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Stargazing looks good this week

August 28, 2018

Welcome to the nighttime skies. You have not been imagining that the sun is setting earlier and rising later, or that the sun is doing this in a different location along the horizon each day.

Our planet is now almost three-quarters of the distance needed to complete one revolution around the sun. Since Earth is also tilted on its axis, each season brings different positions for the rising and setting of the sun.

If your travels have you driving or walking facing east or west at dawn or dusk, you can readily see the motion along the horizon yourself if there is a stationary object to measure against.

The moon is now in its waning phase and each night it will be appearing later and less illuminated until the new moon phase on Sept. 9. Look for our moon to be in a different location each appearance because it travels with Earth, but a bit slower, which means it appears above the horizon almost an hour later each time period.

It will always be either west near the new moon phase, east for the full moon phase, south for the in-between new and full, but never in the north.

Whether you are able to see it in the daytime depends on the phase as well.

Nighttime will be exposing the same bright planets we have been enjoying all summer long; Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Mercury will be visible for a couple of weeks in the early dawn eastern sky. The stars surrounding Venus now are the constellation Libra, the Scales.

Saturn is still in the area of Sagittarius above the Teapot asterism. Mars is between the Teapot and Capricornus. Venus is still the brightest point of light in the sky unless the moon is up. The planet is moving closer to Jupiter each night. Although Mars has been spectacularly bright all month, it will slowly dim to half its former magnitude as it shrinks in our view, just as the phases of the moon reveal less illumination.

As we move closer to autumn the Great Square of Pegasus will be well up in the sky by 10 o’clock, rising from the east and trekking slowly across the southern sky until dawn when it will be in the west. This massive constellation occupies many degrees of sky.

If you have a dark site and decent binoculars you can sweep the sky slowly and see the Milky Way stars stretched from northeast to south as they arc across the zenith, shedding their milky appearance on sky watchers below.

Within the Milky Way stars, from south to northeast, are the constellations of Sagittarius, Aquila, Cygnus, Lacerta (Lizard), part of King Cepheus, and his consort, Queen Cassiopeia.

Most people have an app on their cell phones now to reveal the locations of these constellations and other astronomical objects. Those are a far cry from the star maps I used when I first learned how to find my way around the sky.

Reflecting on the view of Sagittarius, keep in mind that when you are looking at this Milky Way constellation you are looking into the center of our galaxy which is about 26,000 light years away, and hidden behind thick clouds of dust.

I hope this is giving you impetus to go take a walk and look up. Enjoy the beauty of the nighttime and predawn skies; share the experience with someone special. Until next week, do let some stars get in your eyes.

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