It was around this time last year that comet NEOWISE graced our skies, allowing the world to gaze at the heavens and follow its nocturnal glide among the stars. (The acronym NEOWISE stands for Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer). Since Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997, no comet has been so bright.
These mountains of rock and ice are usually small, weak targets that only a telescope can reveal. July 2020 belonged to NEOWISE, with its long tail of dust easily visible in the moonlight. It was a time when we all needed a distraction from Covid-19. Nature has a way to help relieve stress and anxiety.
While there are no predicted bright comets visible in the near future, the night sky is an endless stage for viewing celestial objects with a telescope, binoculars, or simply with the naked eye.
The easiest to spot is, of course, the moon. On the night of July 11, look for a thin and difficult 4% crescent in the western sky just after sunset. The following night, its illumination increases to nine percent and is positioned at the top left of Venus and tiny orange Mars (very close to Venus, bottom left).
Now is a great time to see the unlit “ghostly” part of the moon, called Earthshine (or Da Vinci Glow). It is also a prime photography moment for tripod single lens DSLR cameras. But the moon is a fantastic sight in any telescope, especially along the dividing line of its day and night sides.
The solar system’s two gas giants are now above the southeast horizon well before midnight local time. Saturn and its majestic rings rise around 10 p.m., with Jupiter much brighter and its Galilean moons appearing about an hour later. Words cannot describe seeing them through a telescope.
Also take advantage of the nights when the moon (and its sometimes dark light) is absent from the sky to see the heart of our Milky Way. Visible from the countryside, far from any light source, this luminous band is the collective glow of billions of distant stars. It stretches from the right side of the “teapot” of the constellation Sagittarius in the south up to the top of the head, passing through Cygnus the swan, nicknamed the “Northern Cross” – and continuing through the iconic “W” from the constellation Cassiopeia the Queen.
With many people heading to the campsites and cabins, sit down with your friends and family and watch a clear, moonless night for a peaceful setting. You will see slow earth satellites and sporadic fast moving meteors. As you gaze at the stars (all distant suns), breathe in the cool night air as the sounds of frogs and crickets play their soothing tones.
Binoculars can reveal a treasure trove of star clusters along the Milky Way, as well as a few regions of star formation. Hundreds of stars are visible at a glance. Astronomers now consider that every star has at least one planet in orbit. A tiny fraction of these “exoplanets” are the size of Earth and reside far enough from their sun that the water (if they have any) remains liquid. It could be an indication that life might exist on this far-off world, too far away for us to travel to.
Over the next few months, enjoy the experience of nature whenever possible. Embrace the summer night for all it has to offer.
See you next time, clear skies.