August is NOT the End of Summer

Lately August has started to take on the feeling of autumn. Kids are dreading going back to school, the stores are stocking new school supplies, football teams are thinking about two-a-day practices.  Yet despite all the back to school hype, August sits firmly and completely in the season we know as summer.    The weather is still warm, the nights are pleasant and some of the best observing targets are almost directly overhead  during prime viewing hours.

The brightest constellations of August lie from the zenith to the southern horizon.  Looking almost straight up we find the three bright stars that form the asterism known as the Summer Triangle.  The Summer Triangle is made up of the three bright stars Vega, Deneb and Altair.  Vega is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra the Harp.  Strangely, Lyra does not have a wealth of deep sky objects to point to.  M57 (The Ring Nebula) and M56 are the only true “deep sky objects” that are within the boundaries of Lyra the harp. The Ring Nebula is a classic example of a planetary nebula.  The cast off remains of an average star like our sun that has reached the end of its life cycle.  M56 is an example of a globular cluster, but due to its extreme distance it is somewhat uninteresting in small telescopes.

The star Deneb marks the tail feathers of Cygnus the Swan.  Because of its position along the Milky Way, Cygnus is a gold mine of deep sky objects.  Everything from open star clusters to nebulae to super nova remnants can be found in Cygnus.  Two very bright open or galactic star clusters are M29 near Sadr, the heart of the Swan and M39 trailing far behind the star Deneb.  Both are best seen with lower magnification, wide field eyepieces.  Observers wishing to capture a nebula should look just three degrees below Deneb to the North American Nebula (NGC 7000).  The North American Nebula is an emission nebula and is visible to the naked eye on clear, dark nights.  A low power, wide field eyepiece is needed to encompass all of this huge nebula.

The star Altair is the only bright star in the constellation Aquila the Eagle.  Like Lyra, Aquila is almost completely devoid of deep sky objects.  NGC 6755 and NGC 6756 are the only two open clusters in Aquila.

Moving toward the southern horizon we find the rich hunting grounds of Sagittarius and Scorpius.  Such objects as the Lagoon Nebula (M8), Trifid Nebula (M20), The Butterfly Cluster (M6) and Ptolemy’s Cluster (M7) are bright enough to be seen to the naked eye under very dark, steady skies.  In fact, the lane of sky extending from the top of the Teapot asterism to the stinger of Scorpius’s tail is strewn with dozens of open star clusters suitable for small telescopes.

While August heralds a return to the mundane routine of school, the sky reminds us that August is still the height of summer.  The constellations of the Summer Triangle are almost directly overhead, making them in an ideal position for observing. The constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpius are filled with easy to find targets and the warm evenings make long sessions at the telescope quite pleasant.

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