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Night sky offers light show during summer months

By Brad Spakowitz

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – Warm summer nights lure people outdoors, and with that comes a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the night sky.

If you live within city limits, the bright lights will lessen your ability to see much in the night sky, so traveling to a rural location is suggested if you want to fully enjoy all there is to see.

A telescope is not needed – although binoculars may come in handy – but typically, your eyes are just fine after giving them about 20 minutes to fully adjust to the darkness.

Comfort-wise, viewing is best if you lay on your back on a blanket, or rest in a reclining lawn chair – your neck will thank you.

Things to look for
On any clear night, you should be able to spot one of the most famous and recognizable constellations, the Big Dipper, which is not quite overhead in the north-northwest.


Once you locate its seven bright stars, extend an imaginary line upward to the right from the two stars of the outer “bowl” to find the North Star (Polaris), which is also the handle of the Little Dipper.

If you are in an especially dark location on a moonless night, you can also make out the Milky Way, which appears as a faint, white glow arching from the southern sky to the northeast.

Our solar system is located on the edge of our galaxy (The Milky Way), so from our perspective we are looking more toward the center of the galaxy where star concentration is very dense, hence the whitish arching glow across the sky.

Also be on the lookout for meteors, otherwise known as “shooting stars,” which are tiny rock fragments in space that burn up as they race into Earth’s atmosphere.

On average, about three meteors can be spotted per hour on any given night, although meteor showers can produce many more.

The summer moon itself provides a show, as it appears much lower in the sky than in winter, because of the Earth’s tilt toward the sun this time of the year.

The low moon angle gives the illusion of a bigger moon, making for fantastic reflections off the water at night.

The rest of this month
The sky right now is in alignment with five planets visible with the naked eye in the east-southeast just before dawn, around 4:30 a.m.

You can spot Mercury just above the horizon in the east.

Then extending upward and to your right, find (in this order) a bright white Venus, a much dimmer orange Mars, followed by a bright white Jupiter and, to the far right, a faint yellow-white Saturn.

This alignment hasn’t occurred in nearly 20 years and will only last a few weeks, so enjoy it now.

July highlights
Don’t miss the full moon on July 13.

It is a supermoon, which occurs when the moon’s orbit takes it a bit closer to the earth than usual, making the moon appear slightly bigger and brighter.

Later in the month (July 28-29), watch for the annual Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower, which averages about 10-20 meteors per hour.

Best meteor viewing is always after midnight.

August highlights
As the month begins, Jupiter and Saturn will return to the night sky, rising in the east-southeast as midnight approaches.

August’s full moon occurs on Aug. 11, just as one of the best meteor showers of the year approaches its peak.

The annual Perseid Meteor Shower (Aug. 11-13) has been known to bring dozens of meteors per hour in good years, but the bright full moon this year will only allow you to see the brightest meteors.

As the month concludes, Mars rises in the east just before midnight, joining Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky.

This and more is there waiting for you this summer.

May your nights be clear and the mosquitoes scarce.

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