Summer Nights Drifting In: Summer Observing Challenge

Posted By Pamela on Apr 22, 2008 | 13 comments

SagittariusAs odd as this may seem, I’ve never been big on the summer sky. It’s not the fault of the sky – summer brings a wealth of stunning objects, and I keep trying to convince myself to learn them. It’s just, somehow, a season I keep missing. I have countless memories of frozen nights spent trying not to freeze my eyes to the eyepiece, or of sitting shivering in the control room praying for dawn or a space heater (or both). Looking back over the years, spring has always been the last rush of observing before settling in for a summer of data reduction. May (sometimes June) was the Texas Star Party, and taking the undergraduates to McDonald. It was the season when the disk came up, and the galaxies and globular clusters I care for went down. In general, I guess I’m a winter kind of girl. I’m a winter kind of girl who want’s to give her students some things to go out and look at this summer. I need to change my ways, and add the summer skies to my memory. (image credit: © T. Credner & S. Kohle,

And it’s not like the summer doesn’t have a huge wealth of objects to offer. Sagittarius is on the rise and this celestial teapot contains not only the center of the galaxy, but also nebulae, clusters, and dark patches. The brilliant constellation is imaged above. In addition to the Milky Way’s center, summer also goes out with he Perseid meteor shower. And between these two objects are countless other celestial gems to learn and love. This summer I’m setting a task for myself – to try and get some summer sky memories.

It’s not that I’ve never gone out in the summer and looked up before. In my mind, there are mosquito filled moments of summer Cepheid observing – I have a distinct memory of my adviser at MSU handing me money suddenly and saying, “GO GET BUG SPRAY!” In my mind, there are camping trips, and reckless moments on top of rocks in the wee hours of the night when everyone else was asleep while I was captivated by satellites passing overhead. I can still remember the moment of fright I had when I first saw the Northern Lights while coming home from a summer band concert (I have no idea why they scared me, but I was a kid, and maybe that’s a good enough reason). The sky has always been there and it has always been a part of my life, but… Summer nights somehow seemed to be spent more on horseback – racing fence lines in the moonlight with my cousin Zach – than behind the eyepiece.

My personal lack of looking up is complicated. As the Earth drifts from equinox to solstice, I no longer come home and look up at the constellations as I walk from the garage to the house. Instead, I come home to enjoy the Sun and look down to see what tulips are blooming today. To see and enjoy the stars, I have to make a concerted effort to go out after dinner (with a whole lot of bug spray – this is the midwest after all).

Tonight my skies are hazed over, so tonight I won’t start. BUT – starting on the next clear night, I’m going to work to find one object at a time, starting with M13 in Hercules. I’ve found this object before, but I’ve never documented the experience. I invite all of you to join me on this observing crusade, and go out and look up at this globular cluster. Share what you see, and challenge yourself to see something cool and know what you’re looking at. Each week I’m going to take on a new object, and I’d like you all to come with me on my journey.


  1. That’s a really descriptive story.

    I’m barely what one could call an amateur astronomer – more like an amateur physicist if anything at all! – but I’ve had the same exact experience. I don’t even know if I have any really memorable memories of going out stargazing on a nice warm summer night. But I have plenty of memories of stuff like sitting on the hood of my car in the northwest Cascades just shy of the Mt Baker summit in the middle of the night in January sharing a pair of cheesy, toy binoculars with my then-boyfriend and wishing we hadn’t run out of coffee in the thermos. I don’t even remember if we had coats on, but it was soooooo cold.

    There has to be a reason for this madness!

  2. Yeah, beautifully written.

    Of course if you lived in Austrailia this would all be reversed.

  3. Good stuff Pam. My scopes have sat in the garage for too long now as well. There is always something else to do it seems, or at least that is the excuse! I’ll try to not use some lame excuse this week and dig out a scope and point in at M13 too. I think what you’re proposing is a support group for those that have dusty telescopes. The Dusty Scope Support Group. DSSD, not a bad acronym. M13 report to follow….

  4. I have a wonderful memory of being out in a field laying on a blanket to see the stars and talk with my boyfriend. It was late July, and we had dark skies in the mountains. We went out to enjoy the stars and ‘discovered’ a meteor shower.

    My Dad was a naval aviator, and he taught me the stars often while out barbecuing. Those were special times, and now he asks me about what’s visible when. Learning the Summer Triangle should be even easier than M13.

    One of my favorite memories was a few years ago when we were visiting my Mom in Colorado. Right after a baby horse was born in the wee hours of the morning, my daughter and I watched the moon set and the Milky Way come out in glorious splendor. We still call the horse Moondream to remind us of that memory and the meaning of the dark spot on her flank. My Mom calls her something else, but to my daughter and me, she’s Moondream.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve seen M13, but I’ll use the finder chart I found at the Hercules constellation page at Wikipedia to try this evening.

