July 4, 2011 - January 1, 2012
On Monday, July 4 the Earth is farthest from the sun for the year at a distance of 94.5 million miles. This is 1.7% farther than our average distance of 93 million miles. But summer continues due to the Earth's northern hemisphere being tipped towards the sun. The sun is now cresting 80% of the way up in the South and shines for nearly 14 hours a day. This higher sun angle and longer daylight causes the sun to supply about 3 x as much energy per day to our region as in early January when we are closest to the sun. Also on Monday evening, the crescent moon will appear underneath the bright star Regulus of Leo. On Thurday, July 7th, the evening moon will appear half full in the southwestern evening sky. Above the moon that night will be the bright planet Saturn . The half full or first quarter moon offers the best views of the moon's craters and mountains through binoculars or a telescope. Along the moon's straight or left edge, the sun is rising, lighting up the crater rims and mountain ranges. A few days before or after July 7th will also give you splendid views of the moon's features. On July 8th, the evening moon will appear underneath Spica, Virgo's brightest star.
2011 July 11–17 Weekly Sky Events
This week the planet Neptune has completed one complete revolution since its discovery in 1846. Neptune takes nearly 165 Earth years to orbit the sun, being about 30 times farther from the sun than Earth. Neptune was the second planet to be discovered since telescopes were used. Uranus was the first planet to be discovered in 1781. William Hershel found Uranus on a survey of the sky with a new telescope. In a few decades, Uranus seemed to be drifting from its predicted position. Two Astronomers took on the difficult task of predicting a new planet's position – John Couch Adams of England and Urbain Leverrier of France. Neither man got much help from their own countrymen; but LeVerrier had friends at an observatory in Berlin. Within an hour of beginning their search, the German observers found Neptune. The year was 1846. Neptune now appears as a dim blue dot through a medium sized telescope at high power, being nearly three billion miles away from Earth. Neptune is now a binocular object in Aquarius, now best seen in the late evening sky
2011 July 18–24 Weekly Sky Events
This week the planet Mercury is at its greatest angle from the sun in the northwestern dusk. The Big Dipper's two lowest stars (at end of the scoop) point right to the North Star. These same two stars point left to Leo, the Lion. The lowest stars of Leo form a sickle with a bright star Regulus farthest to the left. Below Leo's sickle is the planet Mercury, appearing brighter than Regulus. Mercury this week is about 79 million miles from the Earth, appearing half full through a medium sized telescope. Mercury is at a low angle to the horizon so its image will be quivering due to heat waves coming off our woods, roads and buildings. NASA's Messenger spacecraft is now orbiting Mercury, allowing a thorough mapping of Mercury's surface for the first time. This sun baked world has temperatures at high noon of about 800° F and temperatures just before dawn of three hundred degrees F below zero. Mercury's daylight lasts 88 days followed by an equally long night.
2011 July 25–31 Weekly Sky Events
The moon is now a crescent in the dawn sky. So this week as the moon orbits the Earth, it will appear near the dawn planets. Early in the week, the moon will appear under and to the left of the bright planet Jupiter in the southeastern dawn. On Wednesday and Thursday morning, the crescent moon will appear near the dull planet Mars, low in the eastern dawn. Mars is now between the horns of Taurus the Bull. Low in the western dusk on Tuesday, the planet Mercury will appear below and to the right of Regulus, Leo's heart star. On July's last week end, the moon has disappeared in the sun's glare; this is an idea opportunity to observe the Delta Aquarid meteor shower after midnight on Saturday and Sunday. The name of this meteor shower is from the region of the sky where the meteors can be traced back to; this is the southeastern part of Aquarius where the star Delta shines. A meteor shower occurs when the Earth passes through the orbit of a comet, littered with comet grit. This comet grit is incinerated in the upper atmosphere, causing a surge in the number of meteors.
2011 August 1–7 Weekly Sky Events
A very slender moon can be seen low in the western dusk on August 1st, weather permitting. The first sighting of this crescent moon in the Middle East will mark the beginning of the month of Ramadan, when devout Muslims refrain from drinking and eating during the daylight hours. Typically a Muslim family will have breakfast prior to sunrise and then a big meal after the sun goes down during Ramadan. On Wednesday, August 3rd, a narrow crescent moon will appear to the left of the planet Saturn very low in the western dusk. On August 5th and 6th, the evening moon will appear about half full, offering the best views of its craters and mountains through binoculars or a small telescope. Along the moon's left edge, the sun is rising, lighting up the crater rims and mountain peaks. On Sunday night, August 7th, the moon will appear near the bright pink star Antares in the Scorpion.
