September is peak time for Milky Way gazing and imaging.
Almost every year in this space, I return to the glories of my favourite celestial object, the Milky Way, which powders moonless late-summer and early-autumn evenings conveniently right after dusk. In an attempt to get an early jump on the Milky Way gazing season this year, I started watching the weather in mid-June around new Moon for the signs of an upcoming perfect night — those signs being the arrival of a high-pressure cell, with its dry, low humidity, deep blue skies and transparent nights.
Conditions looked favourable on the evening of June 16, so I packed some camera gear and binoculars and headed for the Lennox & Addington County Dark Sky Viewing Area, a half-hour drive from home.
As the night unfolded, it soon became obvious that this would be an exceptional skywatching opportunity. As you can see in the photo below, which I took that night, the Milky Way was visible right to the horizon. This, in itself, is a rare treat anywhere other than high-elevation deserts.
Binoculars revealed mottling and many of the dusty rifts in the great bulge that defines the core region of our giant star system. M6 and M7, two compact clusters of stars, appear as small starry knots midway between the two trees at the bottom centre of the photo. Normally dimmed by horizon haze or light pollution, M6 and, especially, M7 are binocular treasures.
To the unaided eyes that night, the Milky Way was a distinct gauzy band that transformed into a glittering river of stars in binoculars. Seeing our home galaxy with such clarity gives a powerful sense of reality to the idea that we live near the edge of a wagon-wheel shaped star system, with its hub bulging to the south, its nearer spiral arm reaching toward us high overhead in Cygnus and its dimmer, outer ragged rim seen in Perseus, on the north horizon.
This perfect evening reminded me of my first awareness of the starry night sky from the backyard of my home in suburban Toronto in the late 1940s. I remember seeing the Milky Way amidst the myriad stellar points of night and wondering what it might be.
On a clear night more than half a century later, I returned to that same street, stood as close as I could to that same spot and gazed up to look at the night sky. I could see fewer than two dozen stars and not the vaguest hint of the Milky Way. I might have been able to see a few more stars but did not want to arouse suspicion by standing on the sidewalk any longer looking above the roofs of homes at night (“Who’s that out there?”).
As nature gets beaten back further and further from questioning minds, particularly young minds, what have we lost? Here in the 21st century, for millions of Canadians, there is no familiar real starry night sky to wonder about.
Editor Terence Dickinson invites your comments and astronomy-related observations and photos, which can be directed to him at dickinsonSkyNews@gmail.com.
Check out the September/October issue of SkyNews (on newsstands now) for an expanded version of Terence Dickinson’s Editor’s Report.