Thebacha and Wood Buffalo Dark Sky Festival August 2017

Editor’s Report: The Joys of Summer Stargazing

The season’s warm nights encourage you to sit back, relax and enjoy the real sky show.

Seronik-Cygnus

SCANNING CYGNUS The bright stretch of Milky Way running through the Northern Cross (Cygnus) is a binocular observer’s paradise. Can you spot the upside-down Coathanger asterism near the lower right corner of the frame? Photo by Gary Seronik

It’s a well-worn cliché of the planetarium world: As the lights dim and the presentation begins, the audience is invited to “sit back, relax and enjoy the show.” It’s a phrase I often used myself during my time at Vancouver’s H.R. MacMillan Space Centre. And now that summer is upon us, I’m going to say it again.

Most astronomy guidebooks encourage backyard stargazers to prepare for an evening of observing by compiling a “hit list” of prospective targets—and that approach is undeniably logical. If you don’t do your homework, chances are you’re going to spend your entire night revisiting old favourites. “Oh, look—M13!” But then what? There’s another way. Not a better way, but one that’s a nice match for the leisurely pace of a mild summer’s night.

Try this. On the next clear, moonless evening, set up a comfortable lawn chair, grab your binoculars and simply sweep up and down the length of the Milky Way. The key is to go slow—really slow—just to see what you can see. It’s a truly relaxing way to explore the night sky. Every once in a while, something will enter your binocular field that causes you to stop dead in your tracks. Often, it’ll be a cluster or nebula you already know, but you might appreciate the object more this time because you’ve encountered it unexpectedly. Occasionally, you’ll stumble upon a completely new celestial treasure.

That happened to me one July evening many years ago when I “discovered” the Coathanger asterism in Vulpecula. I was astonished. Why hadn’t I noticed such a striking formation before? The reason was that my trusty Norton’s Star Atlas didn’t plot the Coathanger (or any other asterisms), so I didn’t know to look for it. If I hadn’t been aimlessly sweeping the Milky Way, I wouldn’t have found it.

This leads me to another apt phrase, courtesy of Groucho Marx: If you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong. A night under the stars is supposed to be enjoyable, but sometimes we turn it into work. That’s the danger of taking your preparations too seriously. So this summer, I encourage you to set aside a night or two just to sit back, relax and have fun.

Editor Gary Seronik invites your comments and astronomy-related observations and photos, which can be directed to him at skynews@skynews.ca.

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