2011 August 8–14 Weekly Sky Events
The evening moon will grow to full on Saturday, August 13. The full moon rises as the sun sets, stays in view all through the night and then sets as the sun rises. Unfortunately, August 13th is the date of Perseid meteor shower, so bright moonlight will diminish the beauty of this annual display of sky flashes. A meteor is caused by the incineration of a pea sized piece of comet grit as it hits the upper atmosphere. These meteors can be traced back to the star group Perseus, which appears low in the Northeast in the early evening. Perseus will be highest in the early morning hours, when the shower should reach its peak, typically several meteors per minute. Nearly overhead during the evening hours is the bright white-blue star Vega. Vega is the brightest star of the Summer Triangle, the most easily recognized evening star pattern now on view. In the West shines the orange star Arcturus, about the same brightness as Vega. The Big Dipper's handle can be extended in an arc to Arcturus.
2011 August 15–21 Weekly Sky Events
During this week, both Mercury and Venus nearly line up with sun and are out of view. Mercury is passing between the Earth and the sun. It's rapid motion will propel Mercury to the East of the sun, causing this sun-baked world to appear low in our eastern dawn in early September. Venus passed in back of the sun so it won't be reappearing for several months. Late in the evening of August 20th, the moon will appear near the bright planet Jupiter. On August 21st, the moon will appear half full in the southern dawn sky. In the first few hours of daylight, you can spot the moon's craters along the moon's right edge where the sun is setting. Be sure to never, ever view the sun through binoculars or telescope as it could cause permanent blindness.
2011 August 22–28 Weekly Sky Events
On the evening of Monday, August 22nd, the planet Neptune is closest to the Earth at a distance of about 2.7 billion miles. Sunlight from Neptune's cloud tops takes a little more 4 hours to reach us. Beyond Neptune's orbit is the Kuiper Comet Belt where hundreds of minor planets have been discovered. On Thursday, August 25th, the crescent moon appears to the right of the planet Mars in the 6 a.m. eastern dawn. This week is a splendid time to try to see the Milky Way, the crust of our galaxy in the evening sky. Look first for the bright star Vega, nearly overhead. To the east of Vega are two bright stars that with Vega form the Summer Triangle. Along the East side of the Summer Triangle gleams the Milky Way. The Milky Way is shaped like a pizza Our Solar system is situated about half way from the center to the edge of our galaxy. So as we look towards the center of our galaxy, the star clouds there are brighter and easier to see. But to be sure of seeing the Milky Way, find a dark area, free of streetlights and give your eyes a few minutes to become fully dark adapted.
2011 August 29 – September 4 Weekly Sky Events
Late Sunday night (August 28th), the moon swung from the morning to the evening side of the sun. By Wednesday, August 31st, a slender crescent moon will appear below the planet Saturn, low in the 8:30 p.m. western dusk. On the next night (September 1st), the crescent moon will appear near Spica, the brightest star of Virgo. On Sunday, September 4th, the evening moon will appear half full (like a tilted letter "D"), offering the best views of it's craters and mountain ranges through binoculars or small telescopes. Along the moon's left or straight edge, the sun is rising, lighting up the crater rims and mountain peaks. In the eastern dawn sky, there are three planets on view; lowest and most difficult to spot is the planet Mercury. Well above Mercury and near the bright stars of Gemini is the planet Mars. Lastly, in the southwest dawn is the bright planet Jupiter.
2011 September 5–11 Weekly Sky Events
During this week the moon grows from half full to full in the evening sky, as it moves across Sagittarius, Capricornus, and into Aquarius. The full moon in September is the Harvest Moon that will provide extra evening moonlight for the following four evenings. The Big Dipper is now close to the northwestern horizon. The two rightmost stars of the scoop point up to the North Star. Very early in the dusk, you may see the sparkling star Acturus low in the Northwest. Low in the Northeast, the star group Cassiopeia resembles a tilted letter "W". In the eastern evening sky is the Great Square of Pegasus, resembling a baseball diamond in the sky. In the late evening, the very bright planet Jupiter appears low in the East among the stars of Aries.
