Your Guide To The Summer Sky 2018

Time to dust off those binoculars! Dean Regas tells us what to look out for this summer.

people stargazing outside
Time to dust off those binoculars. Photo by Dualiti Photos/flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The days may be getting longer, but the nighttime sky is still just as bright. It’s time to haul out those old lawn chairs, rustle up a pair of good ‘ole binoculars, and stretch out beneath the twinkling summertime sky. Dean Regas, outreach astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory, co-host of the PBS series Star Gazers, and author of the book 100 Things To See In The Night Sky, is here to give us a guide to the summertime skies. (Note: This calendar refers only to what those of us Northern Hemisphere-dwellers will be seeing in the nighttime sky. But don’t worry, Southern Hemispherians! Regas is at work on a Southern Hemisphere version of his book, due for publication in June 2018.)

And for all the amateur astronomers out there, never fear! Regas offers some tips for beginning astronomers.

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Summertime Stargazing Tips

  1. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star… Or Planet?
    Not sure whether you’re gazing at a star or a planet? Keep a steady eye on the celestial body for a moment. “Planets twinkle less, way less than stars,” explains Regas. “So [the star] Antares will be twinkling red, red, red, red, white, red, white, red, white. And then Mars will be steady, orange-ish in color.” Watch carefully, because planets do still twinkle a little bit—but don’t worry, you’ll be able to discern in no time. “It just takes a little practice,” says Regas.
  2. No Telescope? No Problem.
    Almost all of the bodies in 100 Things to See in the Night Sky are visible to the naked eye. If you’re hankering for a closer look, though, just dust off those trusty binoculars. But not all are created equal: “I have to admit it—size matters when it comes to this,” advises Regas. “The bigger the binoculars, the better… Good starter ones are called 10×50, so they magnify 10 times, and the lenses are 50 millimeters in diameter. That’s a good place to start.”

  3. The Golden Rule Of Summertime Stargazing? Just Relax.
    When it comes to astronomy, you may be feeling pressure to have conditions juuuust right for optimal viewing. But Regas has a simple piece of advice: “Just get out as far as you can from the city. Get out from the city lights. And you don’t need binoculars or telescope. Get a comfy chair, kick back, take in as much of the sky as you can.”

Late May: Venus

We’re well into Venus season. You can catch one of the brightest bodies in the solar system after sunset each evening. But don’t be discouraged if this planet-spotting seems a little lackluster: “Venus is one of the less impressive ones, at least at this time of year, because it looks just like a very bright egg-shaped thing,” says Regas. “You want to catch Venus when it’s actually a crescent shape. So that will be later on in the summer, and even in early fall.” Starting your observation now is the perfect opportunity to see how the planet evolves over the summer.

June: Saturn

The bright blue sliver of light is sunlight passing through Cassini’s Division. Of course, it won’t look quite this clear through a telescope. Credit: NASA

Saturn has a soft spot in Regas’ heart. “When I pointed a little four-and-a-half inch reflector telescope at Saturn,” he reminisces, “I said, ‘Are you kidding me? That can’t be the real thing. It just looks like a sticker on the end of the telescope.’”  

The ringed planet will come closest to Earth during the month of June, and this is the celestial event that Regas says shouldn’t be missed. “Saturn’s definitely the best,” he says.

And we’ve got a special treat this year: “This summer, Saturn is going to be tilted so much… You get to see the rings to just maximum tilt,” says Regas. Plus, if you’ve got a powerful enough telescope, you may be in for an extra-special treat: You could catch a glimpse of the gaps in the rings, called Cassini’s Division, and possibly even several moons.

June: Summer Solstice

On Thursday, June 21, summer will officially be upon us! That’s when the North Pole is most tilted toward the sun, resulting in the day with the most hours of sunlight in a year. And after a long day of sunlight, what could be better than gazing into the night sky?

[Welcome to the Smallest Mollusk Museum.]

July: Mars

The Red Planet is coming our way! It will be closest to Earth on July 27, and 2018 is a landmark year: “It’ll be the closest it’s been since the infamous close pass of 2003, when it was as close as Mars ever gets,” says Regas. “So this is about as good as it gets.”

July: Lunar Eclipse

While not visible from the U.S., the lunar eclipse will also occur on July 27. “The correlation of a giant moon, plus Mars at its closest–this is what I live for,” says Regas. Talk about the stars—er, planets—aligning!

August: Perseid Meteor Shower

A timelapse image of the 2015 Perseid Meteor Shower in Black Rock Desert. This image is 27 photos merged into a single image featuring 29 meteors. Photo by Trevor Bexon/flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Perseid meteor shower occurs every year on August 12 or 13. Staying up late in August to view a meteor shower isn’t so bad—maybe you’ll be able to stroll into work a little later the next day. If you’re a really hardcore stargazer, you might be up late—the best viewing will be between 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. on the 13th.

You might see predictions of 80-100 meters per hour, but Regas estimates that a more realistic number is closer to 12 per hour. (Those higher numbers are really only if you’re in a prime spot, like Tucson or in the desert.) “Don’t expect to see the sky falling,” he says. “But make it a good excuse to get outside with friends and family in the summer, and just kick back, and take some time off.”

And make sure to stay on your toes! “These [meteors] shoot from different places,” says Regas. “They’re supposed to irradiate from the constellation Perseus, that’s why they call it the Perseids. But they’ll come from behind you, over the side. And it’s always the worst when you’re talking to somebody, and you hear them go, ‘Whoa!’ And you say, ‘What? What’d I miss? What’d I miss?’ And you missed it. You’ve just got to be vigilant, that’s the big thing.”

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All Summer Long

  • The Summer Triangle: Vega, Deneb, Altair
    These three bright stars form a triangle, and Dean Regas says they’re known as the “urban constellation” because they shine bright enough to be seen through light-polluted areas. In the early summer, they rise in the east, while they shift higher up in the south as the season moves along.
  • Antares: The Supergiant Star
    Don’t confuse “the big heart of the scorpion star” with Mars! Both the planet and the star radiate about the same color, but just remember Tip #1 above—they twinkle slightly differently.
  • The International Space Station
    No, that slow-moving, steady bright light that’s making its way across the horizon isn’t a UFO. But it’s not a shooting star either. “The International Space Station is so incredibly bright. When it goes over your town, you will notice it,” says Regas. And the ISS is easier to spot than a shooting star, too—it takes about five minutes for the station to move from horizon to horizon. And, if it’s a rainy summer day, you can always see what’s happening from their perspective through NASA TV.

Happy starhunting!

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About Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosted Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

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