Lie On Your Back And Watch The Stars Go By

Lying on one’s back is the way to go when it comes to stargazing especially in the summer months. If you fall asleep, what could be better? Louis Raemaekers

What better way to watch the stars than on your back with hands tucked behind your head. The coolness of the grass and contact with the Earth feel so comfortable. Easy on the neck, too.

Let me suggest you face south. That way you’re aligned with the meridian, an imaginary semi-circle that starts at the due south point of the southern horizon, passes directly overhead and then intersects the northern horizon at the due north point. Stars rise in the east (your left side) and set in the west (your right side). A cool fact about the meridian — when a star crosses the line, it’s highest in the sky.

Earth’s the best spaceship there ever was. You don’t have to suit up — at least not in August in the northern hemisphere — the atmospheric pressure is just right and the view is more expansive than staring out the window of a starship. OK, it would be nice to be weightless, but sprawled on the planet isn’t bad either. When you lie down, you face straight up at the stars and planets that are highest in the sky. Do that the next clear night and you’ll get a face-full of the the Milky Way.

The oval is the approximate view of the sky we have while laying on your back, feet pointed south in late August around 10 o’clock local time. The overhead point or zenith lies near Vega. The bright northern Milky Way that runs through the Northern Cross (Cygnus) is prominent from dark skies. As the clocks ticks and Earth rotates, stars on the left rise and approach the meridian. Those on the right depart the meridian and move west toward setting. Stellarium

From many locations brilliant Vega stands almost directly overhead as soon as it gets dark around 9-9:30 p.m. local time. This diamond-white gem shines at magnitude 0 from a distance of 150 trillion miles equal to 25 light years. You were 25 years younger when its light began the long journey to your eyes tonight. Vega stands in such contrast to the constellation it heads up, Lyra the Harp. All five stars that scrunch together to make the tiny harp or lyre are 4th magnitude and faint. I sometimes wonder if anyone would notice the constellation if it weren’t for Vega. But I like to think it’s compact enough to still catch the eye even without its famous luminary.

Cygnus the Swan, also called the Northern Cross, lights up the sky about two fists to the left or east of Lyra. Its brightest star is Deneb at the top of the Cross. At the foot is a dimmer star named Albireo, one of summer’s most beautiful double stars. You can’t split with the naked eye but a 10x pair of binoculars held rock-steady can do.

Near the bottom of what you can see while on your back and four fists below Deneb you’ll spy Altair, the brightest star in Aquila the Eagle and third member of the Summer Triangle, an asterism of three bright stars that includes Deneb and Vega. A fist and a half above and to the left (east) of Altair is another faint group of stars shaped like a diamond with a tail. That’s Delphinus the Dolphin frozen in mid-leap.

If you now return to Vega and look up as far as you can, you’ll see a trapezoid of stars that outlines the head of Draco the Dragon. The faintest star in the pattern is a sweet double star in any pair of binoculars called Nu Draconis. It’s an “equal pair” — two stars of matching brightness and color. Two fists to the right (west) of Vega look for Hercules the Strongman. It’s a gangly group — all arms and legs — but the heart of the constellation, another stellar trapezoid, is called the Keystone. I’m confident you’ll find it.

The overhead view with feet pointed south around 9 p.m. local time from the Southern Hemisphere features the bright planets Jupiter and Saturn and a lovely stretch of Milky Way along with southern favorites like Triangulum Australe (Southern Triangle) and Pavo the Peacock. Stellarium

Skywatchers in the southern hemisphere, where it’s still winter, have to bundle up a bit and bring a blanket if they want to stargaze from their frosty lawns. Observers there are treated to one on the best views of the Milky Way ever — the section that runs from Sagittarius the Archer through Scorpius the Scorpion. Because this portion is always low in the sky from the northern hemisphere I’m a little jealous. Those living in southern latitudes also get to see the planets pass overhead. Imagine looking almost straight up at Jupiter!

As you lie there, whatever hemisphere, consider that the Earth is spinning on its axis. It might look like stars approach and depart the meridian of their own will, but what’s really happening is you’re rolling toward the east as the Earth turns to face a new sector of space with each passing hour.