Summertime is the best time of the year for many stargazers. Traditionally, it is a time when folks have extended summer vacations.
Many people first got into stargazing as kids on their summer vacations from school, when staying out late on clear summer nights. Many folks notice the stars on a summer vacation from work or school while out camping or visiting a place with little or not light pollution, making summer sky treats very visible!
Summer nights feature dazzling array of stars stretched across the sky, as the arch of the Milky Way stretches up from the south and fills the northern skies. Classic constellations and asterisms like Scorpius, Cygnus, Cassiopeia, the Coma Cluster, Sagittarius and its Teapot, and the Summer Triangle mark the skies with their distinctive patterns catching curious eyes.
Binocular and telescope users can feast their eyes on a dazzling array of deep sky objects like the Ring Nebula (M57), the Coathanger (or Brocchii’s Cluster) and the Dumbbell Nebula (M27) in Vulpecula, the famed double star Albireo in Cygnus, the great globular clusters in Hercules (M51) and Scorpius (M4), the elusive and beautiful Veil Nebula, and the Lagoon Nebula (M8) at the edge of Sagitarrius.
Stay still and be patient, and you can also catch meteors burning brightly across the sky, with one of the most famous meteor showers-the Perseids-peaking in August. You also catch many satellites passing overhead, unmistakable with their steady light and silent passage, The bright swift motion of the International Space Station and the startling flareups of a passing Iridium satellite are some of the most noticeable satellite flybys around; you can even see them in the middle of a city!
Summer nights are notoriously short as they are comfortable, so here are some tips to help you make the most of your stargazing time and catch as many of these stellar wonders as you can.
- Try your hand at solar observing! The days are longest in the summer, after all. Our nearest star is up all day and is only 93 million miles away and its features, including sunspots and prominences, change regularly and fairly quickly, keeping repeat observations interesting.
- Remember your sunblock, especially if you are observing the Sun! Depending on where you are you should still wear some when setting up your equipment before nightfall. Great observing sights are often high in the mountains, and even the late afternoon sun can burn you when you are several thousand feet higher up than usual. When up high, remember that you have several thousand feet less of air running interference between yourself and the Sun’s UV radiation.
- Pack bug spray! People love being outside in the summer, and so do bugs. Make sure to have bug spray or other types of bug repellent handy in case your area is a haven for biting insects, and keep your skin free of irritating bug bites.
- Stargaze on the water. Summer means time on the water for many people. Are you on a boat? A cruise? Bring a great pair of binoculars; don’t bring a telescope. Boats- even large, seemingly steady cruise ships- are too unsteady and will frustrate any attempts to keep a telescope’s aim steady. A computerized telescope will fare even worse than a manually operated one in these circumstances! However, great binoculars are perfect for boat-based skywatching and allow you to survey the skies comfortably from the water, bringing in large, gorgeous views of the night sky from your favorite river, lake, or ocean.
- Bring extra clothes or a small blanket! While it is warm all day, it will cool down at night; in the case of a desert or mountain area, it can cool down a huge amount! A long sleeve shirt, jacket, or hoodie might be efficient, but you may want to bring pants too. A blanket is handy not just for wrapping oneself in, but also for laying on the ground to for when you want to lay down and watch for shooting stars, or just soak in the wonder of the entire night sky.
- Bring rain protection! A summer shower could come when you least expect it. A summer storm can blow up in a matter of minutes, so make sure you have an emergency poncho packed away somewhere; if not for you, then for your astronomy gear! Be ready to break down with little notice, just in case. If you have a setup that is a bit difficult to set up and don’t want to break it down overnight, at least keep a protective cover over your equipment while you sleep. This is especially handy for multi-day camping trips as it not only protects your equipment from moisture but also from pollen and dust.
Enjoy these summer nights full of stars, an keep looking up! For help finding some of the objects mentioned above, you can find astronomy clubs and events near you on NASA’s Clubs and Events page. Enter in your location, or the location of your upcoming vacation spot to find star parties and helpful astronomers who can help answer your questions and help you polish your skywatching chops!