For most of us, summer is all about daytime, from the morning sky to the long, late dusk. It’s the sunshine that we dream of when we’re sitting at our desks, that we pay for when we book our holidays. And if we’ve got kids, they wear us out by sunset, so all we want is to get them off to bed, then turn in ourselves.
What a waste! There is little lovelier than a clear summer night, with Altair, Deneb and Vega pricking the darkness, the Milky Way spilling across the heavens and the international space station flashing overhead. It’s all happening up there, and you don’t need a telescope to enjoy it. Even kids can’t spoil the magic.
It can be hard to get your bearings, though. The stars, planets and Moon all rise roughly in the east and set roughly in the west – just like the sun – but they do so in their own sweet time, with the moon up 50 minutes later every night, each planet following a separate timetable, and many stars only visible in summer or winter. One of the most striking constellations, Orion, won’t be seen from the UK for months yet.
So how do you find your way around? There are excellent online guides, like the Society for Popular Astronomy’s kid-friendly The Sky This Month page. But the simplest way is to download a good astronomy app such as Sky View or Star Walk 2, both of which are available for Android or iOS. As well as telling you what’s visible when – for example, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn can all be seen with the naked eye – they will let you put a name to objects simply by pointing your device at them. After a few nights you should be able to recognise major features without help. And there’s always something to enjoy, even if you’re in a light-polluted metropolis.
Take a few minutes to get familiar with the app, then activate its night-vision mode, which uses a red-on-black display so your eyes will still work properly in the dark. Without this, even glancing at the screen will make it hard to pick out fainter stars. Then hand the device over to your kids, who by now will be itching to see what you’re playing with. They won’t want to give it back – do they ever? – but that just means you can let them take care of guiding you round the sky.
Before the sun sets (about 9pm in the UK at this time of year) find a sheltered, safe spot away from artificial lights, water features and cliff edges, spray everyone with mosquito repellent and set out some deckchairs, plus something to sip as the daylight fades. In the countryside, you might be lucky enough to see bats and owls hunting as you wait for the first stars to appear, or hear small creatures attacking each other in the undergrowth. In Europe and much of the rest of the world, on July 27 you’ll also see a ‘blood moon’, as our closest neighbour rises deep red, fully eclipsed by the earth’s shadow.
From about 10pm UK time, you’ll see another red spot right below it – this is Mars. An hour or two later, you should be able to make out some of the most recognisable star formations.
Cygnus (Latin for ‘swan’) actually does look slightly like that bird, wings stretched out and viewed from below, while The Plough is more likely to remind you of a saucepan. If ever you’re lost without a compass, this stellar kitchenware will point you towards Polaris, aka the North Star. Starting at the bottom of the ‘pan’, extend the right-hand side formed by the stars Merak and Dubhe (ie, the side opposite the ‘handle’) until it’s about six times as long. Polaris is the bright light near the end. If you’re struggling to even find the Plough, face towards where the sun sets. It will be somewhere to your right.
Most kids will be more than ready for bed by now. In August, though, the older ones might manage to stay up for the biggest meteor shower of the year, The Perseids, which peaks on August 12-13, when 60 or more shooting stars will be visible every hour.
They’ll be radiating out from the constellation Perseus in the northern sky. If you don’t want to use your phone or tablet to find it, Perseus is near Cassiopeia, a W-shaped constellation the opposite side of Polaris from the Plough, and about as far away. You just need to be looking in roughly the right direction. Once that’s sorted, get ready for the light show. Don’t expect fireworks – 60 meteors an hour is an average of just one light trail a minute– but there will be atmosphere by the bucketload. To quote the unofficial motto of the amateur astronomer: we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.