As we approach the Summer Solstice and the nights become shorter, we are in a difficult period for stargazing. It is not dark enough for any serious observations until around midnight and the window is closed again before 4am. There are however things to be seen and pleasure to be had in viewing the sky.
A favourite occupation of mine is to sit out on a summer evening (with a glass of wine) and watch the stars appear as the light fades. Fortunately I live in a dark area of Kent, Woodchurch, which is actually seeking official dark sky status. If you live in a town near a lot of neon lighting, you might have to move for your evening viewing.
Naturally the brightest pop into view first: last night it was, from my viewpoint, Capella which is a double star 42 light years away. To aid in identifying stars I recommend the Celestron “SkyPortal” or “SkyView” apps that are free to download. Constellations also come gradually into view and of course need no optical device to be seen.
Stargazing in the Northern Hemisphere
The Plough is one of the largest and brightest: it is also always in view if you are in the Northern Hemisphere. As one of the first to come into view as the light fades it is easy to find and can be used for accurate navigation. Use the Plough to locate the North Star, Polaris, and you can immediately find where North is. If you face Polaris you are facing very close to True North and it is more accurate than a compass. There are other ways to find this star (see above) but the Plough is the largest, brightest and most reliable.
International Space Station
Sitting outside last night around midnight I watched the International Space Station pass over. It is very bright in the first hours after sunset and moves quickly from west to east. Download the Nasa App and, among other fascinating features. you will find a sighting schedule for wherever you live. At the stated time, look in the direction indicated about 10 degrees above the horizon and it will appear at the exact time predicted. With binoculars you can make out the rough shape of the ISS but it moves too quickly for me to photograph.
The planets (currently only visible from about 3am) will come into view in the evenings from late September, giving us good targets for our telescopes. Throughout all this the Moon will be there too (next full moon on Tuesday 14th June).
I hope you all get some pleasure from the heavens this summer, it’s completely free!
Things to look forward to in the months ahead include images from the James Webb Space Telescope. This orbiting telescope is the replacement for Hubble and great things are expected of it. The broadcast programmes and websites on astronomy will quickly relay on to the public the most interesting images.
If you want to find out more about stargazing in Kent, see the Ashford Astronomical Society.