Ep. 452: Summer Observing Challenges

Summer is almost here, and for the northern hemisphere, that means warm nights for observing. But what to observe? We’re here with a list of events and targets for you to enjoy over the summer. Get your calendars handy, and start organizing some events with your friends, and then get out there!
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Download the show [MP3] | Jump to Shownotes | Jump to Transcript

Show Notes

Messier Catalog of Deep Sky Objects
SEDS Messier Database
Hubble Space Telescope
Perseid Meteor Shower
Delta Aquariid Meteor Shower
Meteor Shower Guide from Earth & Sky Magazine
Apps to help you find Auroras
Heavens Above
How to see a Green Flash
Eclipse Megamovie


Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription

Fraser: Astronomy Cast Episode 452: Summer Observing Challenges
Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know.
I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, Dr. Pamela Gay, the director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the director of CosmoQuest.
Hey, Pamela. How are you doing?
Pamela: I’m doing well. How are you doing? Do you finally have summer?
Fraser: Oh, yeah. Yeah, it’s here. It’s happenin’. We’ve got no shortage of summer and – Oh, well, actually we have a shortage today. But for the last week, it’s been hot and then, starting the next couple of days, it’s gonna be hot, hot, hot. So, we’re here and I think this is going to be a good, warm summer for us – maybe a little too dry and hot. So –
Pamela: Well, that’s sad. We’re still at the point in the year where the daytime makes me deeply wish we had air conditioning but at night, it’s in the 60s – or the low teens if you speak Celsius.
Fraser: Yeah. 60s, that’s hot. That’s like as hot as has ever been recorded on the surface of the Earth. That’s terrible. You don’t want to live there.
Pamela: So, 60s Fahrenheit and low- to mid-teens Celsius at night. So, it’s like fabulous sleeping weather, terrible daytime weather, but my new office, which is not at home – my new office is air conditioned and, if any of you are taking a ride down Route 66 this summer, you will drive past my office. And so, drop us an email and come by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s new location in Edwardsville, Illinois, on Route 66.
Fraser: There ya go.
Alright. So, summer’s almost here and, for the northern hemisphere, this means warm nights for observing. But what to observe? We’re here with a list of events and targets for you to enjoy over the summer. Get your calendars handy and start organizing some events with your friends and then get out there!
And before we get on to this, I want to give a special thanks to three of our newest $10.00-plus patrons, Michael Myer, Anti-user, Chauncey Wilson – thank you so much for joining us. Go to patreon.com/astronomycast and you will be able to join our Patreon campaign and that really means a lot. It helps us pay for Susie, it helps us pay for Chad and helps us put on the various events that we do, such as the great eclipse.
Alright. Well, let’s get on with what to see this summer. Now, we already did an episode all about the eclipse, so we’ll mention that in passing because it’s really the 800-pound gorilla in the middle of our summer observing season. But what else is up this summer?
Pamela: All the good things!
Fraser: Really?
Pamela: Yes, yes.
So, I love summer because, well, we’re at the tail end of being able to get almost all the Messier objects if you live on the right part of the planet. So, ideally, you want to do that in March and April but you can get a huge chunk of them still, here in early June. So, that’s where you start. Get yourself an awesome pair of binoculars, go to just the right equitorial’ish region and start finding all of that original core group of faint fuzzies.
Fraser: The core group of faint fuzzies. Is that the scientific name for these?
Pamela: No but there’s the Messier Catalog, there’s the Caldwell Catalog; there’s all sorts of different lists of must-see faint fuzzies but, at the end of the day, Messier’s list is where you start.
Fraser: Right.
Pamela: So, start with that core group and then, as time suits, branch out to the Caldwell objects and others.
Fraser: Right. So, I’m going to grab – I’ve got my binoculars handy. What do you use for binoculars?
