The Summer Milky Way
The stars of summer always remind me of a friend I had in college and of a glorious June night when she gave me the greatest gift of all.
Everyone called her Star because of her interest in astronomy.
It was late August during freshmen orientation week, and the Milky Way stood directly overhead in the early morning hours after midnight, as it does now.
I had done more than a bit of stargazing with my old man’s set of three-buck, plastic lens opera glasses. However, such was the light-polluted nature of Youngstown, Ohio, that I had never seen the Milky Way in all its glory.
Star lured me out that night in violation of the university curfew with a vague promise of stargazing and other things.
I went with her, but I have to admit that stars were the furthest things from my mind.
We walked to a park near the college. As we lay down on the wet grass, I could see a dim, wide streak of light stretching across the sky.
“That,” said Star, “is our galaxy, the Milky Way. It is like a river of stars stretching from the northeast to the southern horizon.” I knew all of those things, of course, but I was entranced anyway.
In the northeast just down from Cassiopeia, Star pointed out that the hazy glow of the Milky Way condensed into a brighter patch of light. In our binoculars, we could see the famous Double Cluster, two clusters of stars right next to each other.
Almost straight overhead in the direction of Cygnus, the Swan, the Milky Way is at its brightest. “Here, you are looking directly out into a spiral arm of the galaxy,” Star said. “The cross shape of the swan seems to be flying directly over the river of light that forms the Milky Way.”
We swept the Milky Way in Cygnus with binoculars and saw many places where it condensed into clusters of stars.
In Cygnus, the river seemed to branch into two streams. The main stream continued south. A side stream seemed to curl slightly to the southwest.
“The dark lane between the two streams is called the Great Rift,” she said. “It’s caused by an expanse of unilluminated dust and gas that, besides the stars, also make up our galaxy.”
The main stream continued toward the south into the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius. Here the Milky Way was a fainter glow, obscured, said Star, by the dust and gas lying between us and that part of the galaxy.
Above the teapot shape of the constellation Sagittarius, Star showed me hazy patches of light that didn’t resolve into stars but had stars imbedded in them, places with names like the Lagoon, the Eagle, the Checkmark and the Trifid. Star spoke so quietly I almost couldn’t hear her: “Out of those clouds of hydrogen, the raw material of the universe, stars are being born.”
We stood. She pointed dramatically to the south toward the teapot of Sagittarius where the Milky Way possesses its most subtle beauty and complexity. “There,” she said, “there is the center of our galaxy.”
Star and I haven’t kept in touch over the years. But I shall never forget the sight of her silhouetted against the starry sky with her hand outstretched toward the center of the galaxy.
I wanted the sun and the moon from her that night. She gave me the universe instead.
Thanks, Star. I owe you one.
Mars is underneath the star Denebola in the constellation Leo. Look southwest just after dark. What with Daylight Saving Time and all, “just after dark” means 10:45 p.m. or so. Lately, Mars isn’t much to look at in a telescope, but it shines quite brightly to the unaided eye as an orange point of light.
The same cannot be said of Saturn. It is, and always will be, the gem of the night in even the smallest of telescopes. Look to the south just after dark in Virgo directly above the star Spica. If you haven’t seen it in a telescope, then you have missed one of the grandest experiences that human eyes can behold.
Tom Burns is the director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory, and he would be very happy to answer your questions or sell you a ticket to one of its upcoming Friday-night programs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 740–363‑1257.