At the observatory viewing nights we’re frequently asked the question: “Is viewing better in the winter or in the summer?” While the sky gets dark earlier in the winter, which is convenient, and a cold crisp night can be exceptionally clear, few things can beat the wonder and awe a clear summer night can provide. After all the activity of a summer day and things settle down, once you’ve relaxed a bit and the sky begins to darken, summer skies are something you can stare at for hours.
It’s no wonder that every culture has created myths and told stories of the night sky. Imagine for a minute that you have no television, no electronic distractions, no electricity and no smart phone. It’s a warm summer night, you’re done with your activities and you’re relaxing outside. What story will you make up? What story will you tell?
Whether you live here in Door County or you’re here on your much needed vacation, take the time to go out on the dock, the deck, or any clear area and look up. You don’t need binoculars, a telescope or any fancy equipment just get out, sit or lay back and enjoy.
Now I’ll take you to one of my favorite constellations of the summer sky: “Delphinus” the dolphin! Delphinus is one of the smallest in size of the named constellations. By the way, with all those stars there are only 88 named constellations. There are 44 here in the northern hemisphere and 44 in the southern hemisphere. Little Delphinus is a fun one to identify once you know where to look. Perhaps with the kids you can tell a story of Finding Dory!
To find Delphinus, start with the Summer Triangle, which are three bright stars that appear just overhead as it’s getting dark. The three stars of the triangle are Vega, Deneb and Altair. Those three are brighter than many of the other stars and easy to find if you get out early. Vega is part of the constellation Lyra (the harp) and will be higher in the sky and the brightest of the triangle.
Now, if you are facing east Altair will be just a bit to the south east and a bit lower in the sky. Altair is part of the constellation Aquila (the eagle). The third star of the triangle is Deneb, part of Cygnus (the swan). If facing east Deneb will be to the northeast and lower than Vega. Once you get familiar with the Summer Triangle it can become a great reference point as they help identify three constellations.
Now to find little Delphinus! It needs to be dark now with lots of stars out but little Del is out there swimming. If you are looking east to locate Altair, look for a small grouping of five stars a bit below it and about a third of the distance from Deneb. Four of the stars in Delphinus form a tight diamond pattern and the fifth one sticks out a bit to the side. Picture a dolphin breaking the surface of the water and there it is!
Now if you must, take out that smart phone and with the app “Star Walk” confirm you found it. There are star maps available online at skymaps.com. You can download a printable PDF file of the current month and use it for locating the Summer Triangle and the larger constellations.
Good luck and we hope to see you at one of our monthly viewing nights at the observatory. You can find us at doorastronomy.org or on Facebook.