  5. I’m going out Friday night to support the UVa Asstronomy Dept. in their open house at Fan Mountain Observatory. My plan there is to show folks 3C-273, the brightest quasar. Problem is, the weather looks like it might be cloudy. So I’ll cheat a bit and whip out my 15×75 binocs tonight to bag M13 before the clouds get here!

    I might even get something new on my binocular Messier certificate list for the Astronomical League.

    I know what you mean about summertime being a tough time for astronomy. It’s the danged short nights and long evenings that are to blame! Heck, it doesn’t even get decently dark till 10PM! It could be worse, though. I saw a photo last year of a chart on the wall of an observatory in Scotland that showed almost no darkness at all during the solstice! Yikes!

  6. Did it a couple hours ago! Listened to a fox barking in the woods while I looked at it! I hope that fox can leave our newly-hatched goslings alone tonight…

    M13 is the biggest, baddest “glob” we can see in the Northern Hemisphere. A friend of mine did manage to see Omega Centauri with his 16″ Ritchey Chretien on a Paramount (sigh) but it was just a blob in Charlottesville’s light dome from where he was located (a mountaintop observatory in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Va).

    M13 is an easy star hop once you’ve located the “Keystone” of Hercules. Try it!
    Globs like lots of power (anthropomorphically speaking), so use your highest power eyepiece.

  7. My skies were too hazy and reflectively light-polluted especially toward the northeast. But the bigger problem was that the Hercules constellation wasn’t sufficiently high in the sky at a time that is compatible with getting up at 6am to get the kids off to school. I could go out and observe at 10 or 11pm. I couldn’t be out there at 1am or 3am.

    If this is meant to be a project to get ‘normal’ folks out observing, you may want to aim for targets available at more convenient times (before midnight). The Beehive cluster (M44) may be a little too low in the west for late night, but at least the Moon won’t interfere.

  8. I think Daylight Savings time might have something to do with my lack of Summer Sky competency. It doesn’t get dark here until almost 10:00 PM in the Summer. By the time it’s dark enough to observe, I have to sleep!

    Winter time, though, I can go out and look up for a few hours before the sleep alarm sounds.

    John B. Sandlin

  9. If your observing M13 with a 10″ scope or larger, look for the dust lanes near the northwestern edge of the cluster. There are three dust lanes emanating from a single point forming a propeller shape (the three lanes are equally spaced apart). You might be able to see the propeller with a smaller scope under some dark skies.

    I have observed M13 with lots of different instruments ranging from 7×35 binoculars to the 82″ Otto Struve telescope at McDonald Observatory (we could only see a small part of the center of the cluster, but there were lots of stars!) and it remains one of my favorite targets.

    My absolute favorite view was at a star party last year when I observed it using a 22″ scope with a binoviewer. The view was absolutely stunning with M13 taking on a three-dimensional appearance. It looked as if I could reach out and pluck the stars off the globular with my fingers.

    Hopefully, the view of M13 will wet your appetite for more. Soon you’ll be out observing at 2:00 in the morning with the right side of your brain telling yourself “it’s time to get some sleep before work in 5 hours” and the left side telling you “just one more and then I’ll quit”.

  10. Last night was just a bit crisper, so I grabbed my 20×80 binoculars to try again a little after 11pm. I had smelled the skunk earlier, so I announced to the critters that I’d be wandering around barefoot and in my pajamas. (That’s one treat about spring/summer observing; less clothes.)

    Hercules doesn’t have really bright stars, but I found the Keystone (thank you, Richard, for the reminder) and up popped M13. Not very impressive in the binoculars, but very definitely there and big.

    Jeff, I understand the late night observing. Been there, done that. It’s especially true with aurora and meteor showers because unlike the stars they won’t be there tomorrow night.

  11. Aaaaaahhhhh, M13! ‘Tis one of my favorite objects in a small telescope and I can find it in one shot using a Telrad 🙂

    M13 has always been favorite, as, I was born on the same night that SETI sent out a directed message to M13 way back in 1974.

    M13 is popular with the public here in Tucson on a clear steady night as well. I say, “the longer you look, the better it will be” and it’s true. After about 10 seconds of dark adapting the stars are really popping out against the darkness of space behind it. I smile when I hear the hushed woooooooowwwwww.

    There are so few good objects this time in the spring during my program time — Auriga is setting with it’s wonderful/bright open star clusters and Orion is kissing the horizon. I wait for M13 all through the beginning of April, knowing we’ll be able to view it soon.

    Clear skies!
    Adrienne 🙂

  12. Go out and enjoy yourself as often as you are able. M13 is great too. So is the milky way our home galaxy. Dont forget all the Virgo and Coma galaxies. You can enjoy yourself too. It is a pity you can’t get a good view of Omega Centauri or 47 Tuc from that far north, you will have to get some funds to head south.

  13. Being from Iceland gives me many good things in life. However having 24 hours of daylight during the summer pretty much limits my stargazing down to the one star closest to us. So now everyone here is trying to get some last telescoping done and preparing to put the telescopes in the closet until we see the stars again in a few months.

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