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Enjoying the summer sky

August 24, 2009 at 09:03 AM

GATEHOUSE NEWS SERVICE

Warm, hazy summer nights are not ideal for seeing the fainter stars, but there is still plenty you can enjoy by “looking up.” The bright planets still show well, such as Jupiter now dominating the southeastern evening sky, or the moon, which reaches first-quarter phase on Thursday, Aug. 27. In fact, light pollution cannot rob you of the pleasure of finding these wonderful worlds.

Even on a hazy night, look straight up. Here you will likely see the most stars because your view is the least hindered by the blanket of air surrounding our planet. This past week, with no moonlight to interfere, the Milky Way Band still managed to shine through the haze in the zenith (the overhead point). In late evening, the constellation Cygnus the Swan, also pictured as the Northern Cross, rides high overhead, and here the Milky Way passes behind the constellation stars.

Thankfully, haze does not last. Aug. 14, for example, was very clear. It was a fortunate date to pick for a public star-watch session in Pennsylvania that was organized by Barbara Yeaman and the Butterfly Barn, a nature center she conducts on her property along the Upper Delaware. Taking advantage of one of the few excellent stargazing nights this area has had this summer, telescopes were set up by Norman Sullivan and myself. A few members of the public who enjoyed finding constellations were present, looking through the telescopes at diverse wonders such as Jupiter, star clusters and galaxies, and being startled by several bright meteors.

On these rare and special nights, take some time to see - and hear - the beauty of nature. Situated in a meadow, with few sources of nearby manmade lights to annoy, the expanse of the celestial dome was taken in far better than any planetarium can offer. The sight of the sparking stars and nebulous Milky Way Band were joined by the sound of a chorus of crickets. Nocturnal creatures celebrate life in their own way, out and about when most of us are in for the night. When the din of human traffic, boom boxes and other manmade sounds subside, the symphony of the creatures of the night begins. They may be crickets, peep toads, an owl or even a (hopefully) distant coyote.

Equally amazing is how the songbirds will begin their music as morning twilight returns while some of us still sleep and others are up brewing coffee. Before the sunrise, which comes awfully early in the summer, treasures of the sky await the early bird. Currently, gloriously bright planet Venus shines in the morning light of the eastern sky.

Although the growing moon bathes the night with its heavenly light and masks many of the stars, you can still find the brighter stars marking the most prominent constellations. The northern sky will always be darker, well away from the moon. Here you can still pick out the famous Big Dipper, dipping downward in the northwest on a late August evening. Look to the right, in the northeast, for the five stars marking the grand “W,” the constellation Cassiopeia. Between the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia, find the North Star.

The beacon of summer, the zero-magnitude star Vega, shines overhead as darkness falls. Due to moonlight (or haze), you might need binoculars to pick out the four stars of the parallelogram right below Vega. All of these stars make up most of the constellation Lyra the Harp. Another star easy to see with binoculars (or unaided eyes if the moon isn’t out) makes a neat isosceles triangle with Vega and the top star of the parallelogram. This star is known as Epsilon Lyrae. Take a look with binoculars and see how the star is split into two stars very close together. A backyard telescope using about 100X should be able to show that each of these stars, in turn, is split again, making this a quadruple star system.

This week before the moon reaches first quarter, take a moment to admire the crescent moon. Note the “earthshiine” - the dim light painting the rest of the moon. The view is outstanding in binoculars. As you may know, this light is the sunlight reflecting off the sunny side of our planet. Here is a sign that indeed, we live on a round globe, and though the sun has disappeared for the night, it is still faithfully shining.

Comments, questions and reports may be sent to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). This column marks its fifth anniversary in late August. Thank you for reading and for your interest, which keeps this going.

Keep looking up!

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