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Have You Seen the Milky Way?

Milky Way Summer 2011 John Chumack
The Milky Way as seen in summer 2011 from Rice Lake, Canada. Credit: John Chumack

I once read that only one in five people alive today have seen the Milky Way. This statistic is a bit hard to believe, but when you consider how many people live in urban areas these days with light pollution blocking out all but the brightest stars, it might not be that far-fetched.

It's really not at all hard to see the Milky Way provided you have a couple key elements working in your favor. The first is that you need to escape the city lights and find a nice dark-sky location. This doesn't even mean you have to go camping or hike into the back country. I live in the suburbs and despite light pollution intruding to the east, I can easily spot the Milky Way from my backyard.

The second factor working in your favor at the moment is that this is a great season for viewing the Milky Way because it stretches overhead. (Instead of hugging the horizon, like it does in spring.) The Milky Way crosses the zenith over the course of the evening. If you look straight up, you’ll find the bright star Vega in Lyra, one of the three points in the Summer Triangle. Deneb and Altair can be found to the northeast and southeast, respectively. Inside the triangle is a portion of the Milky Way.

If you trace the Milky Way toward the north, it is narrower and less dense because you are looking away from the center of the galaxy. If you look toward the southern horizon where the Milky Way lies you are looking toward the center of the galaxy. The galactic center is located just above the spout of the teapot asterism in Sagittarius.

If you haven't yet seen the Milky Way, go out and have a look. Seeing the cloudy band of our own galaxy should be on everyone’s bucket list.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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