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The Sky This Week, 2009 July 17 - 24

The year's best eclipse, and memories from 40 years ago...

The Moon returns to the evening sky by the end of the week, where she may be seen courting the rapidly fading Saturn at dusk on the evening of the 24th.  New Moon occurs on the 21st at 10:35 pm Eastern Daylight Time.  This particular New Moon corresponds to within a few hours of the year’s closest lunar perigee, and it also happens to be one of the two times in each lunar orbit when the Moon crosses the Ecliptic.  All of these circumstances add up to a total solar eclipse for those people fortunate enough to be along a center line stretching from northeastern India, across south-central China, over the Japanese Ryuku islands, then out across a vast stretch of the central Pacific Ocean.  This will be one of the longest-duration eclipses of the 21st Century, with totality lasting some 6 minutes 39 seconds over the western Pacific region.  This eclipse belongs to the same Saros as the memorable eclipse of July 11, 1991, which was probably seen by more people than any other in history as the path of totality traversed the spine of Central America and crossed over Mexico City.  This one may very well break that record as it will cross over some of China’s largest cities, including Shanghai.  Alas, we won’t see any of it from here. 

This week marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most memorable events in history, although for many of us it was a chance to witness history being made.  On July 20, 1969 a spindly-legged machine from Earth touched down on the desolate surface of our only natural satellite bearing two men, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.  The drama of that moment, as well as all of the milestones leading up to it, is still fresh in my memory despite the fact that my kids read about it in history books in school.  I sat transfixed before the television as the seconds ticked by just before the landing.  It wasn’t until much later that I realized how close it was to a disaster as the “Eagle” dropped to the surface with scant seconds of fuel remaining.  As the afternoon passed to evening, I had my telescope set up on the patio and ran back and forth between the TV set and the telescope as the two men prepared to step on the lunar plains.  History came to a sharp focus for me at that moment as my father related the story of his first airplane ride in 1918 in a Curtiss “Jenny”.  The age of flight was barely 15 years at that time, and 51 years later we were watching people loping on the surface of another world.  I lived and breathed the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs in my youth, and they steered me toward an interest in space exploration that is still the driving force in my life.  As we observe the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, let us also remember that only 400 years ago a man named Galileo first described the things he saw in his primitive telescope, setting us on the inexorable path that led to that first Moon landing.

The early evening sky finds Saturn wallowing in twilight.  The ringed planet gets a visit from the 3 day-old crescent Moon on the evening of the 24th, but your leisurely evenings for examining his rings and moons are over.  By the week’s end he sets just after 10:30 pm.
Giant Jupiter rises by 9:30 pm by the week’s end.  Old Jove is quickly advancing into the evening sky to take over for departing Saturn.  Jupiter is now well up by midnight and well worth setting up the telescope to view.  His cloud belts and ever-shifting moons will keep us all entertained through the end of the year.
Venus and Mars continue their dance in the morning sky.  The waning crescent Moon stands about four degrees north of Mars on the morning of the 19th.  At dawn the next day she’s six degrees northeast of Venus.  All the while the two planets continue their foray through the stars of Taurus, with Venus closing in on the third-magnitude star Zeta Tauri as mars passes between bright reddish Aldebaran and the Pleiades.