Stargazing: Explore the glorious Milky Way at its best

The further south you go, the better it gets, as the nights draw in more quickly

At this time of year, the softly glowing band of the Milky Way arches overhead, winding its way through the constellations.

The further south you go, the better it gets, as the nights draw in more quickly. From the Mediterranean, it’s a glorious sight; but if it’s too late to book that holiday trip, staying at home is an option.

The British Isles can now boast several designated “Dark Sky” sites and Dark Sky Parks – plus Sark, created the World’s first Dark Sky Island in 2011. At all these pitch-black havens, you’re guaranteed a view of the Milky Way. To find your nearest Dark Sky site, log on to darkskydiscovery.org.uk.

But what is The Milky Way? The classical civilizations always associated it with milk – hence its name the Via Lactaea. In Greek legend, Hera (wife of Zeus) is mistakenly given Heracles (the Roman Hercules) to suckle – and, recoiling in panic, spills her milk all over the sky.

The Finns interpreted the Milky Way as a path, used by migrating birds to fly south (“The Pathway of the Birds”). Astonishingly, this has turned out to be true: migrating birds do use the Milky Way as an aid to navigation – as do dung beetles. But knowledge of the true nature of the Milky Way had to wait until 1609, and Galileo. He concluded that “all the disputes which have vexed philosophers through so many ages have been resolved. The Galaxy is in fact nothing but congeries of innumerable stars.”

What a concise and accurate description! And you can recreate Galileo’s “discovery” of the Milky Way by sweeping a pair of binoculars along its length. Packed together are stars, some appearing almost on top of each other; compact clusters of stars; misty patches of glowing gas – nebulae – which are cosmic factories poised to create the next generation of stars.

Perspective makes the Milky Way appear as it does. We live in a Galaxy of some 200 billion stars, of which our local star, the Sun, is just one. The stars are arranged in a flat disc, so that the more distant stars look as of they are grouped into a band, like the lights of a far-off city.

Now, back to sweeping the Milky Way. Between the constellations of Cygnus and Aquila, you’ll see a dark rift. In the past, astronomers thought that rifts in the Milky Way were “holes” in space, where we could peer beyond ourGalaxy to the Universe outside... Now we know that the rifts are just the opposite: they are vast clouds of cosmic “soot” and gas, on the brink of collapsing to make new stars.

Finally, to the Milky Way’s “deep south” – in the constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius – where we hit the centre of the Galaxy. Towering clouds of dense dust hide our Milky Way’s secret: the black hole which powers our Galaxy’s heart. Weighing in at four million Suns, this cosmic monster devours anything that strays too close. Ten million years ago, it “ate” a vast gas cloud, which resulted in it belching out two giant bubbles of super-hot gas.

Make no mistake about it – downtown in the Milky Way is not the place to be!

<b>Large Magellanic Cloud</b><p>The largest and brightest of a dozen or so small galaxies in orbit around the Milky Way, the Large Magellanic Cloud is a prominent object in southern skies, appearing as a separate 'blob' of the band of the Milky Way in the constellation of Dorado.</p>  

What’s up

It’s not often we kick off with a sky-sight that’s not visible until the early hours of the morning – but this one is well worth an early alarm call (or a late night the evening before). Around 4.30 on the morning of 18 August, you’ll see the two brightest planets virtually on top of each other, as they rise low in the north-east.

Venus – the more brilliant – is passing just one-fifth of a degree from giant planet Jupiter: less than the width of a cocktail stick held at arm’s length. (There’s no chance of a real cosmic collision, as Jupiter is four times away than Venus.) A “conjunction” this close is highly unusual: some astronomers believe the Star of Bethlehem was a similar Venus-Jupiter conjunction in 2BC. Back in the evening sky, look out for the planets Mars and Saturn low in the west after sunset. The most distant planet, Neptune, is at its closest to Earth this month, but you’ll need good binoculars or a telescope to pick it out among the stars of Aquarius.

On 10 August, the Moon is full at the same time as it’s closest to the Earth in its oval-shaped orbit, meaning it’s 14 per cent bigger and 30 per cent brighter than a full Moon at its furthest from Earth. The Moon’s bright light will spoil one of the best annual displays of cosmic fireworks, the Perseid meteor shower. These shooting stars are debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle, burning up as they smash into Earth’s atmosphere. This year, you may be luckier catching stray Perseids earlier in the month after the Moon has set  than on the actual peak due for the night of 12-13 August.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people

Harry Potter actor suffered 'severe flu-like symptoms' on a flight from London to Orlando

Sport
Kim Sears is reported to have directed abuse at Berdych
tennis
News
news

Rap music mogul accused of running two men over in his truck

News
Gywneth Paltrow proposed that women seek out a special herbal steam-treatment service
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Toronto tops the charts across a range of indexes
news

World cities ranked in terms of safety, food security and 'liveability'

Voices
A mother and her child
voices
Arts and Entertainment
tv

First full-length look is finally here

Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
Tax now accounts for ‘nearly 80%’ of the price of a bottle of whisky
news

Arts and Entertainment
Peppa Pig wearing her golden boots
film

"Oink! Oink! Hee hee hee!" First interview with the big-screen star

ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
tech

Biohacking group hopes technology will lead people to think about even more dystopian uses

Arts and Entertainment
film
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Film director Martin Scorsese
film
News
news

The party's potential nominations read like a high school race for student body president

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Data Entry Administrator

£10670 - £16640 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: Regional Gas Installation Manager - South East England

£36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Regional Gas Installation Manager is r...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service and Breakdown Engineer - South East

£29000 - £31000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Service and Brea...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is a two form entry primary schoo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee