The starry sky is a thing of beauty to witness first hand. No matter what time of year, more than 2,000 individual stars can be seen in a moonless country sky. However, the dome of light pollution that plagues our cities and suburbs allow us to see only the brightest stars and of course, the lovely planets (depending where they are in their orbits). Our low level of light pollution is one of the things that makes Northeastern Ontario a fantastic place to stargaze!
Looking at Jupiter – the Brightest Light
As the sky darkens after sunset, the stars display themselves one by one, starting with the brightest. A popular misconception is that the North Star, called Polaris, is the first to appear. This is not the case, as Polaris is listed as the 48th brightest star in our northern skies. On these warm summer nights, the first point seen is not a star, but a planet. Jupiter can be seen about 10 minutes after sunset, and is positioned high in the sky. It sets in the west at 2 a.m. local time and by the end of July, just before 11 p.m. local time. Any telescope will reveal the four main Galilean moons that orbit the planet.
Saturn – the Lord of the Rings
The showpiece of the night is always the planet Saturn. Dubbed “lord of the rings”, a first look through a telescope will take your breath away. A telescope of any size will show Saturn’s rings, but the high magnification of larger telescopes will reveal more surface and ring detail along with up to seven of its main moons. Saturn is yellowish in colour and the brightest object in the southeast sky after sunset. It stays out all night long. Both Jupiter and Saturn possess about 65 much smaller moons each that cannot be seen.
The Stars of the Milky Way
Once you’re under the pristine skies of Northeastern Ontario, the magic of the night sky begins. The handful of stars seen under city lights are now lost in a much greater sea of fainter, distant suns. We also have a first hand experience with seeing the glorious Milky Way Galaxy. This band that starts in the south and stretches across the sky is the glow of billions of distant stars. Summer and fall are the best times to experience this band of ghostly starlight.
If you don’t have a telescope, binoculars are ideal for seeing distant celestial objects. Amateur astronomers look for the Messier objects, which are a list of 110 of the brightest celestial targets easily spotted with your trusty binoculars. Charles Messier was a prolific 18th century comet hunter who published a catalogue of these objects he came across while comet hunting.
As you slowly pan the Milky Way, hundred of stars fill the field of view with various star clusters and star-forming regions (called nebulae) along the way. One of the closest open star clusters is M7, a.k.a. the “Ptolemy Cluster”. About 980 light years away, M7 visually spans the width of two full moons and is very bright with respect to other, fainter objects. One summer I observed this cluster’s reflection of a very calm lake. Ptolemy’s Cluster is located to the right of the iconic constellation of Sagittarius, the “teapot”. They both are nicely above the southern horizon at midnight. The imaginary steam that rises from the spout is the Milky Way, and it’s from here that you can begin your hunt.
From the spout, move your binoculars up to a lengthy, misty object. This is M8 of the Lagoon Nebula. This is a great example of a star making region, commonly nicknamed a “stellar nursery”. At a distance of 4,100 light years, you’ll notice the open cluster next to the hazy patch. These 50 or so baby stars are a couple of million years old.
Other star forming nebulas exist like the Eagle Nebula – M16, and the Swan Nebula – M17. Along the way, other tiny and larger open star clusters will dot the starry field. From time to time you will also see an absence of stars. These dense clouds of gas and dust block or hide the light of back ground stars.
Today’s DSLR cameras are ideal for taking wide angle images of the night sky. Canon cameras are best for astrophotography. Simply set the camera on a sturdy tripod and attach a cable release so you do not touch the camera. Setting the shutter speed to “B” and the lens to manual allows you complete control to image the sky. Set the ISO or light sensitivity to the highest setting. Manually focus on the brightest point of light to a pin point then move back to the Milky Way and expose for 10 to 15 seconds. Check your results and change exposure times and IOS speeds. Remember pixels are free, so have fun experimenting. Find more tips for night sky photography here.
Nature’s Best Light Show – The Northern Lights
Lastly, always keep your eyes up for the beautiful northern lights which dance across the northern skies. They usually appear green in colour but reds, blues, and violets can also paint the sky. New moons will occur on June 24 and July 23 with full moons occurring July 9 and August 7.
Until next time, clear skies everyone.
Gary Boyle is past President of the Ottawa Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) and has been interviewed numerous times on Canadian radio stations. Gary is an astronomy educator and lecturer with a never ending passion for the night sky. The International Astronomical Union has officially named asteroid (22406) Garyboyle for his dedication to public education and the RASC over the decades.
Look for the International Space Station passing near or over: