Look Up At The Stars: Some Shine Brightest In The Summer

The North American and Pelican nebulae. Steve Bellavia photo

By Desirée Keegan

Warm summer nights are filled with bonfires, barbecues and a chorus of crickets. It’s also the time of year to roll that blanket out on a beach, lay back and look up at the stars.

While some of the 88 constellations that surround the globe and have been described for thousands of years can be seen year-round, others are seasonal. They’re often named after mythological creatures or people, and have been used to help navigate at night and herald in the seasons. 

Coming To A Sky Near You

Hamptons Observatory Senior Educator William Francis Taylor said one special event this summer, which needs to be seen through a sun-safe filter, will be a partial eclipse of the sun, visible at sunrise on June 10.

The NASA Solar System Ambassador’s favorite summer spectacle, though, is the view of what he calls the heart of our galaxy, located in Sagittarius, which shines low on the horizon on summer nights.

“When we see it hovering over the ocean, it reminds me of the huge scale of the universe,” Taylor said. “I wonder what sorts of things are happening at the center of the Milky Way, near the massive black hole at its core, some 20,000 light years away.”

Custer Institute Observatory Director Alan Cousins said besides the Milky Way and Sagittarius, other stars to view include Arcturus, Mizar, Vega, Deneb and Altair, while other constellations include Cygnus, Aquila, Scorpius, Hercules, Bootes, the Big Dipper and the Summer Triangle — made up of Vega, Deneb and Altair.

By midsummer, Mr. Taylor said, it will be easier to see Saturn and Jupiter. Saturn will be in the south at midnight in August, and Jupiter will be to its left.

“They are gradually moving apart from each other after their extremely close conjunction last December,” Mr. Taylor said. “If you can see the two of them, look to the right and you will see the teapot-shaped Sagittarius, and the center of the Milky Way pouring out of its ‘spout’ like a cloud of steam.”

Hamptons Observatory member Steven Bellavia said other annual summer spectacles include the summer solstice on June 21, the Delta Aquarid meteor shower on July 28 and 29 and the Perseids‚ the most popular meteor shower according to the American Meteor Society — on August 11, 12 and 13.

The full moon of June, seen on the 24th, which is called the strawberry moon for its color, will also be a supermoon. Mercury at its greatest Western elongation — 21.6 degrees west of the Sun — on July 4, Saturn at opposition on August 2, Jupiter at opposition on August 19 and a blue moon can be seen on August 22. 

The Andromeda Galaxy is a barred spiral galaxy approximately 2.5 million light-years from Earth. Steve Bellavia photo

Where To See The Stars

To see the night sky shining its brightest, Taylor said it’s best to get as far from artificial lights as you can manage. The senior educator said he prefers bay beaches when using a telescope, because equipment can fog up rather quickly near ocean beaches. Montauk Point, Taylor said, has some of the darkest skies available on Long Island, but check with the park authorities to see if special permits are required for night access.

“One reason that stargazing is more popular in the summer is of course the weather, and the fact that it’s possible to stay out all night outdoors. Even warm spring days can get incredibly cold at night, when you are looking at the stars and not moving around as much,” Taylor said. “It is hard to say which season is the best, though. One disadvantage of the summer is that the nights are shorter and the skies are somewhat muggier here on the East Coast.”

While too late for this season, Cousins said the state offers a stargazing permit, sold January 1 through March 31 and the Tuesday after Labor Day through December 31, which allows access to state parks like Hither Hills in Montauk, Montauk Point, Jones Beach, Robert Moses, Sunken Meadow and Wildwood. The fee is $35 for state residents and $60 for nonresidents.

For those who are just beginning their star-seeking journeys, Taylor and Cousins would recommend a pair of binoculars, such as porro prism — or roof prism — 7×50, before purchasing a telescope.

“Binoculars are much cheaper and easier to use, but you can still see nebulas, galaxies and countless stars with them — as well as the moons of Jupiter,” Taylor said. “If you are thinking about a telescope, avoid the ones you usually see in department stores, which often have bad optics and a rickety tripod, and reach out to a specialty telescope store.”

He recommends a Dobsonian reflector telescope, a design that combines large mirrors with a simple mount, so you can see very faint and distant objects for an affordable price.