Pamela: I have two pair. One is a old pair of Nikons that don’t magnify as well but are much cleaner because they’ve survived fewer camping trips and it turns out, I’m very hard on things. And then, I have a nice pair – that aren’t that nice – by Orion; just a good old 10-degree field of view is what I really love for star-hopping. And with the Messier objects – Okay, that is just creepy, by the way.
So, for those of you in the listening audience, Fraser has pulled out a large pair of binoculars and is staring at me through the binoculars, eclipsing his own face – or occulting his own face, depending on how you want to put it – with the binoculars.
Fraser: These are, by far – you know, for the people who are watching, they can see it; people who are listening, I apologize. We did something on the video.
By the way, we record Astronomy Cast as a live video every Friday at 1:30 and if you want to sort of see what we look like and join us, you can do that. You could also just go to the YouTube channel after the fact and you could check it out.
But these are one of my most prized possessions, which is I’ve got a pair of 15×70 binoculars. And it is like falling into the sky, right? When you sit out on a warm summer night with a pair of binoculars and you can just explore the Milky Way. You can explore some of these objects. You can see Andromeda. You can see the globular cluster in Hercules. You can see a lot of the brighter star clusters. And they’re not that expensive. Like, on sale at Amazon from time to time, they’re in the $75.00 range. So, as people are always asking me what telescope to get, start with the binoculars.
Pamela: And, honestly, when I recommend and, generally, when I go shopping for ones to replace the dirty ones that I’ve taken camping too many times – Really, don’t trust me with nice things that can get thrown in a backpack. So, 10x50s – you can get 10x50s for under $100.00; right around $100.00 if you get them with really good overcoats. And the overcoats on the lens are what prevent light from reflecting off the binoculars.
So, if you look at an uncoated pair of binocular lenses on a bright day, you will see yourself in those lenses as you look at them. And that means the light is not going through the binoculars to the eyepiece; it’s bouncing off of that big lens and back at you. So, the less able you are to see your own reflection in the end of the binoculars, the more you want those binoculars.
Fraser: Interesting. I did not know that. Let me see.
Pamela: These are the random things that, when you’re an optics geek, you get in to.
Fraser: I can’t see myself so well in them but –
Pamela: This is because you have nice overcoated binoculars. So, be like Fraser and get the nice overcoated –
Fraser: Yeah. I mean, you don’t need to but you definitely can get the astronomical binoculars. I mean, there’s no real difference between what are astronomical binoculars and what are regular ones.
Okay. So then, you’ve got a pair of binoculars and you’re going to go out and you’re going to see – So, let’s talk about these – you know, you talked about the faint fuzzies and the Messier Catalog. What kinds of objects can we be seeing?
Pamela: So, with the Messier Catalog, you’re going to be seeing some of the largest galaxies that are in the sky. You can even – if you stay up until the wee, wee hours of the morning – you can see Andromeda rising. And, with Andromeda, you’re looking at one of the few faint fuzzies that you can also see with your naked eyes – that is not in our own galaxy.
All the other faint fuzzies, you can see with your own eyes and there are several of them if you’re in a dark place. They’re all local. So, if you want to get that good “let’s look at light that started before humanity”, go look for Andromeda.
So, there’s galaxies. Full stop. They’re awesome. Check them out.
Beyond that, globular clusters are these cool puffballs of stars. And then, of course, we start getting the things like the open clusters, which don’t have dense cores like globular clusters.
Fraser: Yeah. And I really like, say, the double-cluster – which shows up a little later in the evening – and then, some of the other more open clusters, as you said, can either be in sort of the early evening and over the course of the night.
But the other thing is that it’s nebula season, with the Milky Way rising; with Sagittarius visible, low in the sky. But binoculars aren’t going to get you very far in trying to see a lot of the stuff that’s in the heart of the Milky Way.
