During the summer, astronomical darkness comes so late that if I think it might be clear that night, I go to bed shortly after dinner and wake up around 11PM or midnight to go out and observe. Sometimes the weather prediction is wrong and I wake up to cloudy skies. Sometimes I can go back to bed, especially if I've had several late nights at the telescope, and sometimes I stay up and catch up on emails or shows I've recorded on DVR. I keep checking, and if my luck is good the sky clears up and I can go out before dawn for a while.
Eventually the short nights of sleep accumulate and catch up to me, and I crash in front of the TV around 9PM and stagger up to bed whenever a cat jumps on my head, chest or otherwise wakes me up.
Last night was one of those crash in front of the TV nights. I made my way upstairs around midnight and slept like a stone, until about 4AM. I woke up and looked out the window to the east to see if the clouds had thinned. I could make out a few bright stars through the mist, but it wasn't clear, so I dozed a little more. Around 5AM I woke up again and stared out the window into the darkness of pre-dawn.
It was glorious. A faint sliver of the waning Moon was above the horizon, up and to the right was Venus blazing bright. Mars sat in the no-man's land between Gemini and Taurus' bright stars. It was one of those times where you could draw a line through the Moon and planets to explain to a visitor how the ecliptic is the plane of the solar system on the sky.
I looked for Auriga, and epsilon Aurigae was almost past the top of my window view. I could make out the Pleiades and that lower branch of Perseus that seems to flow right into them. But what surprised me, as it always does each year, was the fact that almost half of Orion's body was above the horizon already! It looked like a November-December evening!
The ancients used to mark the rise of Sirius with some importance, but to me, seeing Orion again after a long spring and summer without him marks the change of seasons. Soon the weather will get cooler at night, the nights will get drier, the seeing will improve and the best part of the observing year will be here- Autumn! Man, I love fall. The color of the leaves, the cool air, football and great nights at the telescope.
Eventually, as the nights get longer and longer, and the Sun rides lower and lower across the sky, winter will set in. I hope its not as bad as last winter. I'm still getting over the shock of having zero clear nights from the end of October last year until March. And the snow piled higher than I can remember since I was a kid.
Whatever we're in store for, it's coming soon. Orion told me so this morning.
Sky map credit: Sky and Telescope and check out this great article
Orion picture credit: http://www.freewebs.com/worldstarsofpeace/worldstarsofpeaceflag.htm