies and winter in the southern skies, have no fear. The shortened night just means the need for more planning to take advantage of all our universe has to offer. Tune in here weekly to be as informed as possible. And let us know if there is something you wish to hear more about with regards to our night sky. Click here to leave us a message or ask your burning astronomy questions. And until next week, keep looking up!

References
1 Sinnott, R. & Fienberg, R. Sky and Telescope Magazine/International Astronomical Union. Retrieved from https://www.iau.org/public/themes/constellations//
2 Draco (constellation). (2017) In Wikipedia. Retrieved June 12, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Draco_(constellation)

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