Cousins added the moon reveals a wealth of detail through binoculars, and said an 80 to 100mm refractor telescope on an altitude-azimuth mount tripod is a good entry point for the budget-minded, allowing easy movement and ease of transport.

“These telescopes will also provide wonderful views of the brighter planets — Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — and some solar system bright nebula and galaxies,” he said. “As a bonus, these choices are usable for terrestrial and nature viewing.”

Many summer stars and shows can also be viewed inside the observatories in Southold and Montauk.

Don’t Forget To Pack Accordingly

Besides any equipment, be sure to bring bug spray, said Taylor. Regardless of the season, he recommends dressing more warmly than you think you’ll need to, consider bringing a warm thermos to drink from, and pack a blanket and chair, especially when viewing meteor showers. A flashlight that emits red light is also helpful, as red light won’t affect night vision, but will help keep you from bumping into things.

Bellavia said the two most popular resource magazines are Astronomy and Sky & Telescope, and recommends a paper star chart or planisphere‚ star chart analog computing instrument — and books like Turn Left at Orion and the Sky & Telescope Pocket Sky Atlas. Apps such as SkySafari, Stellarium and Google Sky are also useful, he said.

“There are smartphone apps that will give you a map of the constellations. There are many different programs like this available,” Taylor said. “These have really made stargazing so much easier. In previous years, I used to have to search through a bunch of laminated maps to find what I was looking for in the night sky.”

Zoom and In-Person Events This Year

This spring, the Hamptons Observatory will be hosting two events via Zoom. Exploring the Spring Sky: A Northeastern Native American Perspective will be presented by Taylor and educator Mandy Jackson, of the Turtle Clan of the Montaukett Indian Nation, on May 3. Beginning at 7 p.m. the pair will examine the predawn and night sky, the stars and their relationships to the culture, traditions, lore, mythology and legends of northeastern indigenous peoples. “The Sky: Why It Matters and How We Might Lose It,” will be presented by University of Edinburgh Regius Professor of Astronomy Andy Lawrence. Beginning at 2 p.m. on June 8, he will explore light pollution — by annexation of the sky by streaking satellites and by rapidly worsening space debris — and what we can do about it.

“Light pollution is becoming an issue for the East End of Long Island. It is mostly a matter of education and information,” Cousins said. “Many people feel lighting helps with security, when in fact there has been no evidence to support this. Lights should not face out or up. It is wasted energy, causing higher energy costs and increasing carbon emissions. Lights also need to be a warmer color temperature — amber-colored lighting is preferred for animal and bird protection. Bright LED lights are the worst offender, emitting at a very blue-white range, which overpower the stars and night sky.”

Both events are free, and information on registration for the June event can be found at montaukobservatory.com/events.cfm.

On July 3 beginning at 8:30 p.m., The Custer Institute will have a live outdoor concert under the stars presented by Gene Casey and the Lone Sharks. Following the concert, observatory staff will provide guided tours of the night sky, weather permitting, through many telescopes on-site, including the apochromatic Zerochromat telescope in the historic observation dome. Tickets are $20 per adult and $15 for observatory members. Children under 16 are free, but attendance will be limited and restrictions in place per state COVID-19 guidelines required at the time of the event.

On July 17 beginning at 9 p.m., the institute will present Voicing the Caldwells: The Sound of Visible Galaxies. Cliff Baldwin, a resident composer, will reveal a unique vocal signature for each featured object with a live electronic music score and a simultaneous live projected video mix. Following this premier performance, guests will have a chance to view the Caldwell objects, visible to the naked eye or with the use of binoculars or a telescope. Observatory staff will also provide guided tours of the night sky. This event is $30 per adult, $20 for observatory members and free for children under 16. A rain date is scheduled for July 31 at 9 p.m. Other events are scheduled for Aug. 14 and Sept. 11. More information can be found at custerobservatory.org.

“I don’t know exactly whether stargazing has gotten more popular since COVID, but it is a great, safe outdoor activity that can take your mind off the troubles of the world,” Taylor said. “Last summer our skies were graced with a beautiful comet, and it was wonderful to see so many people at the beaches looking up for it. It was an unexpected but welcome visitor in a difficult year.”