Observe the Milky Way and Great Rift
The Great Rift is shown in more detail in this photo of the Milky Way. You can see why it is also called the “Dark Rift.”  Credit: NASA/A.Fujii 
 
Summer skies bring glorious views of our own Milky Way galaxy to observers blessed with dark skies. For many city dwellers, their first sight of the Milky Way comes during trips to rural areas - so if you are traveling away from city lights, do yourself a favor and look up!

To observe the Milky Way, you need clear, dark skies, and enough time to adapt your eyes to the dark. Photos of the Milky Way are breathtaking, but they usually show far more detail and color than the human eye can see – that’s the beauty and quietly deceptive nature of long exposure photography. For Northern Hemisphere observers, the most prominent portion of the Milky Way rises in the southeast as marked by the constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius. Take note that, even in dark skies, the Milky Way isn’t easily visible until it rises a bit above the horizon and the thick, turbulent air which obscures the view. The Milky Way is huge, but is also rather faint, and our eyes need time to truly adjust to the dark and see it in any detail. Try not to check your phone while you wait, as its light will reset your night vision. It’s best to attempt to view the Milky Way when the Moon is at a new or crescent phase; you don’t want the Moon’s brilliant light washing out any potential views, especially since a full Moon is up all night. 

Illustration of a top-down view of a spiral galaxy as a stand-in for our Milky Way, superimposed over an an outline of North America
If the Milky Way was shrunk down to the size of North America, our solar system would be about the size of a quarter. At that scale, the North Star, Polaris - which is about 433 light years distant from us - would be 11 miles away! Find more ways to visualize these immense sizes with the Our Place in Our Galaxy activity.

Keeping your eyes dark adapted is especially important if you want to not only see the haze of the Milky Way, but also the dark lane cutting into that haze, stretching from the Summer Triangle to Sagittarius. This dark detail is known as the Great Rift, and is seen more readily in very dark skies, especially dark, dry skies found in high desert regions. What exactly is the Great Rift? You are looking at massive clouds of galactic dust lying between Earth and the interior of the Milky Way. Other “dark nebulae” of cosmic clouds pepper the Milky Way, including the famed Coalsack, found in the Southern Hemisphere constellation of Crux. Many cultures celebrate these dark clouds in their traditional stories along with the constellations and Milky Way.

Where exactly is our solar system within the Milky Way? Is there a way to get a sense of scale? The “Our Place in Our Galaxy” activity can help you do just that, with only birdseed, a coin, and your imagination. You can also discover the amazing science NASA is doing to understand our galaxy – and our place in it - at nasa.gov.

You can find a printer-ready version of this article on our Night Sky Notes resource page every month, free to share with your club newsletter, website, or even local paper!

Additional Skywatching Resources

Plan your skywatching with help from our planner page, featuring daily stargazing tips courtesy EarthSky monthly sky maps, and videos from NASA/JPL. You can even find out how to spot the International Space Station! Both Astronomy and Sky and Telescope magazines offer regular stargazing guides to readers, both in print and online. Want to join a group of folks for a star party? Find clubs and astronomy events near you, and may you have clear skies!
 
Last Updated: June 18, 2021
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