August 4, 2007

August 3-5, 2007


Starry, Starry Nights

This may be the best month ever to look up at the sky. No matter where you live in the United States, an amazing array of shooting stars, constellations and other wonderful events will fill your night.

Included in this article:
Online star charting ~ OUR UNIVERSE

By Julian Smith

(link without to online article)

USA Weekend in a weekly magazine offered by the Eagle-Tribune Publishing Company and included in their Saturday editions of The Eagle Tribune, The Salem News, The Daily News of Newburyport and The Gloucester News


This summer has seen the usual parade of movie blockbusters promising pyrotechnics and computer-generated dazzle. But just for a moment, step away from the screen, walk outside and look up. The most magical and mysterious theater is above our heads, high in the heavens -- the naturally occurring display that stars, comets, planets and other celestial wonders present before our eyes.

And August 2007 will be a month to remember for sky watching, hosting a unique combination of shooting stars, a total lunar eclipse, enchanting formations and other highlights that may not be seen again until the next decade. "No matter where you are in the country, you'll see something special this month," says Joe Rao, associate lecturer at the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Fortunately, like finding regular showtimes for the latest "Die Hard" sequel, much of this nocturnal entertainment runs on a schedule. So you can plan accordingly, whether for a nighttime family outing or an unforgettable romantic moment. The time for this is now, especially for those of you who have children. School will be starting soon, and the evenings will grow cooler before long.

The evening sky always has inspired fascination, with many mythical tales of how all of this came to be. The Wasco Indians believed, for example, that stars were arrows flung into the sky by the fabled Coyote. We know better now, thanks to science, but we don't know so much that the entire mystery has been unraveled. Which makes us want to watch even more. With that in mind, USA WEEKEND Magazine provides this guide to what'll be up in the sky this month:


A meteor shower to remember ~
Perseids will shine brighter, thanks to a new moon.

A meteor shower happens when tiny specks of comet debris enter Earth's atmosphere, creating an eye-catching light show as they vaporize during a streak through our atmosphere. One of the most impressive of these showers, Perseids, happens when Earth passes through the debris trail of Comet Swift-Tuttle as the comet makes its 130-year orbit around the sun. Every brilliant flash is a fragment burning at 37 miles per second. And you'll be able to spot as many as 100 of these flashes per hour when the shower peaks on the nights of Aug. 12 and 13. Adding to its appeal is the fact that, this year, a new moon falls on Aug. 12 for the first time since 1999, so skies will be at their darkest (and, therefore, the meteors will be quite visible). "It's like driving your car into a snowstorm with your high beams on," says astronomer Geoff Chester, who is also a spokesman at the U.S. Naval Observatory. "Perseid meteors are quite bright and fast." Look for fireballs that seem to originate from the constellation Perseus (the hero of Greek mythology who killed Medusa), low in the northeast part of the sky after midnight. No matter where you're watching in the country, the show gets better as it gets darker; between 1 and 5 a.m. on Aug. 13 is prime time. And don't despair if the weather is cloudy, because you'll be able to see meteors up to two days before and after the peak.


A total lunar eclipse

On Aug. 28, the full moon will darken and turn deep orange near dawn. It's not the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown -- it's a total lunar eclipse, caused when the Moon passes through Earth's shadow. The same process that turns sunsets red causes this dramatic color change. Sunlight that passes through Earth's atmosphere is refracted and scattered. Shorter blue, green and yellow wavelengths scatter the most, leaving the longer reddish wavelengths to tint the moon the color of autumn maple leaves during the eclipse.

Residents of the West Coast will be able to watch the entire eclipse from start to finish in the early morning. The farther east you are, the more the eclipse's end will be cut off as the moon sets. Total lunar eclipses can happen up to three times a year around the world, but the continental United States can go years without seeing one. If you miss this one, stay tuned. The next total lunar eclipse will be visible to the entire country -- or at least those willing to brave the cold night -- next February.


Mars visits Taurus ~
Taurus gets a second red eye from Mars.

