Milky Way Roadtrip

The Milky Way stands out boldly between the bright stars of the Summer Triangle
last night. Top: Deneb (left) and Vega; bottom: Altair. Details:
16mm lens at f/2.8, 25-second time exposure at ISO 3200. Photo: Bob King

Wow! That’s all I could say as I stood under the first dark sky I’d seen in over two weeks. You get used to the light polluted or moon-washed versions and say to yourself "hey, this isn’t too bad." Last night neither moon nor city glow had the power to soften the darkness. It was hard, deep. The Milky Way borders were crisp and stood in stark contrast to the background sky.

Time to get outta Dodge. If you haven’t taken a drive to the country to see summer’s feast of starlight, now’s the time to do it. In Duluth, that’s about a 20-30 minute drive north of the city. August and September are the very best times to see the Milky Way, the most prominent part of the galaxy we call home. What does it remind you of? The track of a child’s muddy shoes, a ribbon to wrap the sky, a silent stream flowing past starry shoals, smoke from a campfire? Analogies come easily when you’re staring at over a 100 billion stars.

Draco the Dragon winds between the Big Dipper and the North Star. This map shows the sky as you face north around 9:30 p.m. While Draco has no prominent stars, its shape makes it easier to recognize than you’d think. Created with Stellarium.

I noticed last night that Draco the Dragon is ideally placed in the northern sky. We visited this constellation last spring but it seems worthwhile to return the the dragon’s lair once again. Just use the two end stars of the Bowl of the Big Dipper to get started. The first star above the bowl is the dragon’s tail. If you’re patient and the sky is reasonably dark, make your way stealthfully up the dragon’s tail to where it makes a sharp right turn. One outstretched fist later, take a hard left and go straight to the dragon’s trapezoid-shaped head.

Here’s Draco in the actual night sky. This wide angle photo
squeezes a lot of sky into one frame and was taken about
10:30 p.m. Photo: Bob King

Draco’s a huge constellation. Its head reaches nearly to the Vega, which around 9:30-10 o’clock is at the very top of the sky. For the northern U.S., the dragon is one of a handful of circumpolar constellations that wind their way around the North Star and never touch the horizon. Other members in this rather exclusive club include the Dippers, Cassiopeia the Queen and Cepheus the King.

While you’re out absorbing photons from the galaxy, take a look to the east and get familiar with the Great Square of Pegasus. Tomorrow we’ll visit that constellation’s most famous deep sky celebrity.

2 Responses

  1. astrobob

    Hi Amanda,
    Yes it is a myth. The information about Mars was accurate in only in 2003 but has been circulated across the Internet every year since then. Mars is on the dim side this summer, very tiny and visible in the morning sky in the constellation of Taurus.

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