Pamela: So, when you start exploring along the Milky Way, you can’t see all the color that you may be used to from astrophotography but you can find yourself out in a hammock in the middle of the night, looking towards the center of that teapot, and as you jump around, it’s like, “What is that? Oh, dear. What is that?” And it really looks like someone kind of went crazy with white watercolors or chalk dust in that part of the sky.
And this difference in the density of the stars is actually just one of those things that gets you involved in learning how to star-hop, so that you can figure out what the heck it is that you’re looking at. And this is where the addiction starts. You go out, you find that big teapot in the sky – you can find it from either hemisphere – and, once you find that big teapot in the sky and start exploring it with binoculars, it’s like fuzzy, fuzzy, fuzzy, fuzzy, fuzzy, more fuzzies and curiosity will hopefully get the better of you.
And then, you’ll be out there with Stellarium, with Sky Walk. Always remember to use red filters or the red viewer mode. And, using this software, you can start to realize, “Okay. So, to get to this faint fuzzy, I jump from here to here to – Oh! That’s what I’m looking at.” And that’s really an awesome part of learning how to observe.
Fraser: I’m just displaying on the screen, for the folks watching, an image of the Milky Way core taken by my friend, Cory Schmitz, who runs photographingspace.com. Go to their website if you want to learn how to photograph space.
And there are just all of these different objects. And what’s kind of amazing to me is just how all of those objects that you’re so familiar seeing – The Trifid, right? Of all these different nebulae – the Eagle Nebula – they’re all in this area, one after the other, and with a sort of a wider view, if you start to do some astrophotography, you can just pick them all out in this wide area. They’re all there and you just have never realized. You know? You’ve seen, say, the Pillars of Creation but that’s just in the Eagle Nebula and the Eagle Nebula is near the core of the Milky Way and visible in the night sky. And if you’ve got a camera, you can get a shot of them.
Pamela: And what’s really cool is to then go and look up the Hubble images because we forget that one of the reasons they justified Hubble was to figure out what the heck planetary nebula are – because they just looked like roundish or squarish blobs until we had Hubble.
But it’s not all about the “what can you do with a telescope?” You can also start doing really cool things with just a regular, everyday camera as you hit either winter solstice or summer solstice, depending on your particular hemisphere of occupation.
Fraser: I don’t understand. What can you do on the solstice?
Pamela: So, what I love about the solstice – and it’s really anytime between the equinox and summer solstice. Have you ever gone to take a picture of the moon and the moon is like, “I shall blow out your optics and you shall see nothing!”
Fraser: Right – but moon.
Pamela: Yeah. And it’s really hard – and requires layering of photos taken with a variety of different exposure times to get those amazing nighttime photos of the full moon rising along the horizon if you do it at night.
Now, the glorious thing about summer solstice is you can now start to get the full moon rising while it’s broad daylight, especially if you live further and further away from the equator.
Where you are, the time is the –
Fraser: We see that all the time, yeah.
Pamela: Yeah.
Fraser: Yeah. So, the sun – Oh, I’m trying to think what time sunset is around these parts. But, by the end of summer, the sun’s going down. It is dark until, say, 10:30 – closing in on 11:00 – where I live in Canada. So, absolutely.
Pamela: So, we have the next full moon is going to be on June 9th and that is pretty close to summer solstice. So, get out there and – Well, first go out the night before, so you can figure out where, on the horizon, that sucker’s actually rising and mark where you’re standing when you do this. And then, be ready the next night to snap that photo of that glorious, pumpkin-colored, easy-to-get-your-exposure-time-right, summer full moon.
Fraser: Fantastic.
So, we’ve talked about the moon and that it’s a good time to get pictures of the moon. We’ve talked about some of the fuzzies. They’re very dependably there. Every summer, you can see the same kinds of things.
There are a few events that happen over the course of the summer. There’s one wonderful meteor shower, of course, that you should be setting your calendar to every year.
