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Some of the best memories of childhood involve lying on a blanket somewhere dark and watching the night sky. Whether you were looking at a lunar eclipse, searching for the Milky Way, or counting meteors, the important thing was the connection felt with the vastness that is our universe. This summer, there are a few good stargazing options for making the most of those warm overnight hours.
Look at that!
Meteor showers are a great way to introduce kids (and adults) to astronomy. There is a built-in competitive element they’ll love as they count how many they see, and while you’re stargazing, you can point out constellations and other celestial objects. Do a little research beforehand to find out what caused the shower, and what the objects burning up in the atmosphere are made of. Some of the biggest fireballs could be caused by the smallest of space pebbles!
Photo Credit: Buffalo River by Bobby Burton
The Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower will be visible in late July this year. It happens every year from July 12 to Aug. 23 and will be at its peak this year on the night of July 28 and morning of July 29. Since the moon will be waning, the sky should be pretty dark and not interfere with viewing. You’ll want to be in a dark spot, and you’ll see the most meteors after midnight. Delta Aquarids can produce up to 20 meteors per hour at peak. While most of the meteors will radiate from the constellation Aquarius, they can appear anywhere in the sky.
The Perseids Meteor Shower is a perennial favorite for astronomers of all experience levels. It can produce up to 60 meteors per hour at its peak, and there are usually a few really nice fireballs. The Perseids can be seen from July 17 to Aug. 24 each year, and this year’s peak will occur the night of Aug. 12 and the morning of Aug. 13. Since the moon will be almost full, it will illuminate the sky, driving down the count of visible meteors. But the Perseid meteors are so plentiful and so bright that it should still be a good show if the skies are clear. Look for meteors coming out of the Perseus constellation in the North, but keep your eyes open for wanderers.
Camping on the River by Jerad Laxson
When a new moon rises, you can’t actually see it because it’s in the Earth’s shadow, which may not sound very exciting. But the fun of a moonless night comes from all the other things you can see when there’s no moon up there filling the night sky with light. If you have a telescope, you can seek out dim star clusters and gas clouds, but even with your naked eye, the Milky Way (our home galaxy) will be a lovely river across the sky.
Satellites are also easier to spot when the moon is in shadow. You’ll know you’ve found one when you see a tiny speck of light that doesn’t flash like an aircraft. They might glow bright and fade as they move into or out of the sun’s light miles above the Earth. You can even track the International Space Station so you know when to look up as it flies overhead. The remaining new moons of this summer will occur on July 31, Aug. 30, and Sept. 28.
Photo Credit: Earth’s Moon by Rick Marshall.
It probably goes without saying that if you’re stargazing for meteors and other astronomical marvels you should find the darkest sky available to you. Many national and state parks offer astronomy education, hosting Star Parties with park interpreters leading presentations and virtual tours of the night sky. Any campground at least 50 miles from the nearest large city — whether a national park or just a local KOA — will be a good spot. The key is to get away from the glow of city lights. The Arkansas Natural Sky Association has a great map available on its website to help you find a stargazing spot near you.
Photo Credit: Star Party by Sugar Creek Astronomical Society.
In Arkansas, several state parks cater to folks looking to see some sky on their visit. Recently, our very own Buffalo National River was named the newest Dark Sky site in the National Park System. It is the 26th National Park Service site to receive this designation and the first in Arkansas. This is exciting news, not only for astronomers and stargazers, but also for the wildlife that make the Buffalo National River home. Bats and other nocturnal mammals and most species of birds are affected negatively by the round-the-clock light that has permeated our urban areas.
More information about the announcement can be found here, and for more information about natural skies in our state, be sure to take a look at the Arkansas Natural Sky Association. Wherever you are this summer, take some time to look up and do some stargazing. There’s so much to see “out there”.
Header photo credit: Hawksbill Crag by Bobby Burton.
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