The Summer Triangle
My family sometimes makes the trek to downtown Columbus to see Red, White and Boom. To tell the truth, I’m not in love with the experience. The lights that are already in the sky are “boom” enough for me. A quiet evening under the stars from rural Ohio beats a series of explosions any day — or night.
Still, we spend a lot of nights during the summer downtown. The concerts at the Commons and the plays at Schiller Park are hard to resist.
Summer is an especially good time to experience the universe because we spend a lot of time outside anyway. While you’re waiting for the crowd to thin out after the fireworks or the Popcorn Pops, why not just look up for a while?
Sadly, from deep in urban Central Ohio, you easily will see three stars, but that unavoidable fact can be a strange blessing, as well.
The hardest part about getting started in stargazing is learning the constellations. The stars are a bit harder to see than they used to be because of all the streetlights that block the starry view from urban (and even suburban) locations. Still, some stars are easy to see, even from downtown. They make an excellent starting point for learning the sky.
The summer sky is dominated by the Summer Triangle, three bright stars rising in the east right now. To see them, you’ll have to wait until 10:45 p.m. or so, when the sky has at last gotten decently dark.
The top star of the triangle is Vega, the brightest star in the summer sky. Just below Vega is a small parallelogram of fainter stars. Vega and the parallelogram make up the main stars of the constellation Lyra, the Lyre.
Down and to the left of Lyra is the constellation, Cygnus, the Swan, known popularly as the Northern Cross. The cross is lying on its side, so that the top star of the cross, which dominates the constellation, sits at the far left. You’ve found the star Deneb, the second star of the Summer Triangle.
Far to the right and slightly down from Deneb is the star Altair in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle. Many of the Eagle’s stars are hard to see, but it’s hard to miss fiery Altair, which represents the beak of the noble bird.
If you’re observing these stars from dark, rural skies, you may actually have a harder time finding them than if you are observing from an urban location. From downtown Columbus or from your seat at Popcorn Pops, you may see only the three stars of the triangle. From a suburban location, you should be able to see most of the stars on the accompanying star map.
Under rural skies, this portion of the night explodes into a glorious confusion of stars. Be patient, and while you’re at it, get out you binoculars and check out the environs of Cygnus. With your unaided eye, you will see the faint band of light that the ancients called the Milky Way. Your binoculars will show you that the Milky Way is made up of uncountable stars.
Remember, if you don’t learn these constellations and teach them to your children, no one will. You can hardly expect your children’s schools to take a field trip to the middle of nowhere in the middle of July. Parents have taught their children about the stars of summer for thousands of generations, and this simple, profound knowledge will be lost if a single generation fails to do so. For the sake of your children’s children, go out and see the stars of summer.
Yellow Saturn is still visible to the southwest just after dark. Look for it above the bright star Spica. You’ll need a telescope to see the rings, however.
Fainter and redder Mars is below and to the left of Spica and Mars.
A note about Perkins in July:
We don’t do nighttime programs in July. There is no nighttime in July, practically speaking. Instead, we do Saturday afternoon programs in our Celebration of the Sun series, wherein you will be able to look at the sun through our battery solar-safe telescopes. Please call first for more information at 740–363-1257.
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 email@example.com or 740–363‑1257.