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A Summer of Stargazing

By Tom Kerss FRAS

(Stargazing, Moongazing, Northern Lights, YOU CAN explore the universe)

The warm, inviting nights of summer may not be the darkest, but they’re no less full of wonderful sights to see in the night sky. Here’s your guide to some of the astronomical highlights of the coming season.

 

Season of Supermoons | 13/14 June, 13 July, 11 August

 

May’s lunar eclipse brought the first of four subsequent Near-Perigee Full Moons, or Supermoons, to occur in 2022. Through June, July and August, the Full Moon will appear larger and brighter than average, as it coincides with Moon’s perigee – the point in its orbit that brings it closest to the Earth. Look out for the Summer Supermoons on 13/14 June, 13 July and 11 August.

 

Catch Mercury in a Planetary Precession | 16 June

The innermost planet Mercury appears to trace a figure-8 in the sky, swinging out to the east and west of the Sun. As such, it is visible only for a short time before the sunrise or after sunset. Mercury’s separation from the Sun is called its elongation, and the dates of greatest elongation are the best time to go looking for it. On 16 June, Mercury reaches its greatest elongation west of the Sun, making it just visible over the eastern horizon before the dawn. It joins a beautiful precession, following Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. All five naked eye planets will adorn the sky together, along with the waning gibbous Moon – a gorgeous treat for anyone willing to get up at 03:00 BST!

 

‘Astronomical’ Summer Begins | 21 June

On 21 June, at 10:13 BST, the Sun will reach its maximum northerly declination on the Celestial Sphere, and consequently will appear at its highest at midday (13:00 BST) marking the summer solstice. In astronomy, this is the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, and the first day of winter in the southern hemisphere. We tend to think of the seasons as being connected to the calendar, but in astronomy they are defined by precise points in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. On 21 June, the Northern Hemisphere leans maximally towards the Sun, granting us the longest hours of daylight and the shortest hours of night. After this date, the days will begin to shorten again.

 

The Triangle Balances High in the Sky| All summer

 

Throughout the summer months, a large triangular asterism can be found high up in the half of the sky around midnight. This is the Summer Triangle, formed from three stars in different constellations: Deneb (from Cygnus the Swan); Vega (from Lyra the Harp); Altair (from Aquilla the Eagle.) The light of the Milky way runs through the triangle, from the northeast (near Deneb) to the southwest (past Altair.) It’s a wonderful part of the sky to scan with binoculars or a telescope, and it’s well placed during the darkest hours of our short summer nights. As a bonus, look to the southeast of the Summer Triangle to spot the small constellation Delphinus the Dolphin.

 

Gaze into the Galactic Core | Late June, early July

 

Whilst the Summer Triangle is home to bright regions of our galaxy, including the Cygnus star clouds, the Milky Way is most brilliant around its centre – the galactic core. Unfortunately, it doesn’t rise far above our southern horizon in the UK, but it can be glimpsed when it’s at its best. Look low in the south around midnight (01:00 BST) in the last week of June and first week of July. The Moon will be out of the way, allowing a clear view of the heart of our galaxy. Buried away behind the gas and starlight, some 26,000 light-years from us, a supermassive black hole is lurking. In May this year, astronomers using the Event Horizon Telescope released an extraordinary image of the region around it. Although we can’t see it directly, we can find its position in the sky, which is just to the west of the ‘spout’ of the Teapot asterism.

 

The Perseids vs The Sturgeon Moon | 12/13 August

August brings one of the year’s most spectacular meteor showers – the Perseids – during which myriad shooting stars dash across the sky, as tiny pieces of the comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle burn up in our atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. The Perseid Meteor Shower is a strong performer, with potentially dozens of meteors per hour being seen across the peak. Unfortunately, this year’s shower will arrive just after the Full Sturgeon Moon, making fainter meteors harder to spot. However, the brightest meteors – called ‘fireballs’ – will make themselves known regardless the moonlight, so make a plan to stay after midnight into the morning of the 13th and see how many you can count!

 

The Ringworld at Opposition | 14 August

 

The beautiful planet Saturn, adorned with its brilliant icy rings, reaches opposition on 14 August, meaning that the Earth comes between it and the Sun. On this night, Saturn will appear at its brightest and biggest but if it’s not clear, don’t worry – you can enjoy the sight of Saturn’s rings with your telescope throughout the summer and autumn.

 

Mercury Follows the Setting Sun | 27 August

After trailing the planets in the morning sky, Mercury emerges to the east of the Sun for its greatest eastern elongation, setting in the west shortly after Saturn rises in the east. Mercury is always challenging but rewarding to find in the afterglow of sunset – good luck!

 

 

Tom Kerss is an astronomer, astrophotographer, writer and speaker, specialising in the rewarding task of connecting people to their shared universe. He is the author of Northern Lights, Moongazing, Stargazing and You Can Explore the Universe, all of which are available now.