Keystone Science School: An eye on the summer skies
Thinking Outside the Classroom
The season of long days, barbecues, and the sweet smell of sunscreen is upon us. At Keystone Science School, we're enjoying the warm weather with children from across Summit County and beyond during our Summer Camp programs. Whether we're out camping or on our 23-acre campus, exploring the night sky is an integral part of our programs. And now that summer is here, there is much to explore!
Summer officially kicked off on the morning of June 21st when the North Pole tipped its hat to the sun more than it does any other day of the year. During the summer solstice (Latin for “sun standing still”) the Earth's northern hemisphere experiences its longest day of the year while the opposite effect is occurring in the southern half of the globe. As Earth makes its annual trek around the sun, its path is slightly elliptical. It is a misconception to think that the Earth is closer to the sun during the summer months. While we enjoy the long hours of sunlight and the warmth that it brings, July 3 signifies the aphelion, or when Earth will be farthest from the sun in its orbit. We are closest to the sun during the perihelion on January 4th, when we are actually three million miles closer (at a mere 91,445,000 miles).
The marking of the summer solstice, or midsummer, brings with it many traditions and cultural celebrations. Several pagan religious holidays are based on the seasonal solstices. In ancient China, their celebration of the summer solstice honored the feminine Yin forces, while the winter solstice celebrated the masculine Yang forces. Much speculation still surrounds prehistoric structures found in Europe such as Stonehenge, where many believe the summer solstice held a particular significance to those who constructed it.
Now that this year's summer solstice has passed, the hours of sunlight are beginning to slowly fade. But with that brings the nighttime sky and all the majestic beauty the heavenly bodies have to offer. Folks in Summit County are fortunate to have a spectacular view of the nighttime sky. There is a mess of celestial bodies in the sky, and it can be very overwhelming to make sense of them.
For beginners with a keen eye for the skies, there are a few summer constellations worth noting as you gaze upward on a clear evening. One of the easiest to find is the Big Dipper, which can be seen in the northwest skies after sundown. If you follow the outer edge of the dipper drawing an imaginary line to the right, you will come to a bright star called Polaris — The North Star. Another simple pattern visible this time of year is the Summer Triangle, with the bright star of Vega at the top, Daneb and Altair bottom left and right.
Summer is also a great time for us to get a glimpse of the constellation Sagittarius. The brighter stars of the archer Sagittarius form a “teapot shape” and may be seen above the southern horizon. As you gaze towards Sagittarius, you are actually looking towards the center of our very own Milky Way Galaxy! If you are hearty enough make it past midnight, the planet Jupiter can also be seen rising high in the sky during the pre-dawn hours.
This summer, whether you enjoy the long warm summer days, or relish in the spectacular summer night skies, take a moment to appreciate the wonder and awe of the universe around us. Recognize the fascinating history and legends of centuries worth of sky-gazing. And most of all, get outside and celebrate the natural world around us!
Daniel Eberle & Daniel Rudolf are camp staff at Keystone Science School. Explore the summer sky with the science school at one of our Starquest Programs happening every Wednesday night. Contact us for more information at (970) 468-2098.