Summertime gives us great views of our local star, the Sun, but if you stay up late then you can take advantage of the warm summer nights to gaze up at the more distant stars too. These are millions of times further from us than the Sun, the light from some taking hundreds of years to reach us.
The Summer Triangle [image credit Winchester Science Centre]
Look around the southern side of the sky for a large triangle of bright stars. These dominate the sky during the summer and can be seen through the autumn months too.
The brightest star of the three is Vega. It is surrounded by a dusty ring of debris, which the Spitzer Space Telescope has shown is likely the aftermath of huge collisions of asteroids. Its constellation, Lyra, represents the musical instrument the lyre.
The star to the right is Altair, which can also be recognised as it has a star each side of it. This star is spinning so quickly that it has flattened itself out - if it spun much faster then these forces would overcome the gravity that holds it together and it would rip itself apart! Altair is the brightest star in the constellation of Aquila, the eagle.
The final star, to the left, is Deneb. Deneb is about 100 times further from us than the other bright stars in the triangle and is phenomenally bright, putting out nearly 200,000 times as much light as our own Sun. It is one of the most distant stars that can be spotted with the naked eye, but also one of the brightest. Deneb forms the tail of the constellation Cygnus the swan, which is well worth looking out for, with the swan flying through the triangle.
If you look towards the star that marks the swan's neck, then you are also looking towards the first black hole that was ever discovered, Cygnus X-1. This was discovered as although it is invisible to the naked eye, it is a bright source of X-rays.
The Perseid Meteor shower [image showing meteor as spotted from International Space Station, credit NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center]
If you are out at night any time around 10-14 August, look out for shooting stars! Shooting stars, more properly known as meteors, are not stars at all but are formed by small rocks falling from space.
These small pieces of rock, most no larger than a grain of rice, are pulled in by the Earth's gravity and fall down to the ground. As they push their way down through the air, they compress the air ahead of them, heating it and themselves until they begin to vapourise, forming the light of the shooting star. They are usually reduced to dust during their journey, although larger pieces may survive to hit the ground after which they are called meteorites.
Meteors can be seen any night of the year, but each August the Earth's orbit ploughs us through a dusty trail of debris left by comet Swift-Tuttle. This, combined with the warm weather, makes it the perfect time to look out for them.
The Perseid meteor shower is named after the constellation Perseus, which is seen in the part of the sky from which the meteors appear to come. Perseus is low in the northern skies but it's best to look either side of this to catch side of the meteors that streak sideways across your view (those coming head-on can just look like dots).
This year, fainter meteors may be hard to spot as the Moon will be bright in the sky after it rises at about 10pm. Try looking before it rises, or find a viewing position where you are protected from its light. The best night to look will be the 12 August.
For meteor-spotting, go to the darkest place you can, even if this is just in the shadow of your house. Use a red light for a torch if you can (as this will protect your night vision), and wrap up warm so you can stay out as long as you like.
Look for the planets Saturn and Jupiter, low in the sky and looking like very bright stars. Saturn is found more to the South, with Jupiter somewhat less than a quarter-turn to its right. They will both appear further to the west each day as the month goes by and our view changes due to our motion in orbit of the Sun. We can see planets in the night sky as they reflect light from the Sun - just the same way we see the Moon.
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