On summer nights, crickets sing and fireflies flicker. Up above, in the heavens, there are dippers and triangles and scorpions and a view into the center of the Milky Way.
Monday night, Jupiter and Saturn will sit next to the nearly full moon just after sunset. With luck this month, you may even see wispy, electric-blue clouds at night over the northern horizon.
It’s all free. Come as you are. Find a corner of the world that’s not over-glowing with light pollution and let your eyes adjust to the dark and your soul relax with the stars.
Monday night’s a good time to start. The moon will be almost entirely full and as it rises, Jupiter and Saturn will shine next to it, with Jupiter a bit higher in the sky.
“It’s such a pretty sight,” said Diana Hannikainen, observing editor of Sky & Telescope Magazine.
Cliff Watley of Ridgefield, who helps organize sky-watching nights at New Pond Farm in Redding, said Jupiter — the largest planet in our solar system and Saturn, the ringed beauty — are the standouts of our celestial neighborhood.
“They’re the gems,” he said.
And they’ll be very bright in July. Jupiter will be in opposition in a straight line with earth and the sun on July 14 and Saturn, on July 21.
“You can’t miss Jupiter,” said Geoff Chester, spokesman for the US Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. “It’s the brightest thing in the sky.”
Overhead, you can easily see the Big Dipper — the drinking gourd, the most recognizable grouping of stars in the northern night sky — and, further to the east, the Summer Triangle.
Both are asterisms — groups of stars that form an easily recognizable pattern, but that aren’t true constellations. In the Big Dipper’s case, its seven stars are part of the much bigger constellation Ursa Major — the Great Bear.
The summer triangle is made up of three bright stars from three different constellations: Altair in Aquila, the Eagle; Deneb in Cygnus, the Swan; and Vega in Lyra, the Lyre.
Deneb is very far away — 1,500 light years distant. But it is 200 times bigger than our sun. It still shines bright.
On the southern horizon, there’s the constellation Scorpius — the Scorpion — with Antares, a bright red supergiant star at its heart.
Monty Robson, director of the John J. McCarthy Observatory in New Milford, said Scorpius is a good example of a group of stars that actually looks like the creature it’s named after. Some of the others, he said, showed the ancients had either great imaginations, or something a little mind-altering.
“With many of the constellations we know today, I don’t know what they were thinking,” he said.
To the east of Scorpius is the constellation Sagittarius, the Archer. When you look at it, you are looking toward the very center of the Milky Way — our galaxy.
Bill Cloutier of New Milford, one of the founders of the McCarthy Observatory, said that in a dark place, away from light pollution, the Milky Way floods the southern horizon with stars in summer.
“What I really enjoy is the Milky Way,” he said. “It’s a beautiful sight.”
But, Cloutier said, he’s also on the lookout this year for noctilucent — aka night-shining — clouds.
These are clouds that form high in the mesosphere — about 50 miles above earth. Because it’s so cold there, moisture crystalizes around tiny bits of dust left behind by meteors.
Those crystals manifest themselves as shimmering electric-blue clouds in the northern sky about an hour or so after sunset. They only show up in summer, between late May and early August.
In the past, they were a phenomenon confined to northern latitudes. But there is now evidence they’re appearing earlier, more frequently and farther south. Last year, there were noctilucent clouds in the night skies over Los Angeles and Las Vegas. This year, they’ve been seen over Portland, Oregon, and London.
“I haven’t seen them, but I’ve been looking,” Cloutier said.
Bob King of Minnesota — whose blog on backyard astronomy is at astrobob.com — said a combination of climate change and the current solar minimum, a period low in sunspots and solar flares, may be combining to produce more noctilucent clouds.
Who’s watching for them? Astronomers look at stars and planets at night. Meteorologists study clouds during the day.
“We need cloud physicists,” King said. “They love to look at this.”