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The Sky This Week, 2014 September 9 - 16

Clusters and comets and stars...oh, my!
Comet C/2014 E2 (Jacques), discovered 2014 March 13 by Cristóvão Jacques in Brazil
Imaged 2014 August 30, 02:48 - 03:10 near Morratico, Virginia USA.
80mm (3.1-inch) f/6 Antares Sentinel refractor, Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR;
composite image of 27 30-second sub-frames at ISO 6400.

The Moon wanes through her gibbous phases as she brightens the faint starfields of autumn’s constellations.  By the week’s end she has climbed northward along the ecliptic to greet the rising stars of winter.  Last Quarter occurs on the 15th at 10:05 pm Eastern Daylight Time.  Look for Luna rising along with the Pleiades star cluster late in the evening on the 14th.  On the following night she follows the star Aldebaran, the fiery eye of Taurus the Bull, into the sky at around midnight.

You’ll have to wait until the week’s end to enjoy the faint glow of the Milky Way.  Fortunately this remnant of mild summer nights, as well as the stars of the Summer Triangle, will be gracing the evening sky for some time to come as September’s nights lengthen approaching the equinox.  In the early evening the brighter stars of summer are on display by 9:00 pm, with the Triangle well-placed directly overhead.  Toward the southern horizon you should still be able to trace out the stars of Scorpius, dominated by the ruddy glow of the star Antares in the southwest followed by the sweeping curve of the scorpion’s tail.  To the left of Scorpius you’ll find the “Teapot” asterism of the constellation Sagittarius straddling the meridian due south.  If you have a good, clear night point a pair of binoculars just to the west of the “spout” of the Teapot; you’ll be rewarded with a view of two galactic star clusters.  The more southerly of the two is Messier 7, also known as Ptolemy’s Cluster, since it was first noted by that ancient Greek astronomer around the year 130 BC.  Just above M7 is Messier 6, a slightly smaller but no less prominent cluster first described in the year 1654.  These objects are often difficult to see through summertime haze, but September’s generally crisper skies should help you track them down.

Toward the end of the week, try your luck at locating a celestial interloper that will be moving through the stars of Cygnus, the Swan.  Comet C/2014 E2 (Jacques) has been one of the summer’s pleasant surprises.  As comets go it’s not a show-stopper, but it has hovered on the brink of naked-eye visibility for the past month or so.  I was able to easily spot it in my 8X42 binoculars over labor Day weekend from Virginia’s Northern Neck despite less than ideal conditions, and it was very easy to pick out in my little 3.1-inch refractor telescope.  This week it moves through the “neck” of the Swan, and on the night of the 14th it lies less than a degree from the beautiful 3rd-magnitude double star Albireo.

There’s still time to catch a glimpse of Saturn in the early evening sky, but your best view of the ringed planet will now be during the fading glow of twilight.  You should be able to spot his golden glow about half an hour after sunset in the southwestern sky, and you should have a good hour or so to enjoy a telescopic view before he sinks into the turbulent air above the horizon.  Saturn is gradually drifting eastward along the ecliptic away from the star Zubenelgenubi, and he will spend the next couple of years slowly skirting the southern horizon.

Unlike Saturn, Mars is now rushing along the ecliptic, abandoning the ringed planet to the encroaching Sun.  Mars spends the week closing in on the second-magnitude star Dschubba, the middle of the three vertically-aligned stars that for the “head” of Scorpius.  Early next week Mars will pass just one-third of a degree north of the star before drawing a bead on his ruddy rival, Antares. 

Jupiter is now becoming quite prominent in the morning sky, rising at around 3:30 am by the week’s end.  He’s very easy to spot in the eastern sky as morning twilight begins to gather.  He’s currently drifting eastward among the dim stars of the constellation of Cancer, the Crab and should be a good target for some early morning telescopic observing.

If you have a very clear eastern horizon, look for Venus at around 6:30 am.  The planet is always quite bright, but she’s now less than 10 degrees high as bright twilight announces the Sun’s pending arrival.  You’d better catch her while you can as she’ll disappear into the Sun’s glare by the end of the month.

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