Pamela: The Perseids. So, the Perseids, this year, are going to be August 12th and 13th. Seriously, buy a hammock or a camping pad or a lawn chair or any other comfortable way of just laying on your back. And go camping that weekend, or plan to be in your yard. I usually spend that weekend judging Parsec Awards, while watching the meteors fall out of the sky. And it’s just an awesome experience, especially when you start to realize this amazing storm is brought to you by grains of dust.
Fraser: Right. And, I mean, the Perseids – I mean, with any meteor shower, it’s about patience; it’s about being there when the sky gets the darkest and you can actually really see what’s going on. And what I like about the Perseids is it isn’t necessarily the busiest meteor shower of the year but it is the one that’s most comfortable.
And so, you can go outside and, as you said, have a hammock – for the Northern Hemisphere. Sorry for the folks in the Southern Hemisphere; their Perseids are cold. But for us in the North, this is the one you can go outside and take a sleeping bag and watch the night sky and try to stay awake for as long as you can and count the meteors that you see fly overhead.
And that should be – Getting yourself to dark skies with some friends and family should be your priority for every year’s Perseid meteor shower. You know, we try to make an event of it every year.
Pamela: Although, there’s a waning gibbous moon this year. So, the moon is out to kill all but the bright bad boys falling out of the sky.
Fraser: Oh, no! So, we’re going to lose the Perseids this year to the moon.
Pamela: We’re only going to lose the faint ones. There’s always some bolides, there’s always – Really, this is always a good excuse to go out and it’s also at a time of year when you don’t have to wait up quite as late to see that Andromeda; when, at the very beginning of the night, you have Sagittarius. It’s a comfortable time to take yourself camping and – yeah, take some photos along the terminator of the moon. That’s what these partial phases of the moon are good for – but enjoy everything else while you’re out there too.
Fraser: Yeah, absolutely.
Alright. So, you know that you’re going to be watching the Perseid meteor shower and you’ve put that in your calendar, everybody. Like, literally, we’ll just wait a second. Go put that in your calendar – when the shower is happening – and then make sure you call your friends and family and organize some kind of fun event to see them.
What are some other – How are the planets doing this summer?
Pamela: So, I have to admit, I am bad about keeping track of the planets because there’s always going to be a bright one out there sometime because they move. And this is where what I’m going to say is: Anytime you see a bright object, use this as an opportunity to teach yourself. Get – for your iPhone or Android or whatever your Smartphone device is – software like Sky Walk, Sky Safari. And when you see that bright thing, do the nerdy, “Okay, I’m holding up my camera, lined up with the thing in the sky” so that it will teach you.
And this gives you a chance to realize, as I realized the other night, “Oh! That’s actually Spica. I’m wrong. That’s not a planet.” And it also gives you a chance to then say, “And now I know something new” that’s only good until the planet moves again because that’s what they do.
Fraser: A couple of things. So, Jupiter is definitely up and bright and you’ll be able to see that. Now, you’ve probably already noticed Jupiter. It’s that super-bright star in the sky that’s visible. It’s sort of in the constellation of Virgo’ish right now. And, in fact, tomorrow, the moon is going to be really close to Jupiter and they’re going to be side by side in the sky. But if you go out in the evening, for much of the summer, that really bright star in the sky is actually Jupiter.
Venus is in the morning, so you need to sort of get up early to be able to see it. And Saturn is up there too but it’s a lot dimmer – but great if you’ve got a friend with a telescope.
Pamela: And, for those of you in the Southern Hemisphere, we haven’t forgot you.
The Perseids occur just as your spring is considering maybe starting, so maybe you’ll get a chance to enjoy that first warm night. But the thing that you get is super-long nights and super-long nights are chances to figure out how to actually take star trails with your camera.
So, this is where it’s always good to find a new moon. If you can, a new moon – when there might be something interesting potentially happening in the minor meteor shower category because there’s always – almost every month – there’s rocks falling out of the sky somewhere. In July, we have the Delta Aquariids. There’s a bunch of small ones out there. And every night, there’s going to be something hitting our atmosphere – in your part of the atmosphere – because we get a couple tons of material per day.
