The glowing band of the Milky Way is always tough to find. It’s so faint that you need to get far away from city lights to see and appreciate its grandeur. But this time of year is especially challenging, because the Milky Way doesn’t soar high across the sky as it does in summer and winter. Instead, it brackets the sky — it’s low in the west after nightfall, and in the east before dawn.
It’s all a matter of perspective. During summer, Earth faces the center of the Milky Way galaxy around midnight, so the galaxy’s crowded inner regions climb high overhead. And during winter, we face opposite the galactic center, so the galaxy’s faint outer precincts top the sky.
About now, though, we’re looking at a right angle to the galaxy’s disk around midnight — away from our galactic home and toward intergalactic space. You can see the Milky Way, just not at its best.
In early evening it arcs low across the west. Its path is traced by Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, which is in the southwest; bright orange Betelgeuse, well to its upper right; and W-shaped Cassiopeia, low in the northwest.
And as Earth turns on its axis during the night, a different region of the Milky Way rotates into view before dawn. It arcs high across the east, from Cassiopeia — now in the northeast — to the Northern Cross and over to teapot-shaped Sagittarius in the south — a section of the Milky Way that will highlight the evening skies of summer.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.