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The Sky This Week, 2011 June 28 - July 5

An east coast light show, short nights for deep-sky.

Minotaur Dawn
Launch of TacSat-2 from Wallops Island, 2006 DEC 16
as seen from Alexandria, VA

The Moon returns to the evening sky this week, just in time to share the limelight with Independence Day fireworks displays. New Moon occurs on July 1st at 4:54 am Eastern Daylight Time. This will be the first of two New Moons this month; the next one will occur on the 30th. If you have a very flat western horizon, use binoculars to seek out the very slender lunar crescent in twilight on the evening of the 2nd. Five degrees to the north of the Moon you should be able to spot the shimmering glow of the planet Mercury, which puts in a moderately favorable evening appearance for the next couple of weeks.

East coast stargazers between North Carolina and southern New England and as far west as West Virginia have an opportunity to see a rare sight sometime over the next several days. While we usually focus on natural sky events, this one will be man-made and very fleeting when it happens, but it could be very spectacular if the weather cooperates. The event is the orbital launch of a small satellite from NASA’s Wallops Island facility on Virginia’s eastern shore, and the launch "windows" begin on June 28th between 8:28 and 11:28 pm EDT and extend over the same times through July 10th. The carrier rocket, known as a Minotaur-I, consists of decommissioned Minuteman ICBM boosters mated to commercial solid-propellant upper stages. When launched, the Minuteman stages accelerate very quickly and leave a distinctive smoke plume that may be seen from a large area. Almost any site in the Washington area with a clear view of the southeast horizon will offer a chance to see the rocket’s ascent. Should the launch occur at the opening of the ‘window", the smoke plume will be highlighted by the setting Sun. Should launch be delayed until after darkness falls the flame from the solid rockets should rival the best fireworks you’d see on the 4th! A link to updated launch information may be found here.

Even though evening twilight extends to its latest time of the year this week, if the weather cooperates it is still a good time to haul the telescope out to a dark-sky site and view some of the early summer’s spectacular deep-sky objects. If you’re headed to the shore or the mountains try to leave a little room for the telescope. One of my favorite objects, the Great Hercules Cluster known as Messier 13, lies just about overhead at around midnight, while other summer showpieces like Messier 57, the Ring Nebula, and Messier 51, the Whirlpool Nebula, are also well-placed for tracking down. M51 is of particular interest right now since the eruption of a supernova in one of this galaxy’s spiral arms on May 31st. Last weekend, while visiting friends in Virginia’s Northern Neck, I was able to get a good look at this stellar explosion, which was easily seen in my 8-inch telescope despite a thin deck of high clouds. In addition to these three showcase objects, dozens of other Messier objects adorn the current sky. Here’s a link to help you track some of them down.

As darkness falls the spring sky gradually gives way to the brighter stars of summer, but during the late twilight hours you can still enjoy a fine view of Saturn, which is high in the southwestern sky. The planet’s signature rings are presented to our view at about a ten-degree angle that is gradually opening up as the nights pass. Since the planet is near quadrature the shadow of the planet’s sphere may be seen falling on the rings, and as the sky darkens his bevy of small satellites begins to appear in the surrounding space.

Pre-dawn skywatchers should have no trouble spotting the friendly glow of Jupiter in the gathering morning twilight. The giant planet is high enough now as twilight begins to brighten the sky to point the telescope his way for a quick glimpse. First reports from amateur astronomers indicate that the planet’s South Equatorial cloud belt, missing for much of last year’s opposition, has returned to its former prominence. A telescope of only 60 millimeters of aperture should be able to verify this. If you find yourself up and about at 5:00 am on the morning of June 29th, look for the waning crescent Moon over the eastern horizon. With a pair of binoculars you should be able to glimpse the rising knot of the Pleiades star cluster just two degrees above Luna’s crescent and ruddy Mars just four degrees below.

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