Fraser: Yeah.
Pamela: So, go out; figure out how to take exposure after exposure for multiple seconds to multiple minutes, depending on your type of camera. Figure out how to add them together and then see if you can catch that magic of what it looks like to see the North Pole Star or the lack of star in the South Pole. Rotate over your house with these spokes of falling stars of those meteors passing through the atmosphere. There’s lots of neat things.
And right now, down in Australia, there’s a fabulous desert fireball network that’s been established of people who are not just using their digital cameras to track those streaks falling out of the sky but, by working together to take photos of those streaks, they are actually able to then figure out which ones landed in Australia and go pick them up.
So, if you’re in Australia, maybe you can go pick up a rock from space. And, really, that beats anything we can do during the summer up here in the North.
Fraser: So, one of the things that I recommend, as well – especially if you live more to the north, like myself – is get your hands on some kind of aurora alert app or find a website that will give you some aurora alerts.
And what that does is that tells you when the auroral activity in your region is starting to happen. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be really powerful; you can still have auroras off on the horizon. So, really, anywhere north of – I don’t know. Like, San Francisco’ish, across North America; and then south – I’m not sure how far south. But even if there’s not a lot of auroral activity, you can see something down on the horizon. And so, I’ve got an app on my phone that freaks out whenever the auroral activity has reached some minimum point.
And that’s different from you knowing that you’re going to have some specific time to go out and see it. You have to be prepared. And when the auroras are jumping – But they were just jumping probably three, four days ago and I missed it. My app failed to let me know that it was going on. But if you find out that that’s happening, you can go out and see the auroras.
And I’ve had several summers that I’ve been out on some lazy summer night and look up and there’s the auroras. And I’ve seen, like, red sheets across the sky; I’ve seen purple and green over on the horizon. And it’s one of the things you just have to be sort of ready to go and take advantage of.
Pamela: And while you’re installing apps that will give you notifications, don’t forget that we can also see the International Space Station as it goes overhead. We can see flares of light from Iridium Satellite Network when their solar panels catch the sun’s light. And there are programs like Heavens-Above that will help you figure out, “Well, if I’m going to go camping, what are all of the different configurations of spacecraft I can see flying by, over my head.”
I don’t remember what they were called but I once got the opportunity to just realize, “Hey. If I look up over there, right now, there’s a tree of satellites flying by in formation” and that was amazingly cool to see in a pair of binoculars.
Fraser: Oh, that’s amazing.
Yeah. I mean, once again, as you said, find out when the ISS is going to be flying over and you want to look like a magician. You’re like, “Hey! Come outside. Let’s go watch the Space Station fly overhead.” And then, of course, use a pair of binoculars and you can actually see the little TIE fighter shape of the Space Station as it flies overhead.
And there’s a lot of places, especially – You know, NASA will send you an alert; there’s Heavens-Above. There’s a bunch of these places that will tell you when this event is going to be happening and it’s totally worth doing.
Pamela: And for those of you with a wee bit of an evil streak, you can go out with a friend when you know there’s about to be an Iridium flare and just happen to stand – walking, talking, looking in the correct direction – and, when it shoots across the sky, you can initially tell them, “Oh, my God. We’re going to die!” And then, when you’re done panicking them, explain to them what they actually saw.
Fraser: Well, it’s – I mean, an Iridium flare, a lot of people send me this email like, “I just saw this crazy, bright flash in the sky. What was it?” And, for the vast majority of the time, it’s an Iridium flare; it’s these satellites that happen to have this bright, shiny surface and, as they rotate into the right position, we get the sunlight glinting off of them and see this flare. And they can be timed. You can know when you’re going to see one –
Pamela: Yeah.
Fraser: – in your location, which is pretty amazing because it is this really kind of freaky flash that happens in the sky that you can predict.