2011 September 12–18 Weekly Sky Events
Early in the week, the evening skies are bathed in the light of the Harvest Moon. Around the start of fall, the moon's orbit makes a low angle to the eastern horizon. So as the moon orbits to the left, it moves into the more northerly part of its orbit. This causes a reduction in the delay of the moon's rising time from night to night. Ordinarily, the moon rises about 50 minutes later each night; this is sliced to a half hour for the Harvest Moon. So for 3-4 nights, the moon rises earlier than usual, giving us extra evening moonlight. This was particularly helpful to farmers of long ago. They had no mechanical harvesters and worked with hand tools. Often they were unable to gather all their crops during the daylight hours and thus could work in the early evenings by the light of the Harvest Moon.
2011 September 19–25 Weekly Sky Events
On Tuesday, September 20th, the moon appears half full in the southern dawn. The moon then appears as a reversed "D"; it's bowed side faces the sun and it's straight edge on the right is the sunset line. Early Friday morning marks the beginning of fall with the sun's direct rays crossing the Earth's equator, moving South. On this day, the sun rises due East and sets due West over much of the world. Because of the bending upward of the sun's image, daylight on fall's first day is about 8 minutes longer than night. Three days later, day and night are exactly 12 hours. On Sunday, September 25th, the planet Uranus is closest to the Earth for the year. Uranus is about 1.69 billion miles from the Earth. Uranus appears as a dim star in the star group Pisces. Light that bounces off Uranus sunlit clouds takes 2.5 hours to reach us.
2011 September 26 – October 1 Weekly Sky Events
On Tuesday morning, the moon swings from the morning to the evening side of the sun. By Thursday evening, the crescent moon should again be visible low in the western dusk. This will trigger Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year, 5772 A.M. This first day of the Jewish year usually begins on the first dusk when the moon is first seen nearest the first day of fall. This rule allows Rosh Hashanah to vary from year to year. When the Jewish year has 13 lunar months or about 384 days, then Rosh Hashanah will come later than the previous year. Over the Jewish 19 year cycle, there are seven years with 13 lunar months. This allows the Jewish calendar to match up very well with the year of the seasons.
2011 October 2–8 Weekly Sky Events
On October 3rd, the evening moon appears half full, with its bowed side facing the sun. On the left or straight edge of the moon, the sun there is rising, lighting up the craters and mountains. This is the best time of the month to see the moon's surface features with binoculars or telescope. On October evenings, the Big Dipper is quite close to the northern horizon and often blocked by hills, houses and trees. Then high in the North is the star group Cassiopeia, resembling a stretched out letter "M". The North Star appears as a modest star half way up in the North. Below and to the left of the North Star are two modest stars called the 'Guardians' that mark the end of the Little Dipper's scoop. Low in the South is the bright star Fomalhaut, which in Arabic means "Solitary One", a fitting name for this bright star. Fomalhaut is one of the closer bright stars, being about 23 light years distant. The light just arriving from this star left in 1988, twenty three years ago.
2011 October 9–15 Weekly Sky Events
The evening moon grows to full on October 11; this full moon is called the Hunter's Moon. Just like September's Harvest Moon, the Hunter's Moon provides extra evening moonlight for the next three evenings. In colonial times, Hunters could hunt by the light of the Hunter's Moon and more easily spot game traipsing across freshly harvested fields. The two brightest evening stars now are golden Capella in the Northeast and white-blue Vega in the Northwest. As the evening hours pass, Capella ascends while Vega descends. When Vega sets in the evening hours at year's end, golden Capella will be at its highest in the North. On October 13th, the evening moon will appear close to the bright planet Jupiter.
