Note: This article was written for, and first published in, The Big Bang, the news letter of Astro2, the Astronomy & Physics Society of NUI Maynooth.

This is a very nice time of the year to get into some practical astronomy. The nights are getting longer and it’s getting dark earlier and earlier so you don’t have to stay up late to enjoy the wonders of the night sky. A few months from now the treasure’s of the winter sky will make their appearance but until then we have a last chance to admire the stars of our summer skies before they are gone for the year.

In particular this is a great time to enjoy the constellations that straddle the Milky-Way galaxy. Even with the most basic of binoculars scanning the band of the Milky-Way is a fascinating experience. So many stars all heaped on top of each other. I can’t help but wonder how many intelligent aliens are staring back at our little sun from those tiny pin-pricks of light.

While you’re scanning the Milky-Way with your binoculars you may as well have a go at tracking down some of the nice open clusters in the area. Probably the best of these is the double cluster in Perseus closely followed in my opinion by the V-shaped M39 at the top of Cygnus. Also worth tracking down is M34 also in Perseus and M52 in near-by Cepheus.

After you’ve tracked down those clusters you could also track down a must larger group of stars, the Andromeda galaxy just a little lower down in the sky at the top of the constellation of Andromeda. If you’re in a particularly dark location you can also try for the pinwheel galaxy, M33, in Triangulum. This is a huge galaxy that is so large on the sky it’s almost impossible to see in a telescope but can be quite easily seen with a pair of binoculars if the sky is dark enough.

Finally, over these months Mars will start to rise earlier and earlier in the sky as it charges towards us for it’s closest approach around Christmas time.