Summertime is the best season to see the Milky Way, our home galaxy, arcing high in the sky at around 10:30 at night.
While the dusty streak of stars used to be easy to find any moonless night, today’s skies are cluttered with lights unless one is far, far away from what we call civilization. Somewhere like Bryce Canyon, for instance.
Bryce Canyon, Utah, is known for its dark skies, and for those of us who cannot escape from urban light pollution, a camera has been set up to give us deskbound folks a glimpse of the gorgeous night. But this isn’t just any camera. It’s an interactive panoramic one. Put your cursor on the screen, drag it around, and watch the view change. You can view the sky as if you were gazing at the horizon, or lying on your back staring up, or standing on your head.
“The Milky Way floats above the eastern horizon in this view of Bryce Canyon from the Fairyland Loop Trail,” states the commentary on the Bryce Canyon sky panorama web cam. “Bryce is well known for having very dark skies, and with an elevation at its rim of around 8,500 ft (2600 m) the view of the night sky is ‘stellar.’ ”
Staring at the real thing, if one is lucky enough to be way out in the country, is slightly different. For one thing, Space.com notes, there is an absence of color.
“What does the Milky Way look like? Not like any of the photographs you see online, because those are made with cameras that accumulate light in ways the human eye cannot,” Space.com says in a summer guide to viewing the Milky Way. “What you will see is a faint, whitish glow, stretching in a huge arc from the southern to northeastern horizon. It has a mottled effect, kind of like a fluffy cloud. There are brighter areas, especially down toward the core of the galaxy in the southern part of the sky. There are also darker patches, where nearby clouds of interstellar dust block the light from beyond.”
Humans are not the only creatures who keep track of the Milky Way. Last year researchers discovered that the dung beetle steers its balls of poop by following the galaxy’s trail.
And when we think of the scope of our galactic home, we may feel as small as one of those dung-rolling insects.
“The Milky Way contains over 200 billion stars, and enough dust and gas to make billions more,” says Space.com.