10 Stars and Planets to Look For in the Summer Skies

10 Stars and Planets to Look For in the Summer Skies

The Milky Way

Whether you’ve got a late summer vacation planned or you’re simply looking for a fun way to keep the kids entertained this summer, we’ve got one special activity you’ll want to put on your agenda. Sometime before the summer ends, load up the kids and head out in the early evening hours for a night of stargazing.

Here are the top 10 sights you and your kids should keep your eyes peeled for during your summer stargazing session.

  1. Jupiter:The largest planet in our solar system appears as the brightest “star” in the sky on the southwestern horizon. Take along a pair of binoculars, and you may even be able to see four of Jupiter’s moons.
  2. Mars: Once you’ve spotted Jupiter, look nearby for the second-brightest star in the sky with an orange-red tint. This star is actually the planet Mars. It speeds along its orbit fast enough that it’s possible to track the changes in its position as the remaining weeks of summer pass.
  3. Saturn: If you’ve found Jupiter and Mars, then you’ll notice Saturn nearby. This golden-looking planet is the third-brightest object in the sky this summer. With strong binoculars or a basic telescope, you’ll be able to spot its rings.
  4. The Milky Way: Home to our own solar system, the Milky Way galaxy is best viewed from mid-March till mid-fall. It appears as a long, wispy cloud that stretches from the southern horizon toward the north. You’ll be able to see it around midnight in late summer, but if you’re near the city, light pollution will keep it out of view. To behold this spectacular display, you’ll have to drive way out into the countryside and far away from the city lights.
  5. Artificial satellites: Just after sunset, when the light from the horizon still fills the sky, you may catch a glimpse of a star moving very slowly away from the other stars. That’s actually a satellite! If the conditions are right, you can see up to a hundred of these man-made satellites with the naked eye.
  6. Scorpius: Sometime after 9PM, you’ll be able to spot the constellation Scorpius just above the southern horizon. Its scorpion-like claws stretch northward, while the tail dips down southward. Unlike many of the constellations, Scorpius actually resembles its namesake.
  7. Sagittarius: You can spot the Sagittarius constellation’s distinctive teapot shape somewhere near Scorpius. Within its boundaries lies the approximate center of the Milky Way galaxy.
  8. Star clusters and nebulae: If you’ve found Scorpius and Sagittarius, you’re looking in the right place to see fascinating star clusters and spots where stars are being born, called “nebulae.” They appear as faint, misty patches of silvery light. They’re even more impressive when you look at them through binoculars or a telescope.
  9. Meteors: From mid-July to the end of August, you’ll possibly catch a glimpse of a falling star, or meteor, from the Perseid meteor shower. This meteor shower reaches its peak around mid-August, when about one meteor per second can be seen streaking across the sky if the weather cooperates. Of all the meteor showers that occur throughout the year, this is the one to mark on your calendar. It’s a beautiful sight your kids will never forget.
  10. The moon: The most obvious object in the night sky is Earth’s own moon. The best times to check out the moon’s surface with binoculars or a telescope are when it’s waxing or waning. You’ll see the fascinating shadows and peaks of the moonscape’s craters.

Where to go stargazing

Light pollution in cities and suburbs blocks our eyes from seeing all the nighttime sky has to offer. For the best night of stargazing possible, you’ll want to get out of the city and find a dark, clear spot out in the country. State and national parks are perfect locations, as are campgrounds. Search online for a nearby planetarium or astronomy club, and you may be able to book a guided tour of the skies with an expert.

Stargazing supplies

The best thing about stargazing is that even if you have no idea what to look for, you’ll still see plenty of fascinating and beautiful sights. While there’s no essential equipment required for stargazing, binoculars or a telescope may enhance your viewing experience. You may also want to take along a blanket to lay back on, mosquito repellent to ward off insects and a box of Mother Rucker’s Sweets cookies to stave off the munchies.

Extra credit

To really get your kids invested in your stargazing excursion, try building a rudimentary telescope together. All it takes is a couple of magnifying lenses, two paper towel tubes and masking tape. This tutorial will show you how.

Happy gazing!