Jason Kendall
William Paterson University
Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

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Keeping it Easy: Itís the Summer Triangle, the Gateway to the Milky Way.
by Jason Kendall

This is one to share with a complete newbie, someone whoís never been stargazing or is just stuck to their mobile phone.

The Summer Triangle is composed of three bright stars that figure in prominently in all cultures. Their names are Vega, Deneb and Altair. They are all about the same brightness and form a big triangle that rises in the East at about 8pm in early June. They are up at night all Summer long, so thereís lots of chances to see them. To know which is which, Vega rises first, then Deneb, then Altair. Each star is the brightest one in its constellation. Vega lives in Lyra the harp, a constellation that looks like a small box of stars just next to Vega. Deneb is the tail of Cygnus the Swan, otherwise known as the Northern Cross. Altair is the eye of Aquila the Eagle.

First, if youíve have never seen the Milky Way, you should try to go outside when these stars are high off the horizon. Deneb is right in the middle Milky Way, with Altair and Vega on either side. To see the Milky Way, the Moon must be down and you need to be away from all streetlights, houselights and car-lights, because their glow will wash it out. Get to someplace actually dark, like a big park. If you look carefully youíll see a faint glow in the sky running along the cross of Cygnus. This is our home Galaxy: the Milky Way. Some cultures call it the Backbone of the Night, or the Great Celestial River.

Itís neat to think that the light from Vega started out over 25 years ago. Likewise, our earth television broadcasts of 25 years ago are just reaching there today. The news about Germany re-uniting, the Hubble Space Telescope being launched into space and the Milli Vanilli lip-sync scandal is just making it there now.

The Summer Triangle is an area of the sky is rich with wonders. Right next to Vega is the double-star Epsilon Lyra, which is easily seen in binoculars, and holds more stars for people with bigger telescopes. The famous Ring Nebula, M57, is also in Lyra, a favorite target of stargazers with a telescope. M57 is the remnant of a star like our Sun. One day, five billion years in the future, our Sun will also puff itself apart, and some distant observer may see it.

Deneb is right next to the North America Nebula, a vast star farming region. This is seen only in dark skies with a telescope, but Iíve seen it naked eye as a smudge in the sky when Iím very far the City. But infrared telescopes have seen dust clouds that hold baby stars that will one day, millions of years from now, emerge and shine on their own like the Sun. Stars always form in groups, and two star clusters, M39 and M29 also lie in Cygnus. Their dust clouds are long gone, leaving just bright stars that appear close together in the sky. They are easy to find in binoculars and small telescopes.

The other end of the Cross is the famous double-star Albireo, which is one of the greats. One star is bright yellow and the other is bright blue, and easily seen in binoculars. On the eastern side of the cross is the Veil Supernova remnant. This star exploded about six thousand years ago and if we would have been around to see it, it wouldíve been a star you could see in the daytime. Today, the remnants of this dead star are visible in dark skies with no Moon, with a big telescope. Also nearby is another stellar corpse, M27, The Dumbell Nebula. This is a real treat in a telescope.

Between Deneb and Vega is a patch of sky where the Kepler Space Telescope has been staring since 2009. In that area, there are millions of stars, and theyíve focused on about 150,000 to study. Theyíve found over a thousand planets orbiting other stars, including one thatís the same size as Earth orbiting at a distance from its star where itís cool enough that water might exist on its surface. That planet is about 500 lightyears away, so thereís no one that will ever visit that distant place.

In Aquila, Altair is the eye of the Eagle, and itís only about 17 light-years away, meaning it takes light 17 years to get here from there. One of the stars Eta Aquilae is a famous variable star, getting brighter and dimmer over about 7 days. That means if you watch it, and take note, youíll see actually get dimmer. This is a special kind of variable star that, when we study whole batches of them, we can use them to help us get distances to other galaxies, like Andromeda. To see it, you donít need binoculars, just clear skies and patience. Itís actually a good project for high-schoolers looking for a great Summer project to show off in science class in the Fall.

At the far end of the Eagle, is the mostly unremarkable star Lambda Aquila, which is about 125 lightyears away. But it does have the distinction of being the destination of the Pioneer 11 probe. It was launched in April of 1973, and itís on its way there. Its batteries ran out in 1995, and no one has heard from it, but it will pass near Lambda Aquila in about 4 million years.

So, between stars being born, colorful doubles, clusters of stars, exploded star bits, amazing exo-planets, famous stars and a spacecraft out there, this area of the sky holds a lot for the stargazer.



About Jason Kendall

I am currently adjunct faculty at William Paterson University teaching astronomy. I hold a Master of Science in Astronomy from New Mexico State University. I am also a board member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York. Since 2008, I have led the Inwood Astronomy Project which brought over 200 events of stargazing and public astronomy outreach to upper Manhattan, including the historic Inwood Star Fest, where Inwood Hill Park lights were turned off as part of the 100 Hours of Astronomy event in IYA2009. This was the first time in New York City history when park lights were turned off for an astronomy event. I've also focused on park safety due to an uptick in sexual assaults in Washington Heights and Inwood during 2011. I've worked to make our parks safer by encouraging public use of parks at night through night-time events with Park Rangers. I have led numerous "starwatching parties" and astronomy events in New York City, New Mexico, Minnesota, New Jersey, Connecticut and Texas. I am also proud to have been part of the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador Program from 2009 to 2012. It all started way back in the fourth grade by the encouragement of two noted astronomers, Charles Schweighauser and Bart Bok. I saw Saturn through Charlie's telescope at then Sangamon State University on a clear Illinois night, and Bart encouraged me under those stars to study hard to come visit him at Kitt Peak National Observatory. I finally did make it down there about a decade after Bart passed away, and I found the favorite spots in Tucson, Arizona, where Bart and his wife Priscilla would spend when they were not gazing at the stars. Bart and his wife were pioneers in the study of the Milky Way, and their studies of the starforming regions called Bok Globules. It's even in my family. My great-grandfather was a Midwestern minister who used to preach his sermons out under the dark, cloudless nights. He always believed that getting out and experiencing the wonders of the natural world was a central part of being human. My family has always been inspired by his words: "We look up to look within." I hope that you'll join me under the stars or at one of my talks.

Come see what's up in the sky!

Jason Kendall

We look up to look within

William Paterson University Department of Physics American Astronomical Society Astronomical Society of the Pacific Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

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