Living in the Canadian North has its perks. Some of the most beautiful nights are spent in the darkness that is in the rural north. In winter, darkness falls by 4pm and the light only reappears after 8am. Going to work in the dark and driving home in the dark wears hard on a person. It would seem long summer nights were designed to restore us – our souls and our psyche – and I hoard every precious minute that I can. We quickly forget how cold and long the winter was (often becoming colder and longer in the telling) and we enthusiastically embrace the sun and the warmth and the green and the flowers. The bugs…not so much. We know the time is short and we seek to gather every ray of sun, every fresh smell, and every balmy night as if to bottle it into our memory to sustain us through the long winter days no differently than our mason-jarred garden vegetables. Being an astrophotographer, I don’t know which is worse…the relentless mosquitoes of summer or the frigid temperatures of winter, but at least there is a spray for mosquitos.
It takes a very long time for the sun to go down…really only just skimming the horizon. The sun does set and it does get dark in our neck of the woods, but not for very long. I need to be prepared to stay up very late if the Lady dances and lately she’s been pretty quiet. Social distancing, you might even say. The sun that drives the Auroras is enduring a solar minimum and the lack of solar activity such as sunspots and solar flares means the Lady cannot dance. A few weak green bands can be seen from time to time as if she’s trying to garner the energy and then just gives up.
If it were only the Aurora that were worth watching it would be a sad time indeed. There is just so much more in the night sky. We are currently in the prime of milky way season – all summer long – when the core of the milky way becomes visible. When we look at the Milky Way in our sky we are looking edgewise down the spiral arm that we live in, and toward other arms that lie closer to and farther out from the galactic core. Without the competition from moonlight, when the moon is new, the milky way truly shines. Give yourself 20 minutes to adjust your eyes (no peeking at phones or your eyes will need another 20 minutes) and then look up. You will be amazed. The constellation Cassiopeia, whose five brightest stars form a large W in the sky is speared by the milky way. The big dipper is always hanging out – winter or summer – and it’s always cool to see it change its position in the sky as the seasons change. The summer triangle of Altair, Deneb, and Vega, each of which is the brightest star of its constellation (Aquila, Cygnus, and Lyra, respectively) becomes easily visible in late June.
You can sit back in your camp chair and look for satellites sauntering across the sky and when the timing is right, the ISS itself. If you’re really lucky, you can watch for the Dragon supply ship trailing behind. Drop your location into the website https://spotthestation.nasa.gov to get alerts when the ISS can be seen overhead. On any given night you can often see a shooting star…or two, or three. In August we can look forward to the Perseid Meteor Shower. Before I was bitten by the astrophotography bug, I used to think camping among the forest was just the best. Certainly, for me now, the least number of trees and the clearest horizon beckons me. I am blessed to live a 2 minute drive from a clear horizon, so my summer nights are spent around a backyard fire, my lounge chair reclined, with a cold drink – I never know when I need to grab the camera and hop in the car so wobbly pops are best served on a cloudy evening 😉
Currently you can view Jupiter and Saturn in the late night sky just after midnight. Venus has moved into the morning sky and early risers (of which variety I am not) can be located in the Lakeland area after 4:30. The Sun rose today at 4:52 so you have to be quick! Watching the phases of the moon is always interesting. Waiting to see the first tiny sliver after the new moon, or watching come into full and rise large above the horizon. https://www.timeanddate.com is a great site to plug in your location to find out when and where you can expect the moon to rise and the sun to set as well as what planets are visible and when. Use the site to find the moon or what time to look without its glaring brightness hiding the other treasures of the night.
Telescopes are fun but not completely necessary. If you have a good set of binoculars, you can bring the planets and the stars closer or grab a closer look at a satellite. The moon looks great through a set of binoculars.
Every so often, while watching a satellite, you will see an iridium flare. The Iridium satellites have three flat, shiny, door-size antenna arrays that periodically reflect sunlight toward the ground, causing a brief, but brilliant flare that outshines the planet Venus.
And then there’s Canadian Geese. Canada Geese are a very interesting element of the night sky (who knew?), especially when they are flying in a silent V over our small hamlet. The underbellies glow from the light pollution below them turning them into the most amazing golden flying V you’ve ever seen. They glide across the summer sky in swift unison, making it almost easy to start believing in UFO’s.
Google the night sky in your location, my friends. There are apps and websites galore to aid you in becoming a tourist of the heavens without leaving your own backyard – and it is completely free and socially distanced!