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The Sky This Week, 2014 September 23 - 30

Fall stargazing at its best!
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The last sunset of summer, U.S. Naval Observatory, 2014 September 22

The Moon returns to the evening sky this week, passing along the southern reaches of the ecliptic among the lingering summer constellations.  First Quarter occurs on October 1st at 3:33 pm Eastern Daylight Time.  Luna’s slender crescent may be found between Saturn and the star Zubenelgenubi in deep twilight on the evening of the 27th.  On the 29th she forms an attractive grouping with the planet Mars and the ruddy star Antares in the constellation of Scorpius.

With the passage of the autumnal equinox this past Monday we now enter one of my favorite times of year for skywatching.  Gone are the hazy humid nights of summer, now replaced by crisp autumnal breezes that sweep dust and water vapor out of the atmosphere, offering us a clear view of the night sky’s wonders.  It’s a great transition period that’s graced by the departing sights of the summer sky in the early evenings and the rising stars of winter in the hours before dawn.  At the end of evening twilight the Milky Way spans the sky from the northeast to the southwest.  Along its southern reaches you can stull see the great star clouds that lie between Earth and the galactic center, located just west of the “spout” of the “Teapot” asterism formed by the brightest stars in the constellation Sagittarius.  This region holds a treasure trove of star clusters and gaseous nebulae, many of which can be glimpsed in a pair of binoculars from a dark sky site.  The Milky Way arches high overhead for most of the evening hours, passing through the middle of the Summer Triangle of the bright stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair.  Of particular note in this area are the dark rifts that seem to bisect the Milky Way.  These rifts are clouds of cold gas and dust that obscure the light of more distant star clouds.  This material serves as the raw stuff of which stars and planets are made.  This is another great area to get “lost in space” with your binoculars. 

By midnight the scene changes, with the dim autumnal constellations taking up most of the southern sky.  To the north and northeast the Milky Way seems to thin out as it courses through the “W” of Cassiopeia and the wishbone-shaped constellation of Perseus.  While the galactic band seems sparser, this region holds some wonderful star clusters for your binoculars, so take the time on a clear night to hunt them down.

This weekend offers two great opportunities to get out under dark skies to try your hand at viewing the Milky Way.  On Saturday there will be two events at dark-sky locations to the west of the Washington metro area.  The first is the annual Star Gaze hosted by the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, which will take place at C.M. Crockett Park near Catlett, Virginia from 3:00 until 11:00 pm.  There will be safe solar observing during the daylight hours, twilight talks on various aspects of amateur astronomy at dusk, and observing through members’ telescopes after dark.  This free program is open to all to attend.  Farther west toward the Blue Ridge you’ll find another “star party” at Sky Meadows State Park

near Paris, Virginia.  From 6:30 until 11:00 pm amateurs and their telescopes will be set up for your enjoyment under some of the best skies available within an easy drive from Washington.  There is a nominal parking fee to enter the park, but the program itself is free. 

Among the targets we’ll be aiming for at these events are several planets.  Saturn may be visible during twilight, but the planet wallows in the turbulent air above the horizon and may not offer the best possible view.  Ruddy Mars will be quite prominent as twilight ends, but the red planet is now so far from Earth that he’s little more than a bright pink dot.  Two even smaller dots will be under scrutiny at the star parties, though.  Neptune and Uranus are slowly moving through the autumn constellations, and while their telescopic presentations are not spectacular, if you view them you’ll join a rather small cadre of others who have. 

Bright Jupiter rises after all but the “die-hard” observers retire and is best seen in the hour before dawn.  He’s finally beginning to clear the roofline of my house, so I’ll soon be greeting him with my telescope in the gathering morning twilight.  I always look forward to the giant planet’s return.

 

 

 

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