The constellation Taurus, "the bull," is known for the "V" of its head and horns, with the red star Aldebaran forming an eye. Between Aug. 18 and Aug. 24, after Mars passes close to Aldebaran, the planet will form a second red eye, completing the bull's fiery gaze and making for a striking sight from anywhere in the USA, especially between 4 to 5 a.m. This occurs every several years. "You'll have to get up early to see it," Chester says. "But it's something even folks in cities will be able to see." Chester recommends looking just north of the crimson pair to find the vivid yellow star Capella, which forms the shoulder of Auriga, another constellation, named for a charioteer.


The asteroid Vesta passes Jupiter

If you own a pair of good binoculars, then you already may have shared Galileo's wonder at seeing the four largest moons of Jupiter. On Aug. 29, Jupiter will get a new neighbor: Vesta, the brightest asteroid in the sky. Named after the Roman goddess of the hearth, it was the fourth asteroid ever discovered. The potato-shaped rock is about 330 miles across and has an unusually reflective surface, which makes Vesta the only asteroid that's visible to the naked eye.

With a small telescope or high-powered binoculars, you should be able to see Vesta change in brightness from anywhere in the country as the asteroid rotates every 5.3 hours. It hasn't shone this brightly since 1989. Also, Vesta will be the first asteroid of focus for NASA's announced Dawn spacecraft launch, intended to investigate both Vesta and the larger asteroid Ceres. Vesta is about as bright as Jupiter's largest moons, making it look for a while as if a new one had appeared suddenly. "With a telescope, this kind of scene is always a crowd-pleaser," Rao says.


Satellites: Man's contribution to sky watching ~
Satellites enhance the nightly sky show.

Although light pollution from headlights and strip-mall wattage can deplete the simple pleasures of stargazing, sky watchers can give modern civilization some credit. Since the USSR launched a little beeping ball called Sputnik in 1957, manmade objects have circled the Earth. Today, many satellites are exciting to watch and easy to find. They look like slowly moving stars. The best time to look is in the hours just before sunrise or just after sunset, when you can spot as many as 20 in an hour from anywhere in the country.

The easiest satellite to see is the largest spacecraft ever built. The International Space Station orbits the planet about 210 miles up and can outshine even the brightest planets. Check online (see sidebar below) for its location on a given night. It is visible from anywhere between nearly 52 degrees north and south latitudes, which includes the entire continental United States. "Its large solar panels are very reflective," says Frank Reddy, an editor at Astronomy magazine. "If you're lucky, you can see the station and the space shuttle trailing it."

An even more dramatic sight is a flare off one ofthe 66 Iridium communications satellites. The spacecrafts have antennae, and even when the sun is below the horizon, its light still can hit the antennae, making for a dazzling reflection that can last a few seconds. As with other satellite spottings, it's best to catch this show in the hours just before sunrise or sunset. "If you're right underneath when a flare goes off, it's bright enough to cast shadows," Reddy says.


Online star charting ~ OUR UNIVERSE

A variety of online tools can turn your PC into a desktop planetarium, making it easy to find specific objects amid all that darkness:

National Aeronautics and Space Administration ( This site not only keeps users posted about satellites and asteroids, but it also contains a link for kids with puzzles, games and guides to activities such as making paper comet models. (Webmaster's note: see direct link without for insight about asteroids, comets, meteorites.)'s's NightSky ( This is a virtual learning center when it comes to astronomy, with the latest news and calendars highlighting astronomical events, as well as guides to buying telescopes and other equipment.

Sky & Telescope's Let's Go Stargazing ( The online versionof the sky-watching magazine provides a family-friendly beginner's guide to astronomy.

Heavens Above ( This site tracks satellites such as the International Space Station and Iridium satellites as they move about space.

Astronomy Magazine's "Intro to the Sky" page ( Intro to the Sky): Learn the constellations, and find out what creates "shooting stars." Plus, explore the Moon, the solar system, and more.

Contributing: Maggie Gordon
Cover photo illustration by James Porto for USA WEEKEND


(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)

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