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Reflections all around us

May 17, 2010 at 12:57 PM

GATEHOUSE NEWS SERVICE

The crescent moon glides past Venus this weekend, adding a vivid dimension to the scale of our solar system. As we watch night to night, see how the Earth’s satellite heads past Mars, and later, Saturn. Each night of the moon’s trek, our night sky brightens more with the glare of sunlight increasingly reflecting off lunar soil.

Venus is shining brilliantly westward during evening twilight. Glowing at -3.9 magnitude, the second planet from the sun outshines all the stars in the night sky- as seen from here. Its luminance is both due to the closeness to the Sun and its global cover of white clouds.

Orbiting the sun at an average distance of 67.2 million miles, Venus only gets as close as about 26 million miles. The planet is currently considerably farther, on the far side of its orbital loop.

The Earth’s moon, however, is approximately 238,000 miles from our world. At its closest, Venus is still 109 times more distant than the moon.

Take a close look at the crescent moon for the earth shine filling in the dark portion. That’s light from the sun, reflecting off the Earth, and reflecting back toward us from the moon. You may see this with unaided eyes, but the view with binoculars is outstanding. You should be able to discern the lunar “seas” (dark, hardened lava plains) that make up the familiar “Man in the Moon” pattern.

Earth shine, by the way, is proof the Earth is round. If you live on the East Coast, you’re seeing the light bouncing off the Pacific and West Coast. Never been to Hawaii? At least you can see the sunlight reflected from the island chain - and much else!

As the phase of the moon increases, earth shine is still visible, but you will need a telescope.

First-quarter moon is on May 20; the gibbous phase follows, as the sunlight fills the face leading to full moon on the 27th. With a telescope, place the bright part of the moon just out of the eyepiece field. This will help you see the dimly lit portion where earth shine still rules.

The moon is so bright in a telescope, particularly with larger backyard instruments, that you will be glad to obtain a “lunar filter.” These are available through telescope supply companies.

Like sunglasses, the darkened, high quality glass is contained in a metal rig, which can be threaded onto the back of a telescope eyepiece. The moon will then be much easier on the eyes, but you won’t see earth shine well. Also be sure to remove the filter when moving on to see the stars, or you’ll wonder what happened.

You can easily find the moon in a telescope by aiming generally in the right direction and noting the brightness of the night sky in a low power eyepiece; nudge the telescope towards the increasing brightness. You can “creep up” on the moon and catch the earth shine portion first, with some practice. That way you won’t lose your dark-adapted vision by staring at the brilliant moon, and make faint earth shine harder to examine. This trick also helps you see stars near the moon. It is very interesting to then patiently watch as the moon moves in front of stars (called an “occultation”).

The moon moves west to east in its orbit; that means before full moon, the side covered in earth shine is in the lead and covers stars. Much harder to see is the same star reappear on the bright edge on the other side, about an hour and a half later.

From the moon’s surface, the crescent Earth would also show light reflected from the moon, though not nearly as bright - we suppose it would be called - you guessed it, moonshine! You can see this light every time you stroll out back with the moon high in the sky, and you are away from manmade light sources such as street and house lights.

Venus also shows phases; currently the planet is in gibbous phase but will become a quarter phase and then a crescent for telescope users, later this year. Venus, however, has no moons, and thus lacks reflections.

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Keep looking up!

 

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