Looking Up column: Catch stars waiting for the fireworks
The 4th of July as well as summer in general means, among many things, fireworks may be filling the sky for all who wish to see them.
With potentially millions of people” looking up at the sky for the fireworks, they will have a chance to see the stars beyond.
While waiting for the pyrotechnics to begin, usually scheduled when it is just getting dark enough to see them well, twilight will be well underway.
If you are there for sunset, watch how the Earth’s lovely star descends in a deep orange and red shade, and the deepening dusk paints the west-northwestern sky in a vivid, ever-changing palette of hues.
With the sun set, you have a clear view to the east, look low on the horizon for the moon, only one day before full phase.
See how the moon seems bigger than normal, being low on the horizon. This is actually an optical illusion.
Look also for a deep violet band of color along the east-southeast horizon. This is the edge of the Earth’s dark shadow, making a low angle on the sky. After a short time, as the sky darkens, the shadow will no longer be visible.
We usually don’t talk about the Earth’s shadow until a time of a lunar eclipse when the moon passes through, darkening and turning a reddish shade.
The red of sunsets and sunrises and the red of a lunar eclipse are the effect of refraction. The atmosphere enveloping the spherical Earth acts like a glass lens, and bends the rays of the sun, breaking them into its component spectrum. The longer wavelengths are on the red end of the spectrum and pass through the most.
Unfortunately during July 2020, there are no bright planets in the evening sky. Otherwise, they would be among the first points of light to appear before the fireworks take our attention.
Given a clear sky, what you will see are the wondrous points of light from the sky’s brightest stars above the horizon at the time.
Those who would like to make a wish on the first star you see would be following a very old tradition.
The first star to appear will be Vega, magnitude 0.1 and blue-white in shade. Look high in the eastern sky.
Next is Arcturus, magnitude 0.2 and of a wonderful yellow-orange hue. Arcturus stands high up in the south during the twilight of early July.
The next brightest star is Altair, 0.9 and white. Look to the lower right from Vega, in the east-southeast.
Antares, magnitude 1.2 and colored red, shines low in the south-southeast.
Deneb, 1.3 and white, will be to the lower left from Vega, in the east-northeastern sky.
Vega, Deneb and Altair, although in different constellations, make up the famed “Summer Triangle.”
Look low in the west for Regulus, a white magnitude 1.3 star.
By the time fireworks begin, you won’t likely be tracing constellations, and the bright rockets and flares will keep you fixated at the wonders a few hundred feet above your head.
When the fireworks are over and most everyone is packing up to go home, perhaps to get in line for the ritualistic traffic jam that is often part of the 4th of July tradition, take a moment to catch more stars in the moonlit sky.
Over the next couple of weeks, with the return of moonless skies, take in the glory of the universe.
Fireworks are great, but don’t miss a chance to see the thousands of stars dim and bright spread over your head, and the fascinating billows of the hazy Milky Way Band that becomes so prominent as a summer evening turns towards midnight and beyond.
Learn to find the constellations, find out more star names and, with binoculars, hunt down even more treasures from star clusters to dim and very distant galaxies within your reach. The view is endless and waits to be seen!
Keep looking up at the sky!
Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please mention in what newspaper or website you read this column.