Milky Way Most Visible Now During Summer Months

The middle months of summer usually mean more outdoor fun for most, and while you may be out enjoying the sunshine or the beach, there's another spectacle that happens during the summer that's worth staying up late for - observing the Milky Way.

On July 3rd, Earth will be at aphelion, its farthest point from the sun (ironic in the heat of summer, huh? Seasons are dictated by the Earth's axis tilt, and not distance from the sun). With this distance comes increased visibility of the night sky, including several solar system planets (namely Mars and Saturn) and the cluster of stars and gas that comprise the visible portion of the Milky Way.

The spiral arm of the Milky Way that's visible from Earth during July is called the Sagittarius arm, after the constellation that appears just above the horizon after dark this time of year. Of course, you'll have to get out somewhere really dark and away from light pollution to see this rich-filled band. With a pair of binoculars, you'll even be able to pick out star clusters and nebulae, which are clouds of gas and dust that comprise the band.

The entire Milky Way galaxy itself is between 100,000 and 120,000 light-years in diameter, populated by roughly 400 billion stars. At the center lies a black hole billions of times larger than the sun. The bands of the galaxy are much more narrow than they are wide, only about 1,000 light-years thick, condensing in thick clusters that make it able to be viewed down here on Earth.

There are many wonders in our home galaxy, such as why the Milky Way has the certain pattern it does, or how some stars and clouds can travel through the Milky Way at hypervelocity, compared to the rest of the galaxy. Mysterious and beautiful, the Milky Way is truly a sight to behold. Find some time this summer to get outside and away from population to view a part of the universe for yourself.

Image via Wikimedia Commons