Pamela: They’re sufficiently bright that I’ve watched them well into twilight while watching sunrises, where you can still see them when the sun is just starting to come above the horizon.
Fraser: Speaking of the sun, there’s a few interesting events that you can capture on the sun. You talked about the moon rising but as the sun is setting – on a nice, warm summer evening – see if you can grab a green flash.
Pamela: And people say that you can only see green flashes out in perfectly flat areas, like out on the ocean or out on the desert, but a really awesome photographer out in Tucson, Arizona – Robert Sparks, who works for the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. So, you may have encountered him with Galileo scopes or other projects. Well, in his personal time, when he’s not being all sciencey – well, I guess he’s still being sciencey – but in his personal time, he goes out with his camera and he captures these amazing zoomed-in pictures of the sun setting behind Kitt Peak and that range of mountains. And he has often caught green flashes as the sun sets behind the mountains.
Fraser: Fantastic.
Now, obviously, there’s an eclipse. You know – whatever. Go watch it. We’ve talked about that.
What else should people be seeing this summer?
Pamela: So, you know, the sun – it should get more than one day every many years. It’s currently a moody little near-by star and that sucker’s got sunspots. So, in preparation for the solar eclipse, build yourself the ability to look at the sun any day of the week. You can do this with projection systems. You can do this with just a good old-fashioned cardboard box. My favorite way to do it is to actually get a funnel and a telescope that has no plastic parts. Do this with an all glass and metal telescope. Do not do this with plastic parts.
Fraser: Yes, I destroyed a telescope.
Pamela: Yes. So, glass – things that will not melt. Okay – done with the warning. Do not melt a Galileo scope; they do melt.
Fraser: Yes.
Pamela: So, you put the funnel in where the eyepiece should be, put a white t-shirt across the funnel and you can adjust the length of the funnel until you can perfectly focus the sun filling up that t-shirt, which is your projection screen. And you’re back-projecting the sun onto a t-shirt and you can see those sunspots and share your view with those around you.
Fraser: Yeah, it’s a good way to have a whole bunch of people – and you’re going to see a ton of them during the eclipse. But, as you said, I mean, I think you’re exactly right. I’m planning to build some solar filters for my binoculars and I will be testing them out on sunspots before eclipse day.
Pamela: And this is where people are constantly finding new and creative ways to observe. And so, if any of you find something awesome that you haven’t heard us talk about today, let us know. One of my summer projects is to work on building up a small set of videos, sending them out to our Patreons; helping everyone prepare for the summer eclipse and enjoying the night sky the night before, because I’m hoping that a lot of you will make it a weekend for science.
Fraser: Very cool.
Anything else before we wrap things up? Have we given people a whole bunch of things to look for this summer?
Pamela: Megamovie – let’s just go ahead and give that one one more shout-out.
So, there’s an amazing project that’s being funded, I believe, by Google, with some National Science Foundation money as well.
Fraser: And the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.
Pamela: Is not funding it; they’re organizing it. And what they’re working on is getting people – and there’s going to be an app to support this – taking photos at known times in known locations, submitting all of these images and then they can be used where each different person has a slightly different line between them, the edge of the moon and the sun. And, if there’s a valley or a mountain along your path, it may cause what’s called “the diamond ring effect” where you see that bright spot on the edge of the moon. And we can use these images of these bright, flickering diamond ring effects to start to map out some of the features on the moon.
And it just – There’s a lot of other science. That’s just my favorite science. So, go ahead. Get involved and share what you’re doing with our community.
Fraser: Alright, that sounds great.
Well, thanks Pamela. We’ll talk to you next week.
Pamela: Sounds great, Fraser.
Male Speaker: Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at astronomycast.com. You can email us at info@astronomycast.com. Tweet us @astronomycast. Like us on Facebook or circle us on Google Plus.
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[End of Audio]
Duration: 30 minutes

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