2011 October 16–22 Weekly Sky Events
One of the most striking zodiac star group is well seen in the eastern evening sky. This is Taurus, the Bull, through which the sun passes through from May 14th through June 21st. During this time, Taurus is lost in the sun's glare. But six months later, from mid October through mid November, the Bull has its best visibility, being visible in the evening, through the middle of the night and until the following dawn. Taurus has three striking features: the 7 Sisters or Pleiades star cluster, the V shaped star cluster called the Hyades and the bright orange star Aldebaran. You will first notice the Pleiades as a tiny starry dipper low in the East. The name means 'daughters of Atlas'. On a good night, a sharp eyed observer can count 6 or more stars. This star cluster is about 400 light years away, its light dates back to the early English settlement of Virginia. Below the Pleiades is a larger V shaped cluster named the "Hyades" or 'rainy ones'. The Hyades is an older star cluster that's about three times closer to us, at a distance of 170 light years. On the edge of the Hyades is Aldebaran, the Bull's eye. Aldebaran is not part of the Hyades cluster, but a bright star that lies in front of the cluster, at a distance of 68 light years. Aldebaran is a giant star, more than a dozen times as large as than our sun. Our sun will undergo such a swelling 5 billion years from now.
2011 October 23–30 Weekly Sky Report
On Wednesday, October 26th, the moon will swing from the morning to the evening side of the sun; by Friday, October 28th, a slender crescent moon may be seen low in the 6:45 p.m. southwestern dusk. To the right of the moon the brilliant planet Venus shines. With a very flat horizon and binoculars, you may be able to sight the innermost planet Mercury just below Venus. To the left of the moon on that evening will be the pink star Antares of the Scorpion. On this same evening, the bright planet Jupiter will be closest to the Earth, rising as the sun sets and being visible all through the night. On this night, Jupiter will be 369 million miles from the Earth. The light from Jupiter's cloud tops will then take 33 minutes to reach Earth. A telescope magnifying 41 times will show Jupiter as large as our moon appears to the unaided eye.
2011 October 31 – November 6 Weekly Sky Report
October 31st or Halloween comes from the contraction of the phrase "All Hallowed Eve" as the next day is the Feast of All Saints. But the costumes associated with Halloween are from the old Celtic religion. October 31st was the first night that the Pleiades or 7 Sisters star cluster could be seen as it got dark. This was the last day of the Celtic Year called Samhain. On this last night, the Celts believed that all those who had died during the year would come out of their graves to avenge the living who had wronged them. So Halloween was a night of terror for the Celts, not a merry occasion. But as Christianity took over the British Isles, the fear of Samhain gave rise to a mockery of this Celtic occasion. So today across Britain and America, youngsters in costumes come out at dusk, knocking on doors and asking for treats. On Wednesday, November 2nd, the brilliant planet Venus and the innermost planet Mercury are closest low in the 6:45 p.m. southwestern dusk. On this same evening, the evening moon appears half full, resembling a tilted letter 'D'. Along the moon's straight left edge, the sun there is rising, lighting up the crater rims and mountain ranges.
2011 November 7–13 Weekly Sky Events
With the shift to Standard Time, the sun is setting an hour earlier than last week, bringing on darkness by 6 p.m. Sunrises are also pushed back an hour, causing the sun to rise just before 7 a.m. On the evening of November 9th, the moon will appear above the very bright planet Jupiter. On the evening of November 10th the moon is full, rising as the sun set and hanging in the sky all night long. The moon that night is in eastern Aries, so it will have a high track across the night sky, peaking three quarters of the way up in the South around midnight. On that same evening, brilliant Venus and Mercury can be seen low in the 5:40 p.m. southwestern dusk near the twinkling pink star Antares of the Scorpion. Mercury and Venus will be only two degrees apart on Sunday, November 13th.
2011 November 14–20 Weekly Sky Events
The star group Orion is now becoming conspicuous in the late evening southeastern sky. Orion's trademark is his three star belt, equally spaced and in a row. To the left and above the belt is pinkish Betelgeuse in Orion's shoulder. To the right and below the belt is white-blue Rigel, Orion's brightest star. Orion's seven brightest stars form an hour glass shaped figure with the three belt stars marking the narrow middle where the sand trickles through. Orion's belt points up and right to the Pleiades star cluster, resembling a tiny starry dipper. On Friday morning, the moon appears half full in the southern dawn, resembling a backwards 'D'. The moon then will be easily viewed in the early daylight hours as it drifts towards the southwest. Binoculars held steadily will allow you to see the moon's larger craters and big mountain ranges.
