This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in June 2019.
Hello again from the Observatory on St Martin’s. June’s not the best month for stargazing as you have to stay up so late! But that’s not to say it’s not rewarding when you do. We’ve had a mixed bag of night skies in the last couple of weeks, and a good few of those have been relatively clear.
As we inch towards the summer solstice (the longest day and shortest night), on 21 June, it doesn’t currently get truly dark until about 11pm. Even at half past 10, on a clearer night you won’t need a torch if you venture out. Here in Scilly, that’s due to our flat horizons with so much sea around, so the last light of the sun lingers on...and on.
Come darkness and some summertime beauties are yours to behold. Look to the East and you’ll spot a distinctive triangle of three stars of near equal brightness. This is known as the summer triangle. Its stars are Vega, Deneb and Altair.
I’ve mentioned Vega before, as it’s one of the brightest stars we can currently see and one of the first to pop out as the sky darkens. Vega forms the vertex (the top point) of the summer triangle. It’s part of the constellation Lyra, the harp, or more technically, the lyre. But Vega’s so much, much brighter than Lyra’s other stars, so you’ll need a good clear night to pick them out. Lyra’s shaped – helpfully – a bit like a lyre, with 4 fainter stars forming the body of the instrument and Vega at its neck.
Altair is the star of the summer triangle closest to the horizon and its part of constellation Aquila, the eagle. At a mere 16.7 light years away from us, Altair’s one of the closest stars to us visible with the naked eye. But it’s only the 12th brightest in the night sky, so it’s not as dazzling as Vega.
Deneb – our last point on the summer triangle - is fantastic star to spot as it’s a great waymarker to finding Milky Way. Deneb is part of constellation Cygnus, the swan. It’s a lovely one, this. Looking like a flying swan with its wings spread. The brightest stars in Cygnus form what looks like a Christian cross, hence it also being known as the Northern Cross. The Northern Cross lies smack bang along the visible streak the Milky Way. If you’re lucky to have a clear and dark night, you can’t miss the Milky Way – it’s not ‘light cloud’ you’re seeing in that haze – it’s millions and billions of stars!
Hopefully that’s given you a few things to find for the next couple of weeks. As I say, these are visible from 11pm onwards, so you needn’t burn the midnight oil dry.
We’ve been enjoying the The Planets, on telly on BBC2 every Tuesday evening, presented by Brian Cox. The last instalment took a fascinating look at Mars – our nearest planet. Once a watery world, now a barren, rocky land devoid of life.
If you’re interested, you can currently catch a glimpse of Mars, here on Scilly, from about 10 o’clock onwards. Look West towards the last light of the Sun, below and to the right of the rising Moon, close to the Western horizon. You’ll see a light red dot. Mars is nowhere near its brightest, and the light background of the sky doesn’t help. But if you want to glimpse captivating red planet for yourself, there it will be.