2011 November 21–27 Weekly Sky Events
The planet Mars is now near the bright star Regulus of Leo and rising in the East about midnight. Late next winter, Mars will be a very bright yellow object in the eastern evening sky. Early on the morning of November 25, the moon will shift from the morning to the evening side of the sun. November 27 will mark Muslim New Year 1433 A.H. The Muslim calendar began with the flight of Mohammed from Mecca to Medina in 622 C.E., where he built the first Mosque and established the Muslim religion. Islamic days actually begin at sunset on the previous day, similar to Judaism. In the western dusk on November 27th, the crescent moon can be seen above and to the right of the brilliant planet Venus.
2011 November 28 – December 4 Weekly Sky Events
This week the crescent moon grows wider and higher each night, appearing half full on Thursday, December 1. The half full evening moon occurs when the moon is 90 degrees to the East of the sun. The right side of the moon faces the sun while the left side of the moon is in lunar darkness. The straight line boundary is the sunrise line on the moon where craters are thrown into sharp relief, as they catch the rays of sunlight. On the moon, darkness lasts for nearly 15 days and daylight an equal time. Late in the evening, the very bright star Sirius sparkles low in the Southeast. Orion's belt of three stars in a row points down and left to Sirius. Sirius is both the nearest night star visible and the brightest night star that we can see. Sirius' light takes nearly 9 years to reach us while moonlight takes only one and a quarter seconds to reach the Earth.
2011 December 5–11 Weekly Sky Events
On the evening of December 5th, the moon appears near the bright planet Jupiter. On December 8th, we will have the earliest sunset (about 4:50 p.m.). We will have our shortest day on the first day of winter, December 21st. The latest sunrise occurs a few days before the end of the year. The evening moon grows to full in the early daylight hours of Saturday, December 10th. So the moon will appear full both on the evenings of the 9th and 10th. On both nights the moon will appear in the northerly star group of Taurus, the Bull. This will give the moon a high sky path, shining for nearly 14 hours.
2011 December 12–18 Weekly Sky Events
Wednesday morning is the peak time for the Geminid meteor shower but a nearly full moon will be in the nearby star group Cancer then, reducing the impact of this fine shower. A meteor shower occurs when the Earth plows across a comet's orbit, littered with comet grit. Typically the size of a pea, this comet debris is burned up in the Earth's upper atmosphere, and is seen as a meteor or shooting star. On Saturday, December 17th the moon appears half full in the southern dawn sky. The moon then appears as a reversed 'D' with its left side facing the sun. The straight line on the right is where the sun is setting, bringing on the long lunar night that lasts about two of our weeks.
2011 December 19–25 Weekly Sky Events
Early on the morning of December 22nd, winter officially begins as the sun's direct rays reach farthest South along the tropic of Capricorn (latitude 23.5 degrees South). This latitude is named after Capricorn as in ancient times, the sun was farthest South when it was in this star group. But in the 2500 years since, the Earth's axis has swung around so that the sun is now in front of Sagittarius at the start of winter. At the start of winter, the sun rises farthest to the South of East, crests at its lowest height of the year at mid day and sets farthest to the South of West. Locally, we will have only 9 hours and 22 minutes of sunlight. The sun will then be rising about 7:32 a..m. and setting about 4:54 p.m. The sun will peak about 12:13 p.m.
2011 December 26 – January 1 2012 Weekly Sky Events
On December 26th, the crescent moon will appear to the right of the brilliant planet Venus in the southwestern dusk. Your best view will be about 5:45 p.m. On the next evening, the moon will appear directly over Venus. On the evening of December 31st, the moon will appear half full in the southwestern sky, appearing in front of the star group Pisces. On the evening of January 1st, the moon will appear to the right of the bright planet Jupiter. In the early evening, you can see an upright starry cross in the Northwest. At the top of the cross is the bright star Deneb. Then below Deneb are three modestly bright stars that make up the cross arm. Well below the cross arm is a solitary star that marks the foot of the cross. This formation is informally called 'the Northern Cross'. Those living in the Southern Hemisphere can see the 'Southern Cross' around Easter. The Southern Cross is much smaller then the Northern Cross and the Southern Cross' four stars are not well matched in brightness.
Public Programs at the Frostburg State Planetarium resume on September 6th with “Blue-White Marble and Pale Grey Dot”, a view of the Earth and moon as seen from other planets. To get a free planetarium schedule/bookmark, call (301) 687-7799 and leave your name and mailing address.
By Dr. Bob Doyle
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