Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Lord of the Rings

Hey everyone!

No, this post will not be about Hobbits, the Shire, or the Land of Mordor where the Shadows Lie.  Although, as you might guess, I could go on about that for days.

No, for this, our third get-together, I thought I'd give you a little information about what's going on in the sky right now.  After all, that's one of the main reasons I started this blog, and we really haven't gotten down to it yet!  So let's talk summer night skies.

Sadly, they often are not the best.  And I'm not just talking about the perennial 30% chance of evening thunderstorms that rules the weather forecast at this time of year.  Even when the sky is "clear" in the summer here in Hampton Roads...well, it isn't really clear.  If there's one thing southeastern Virginia has in abundance in the summer, it's the three H's - haze, heat, and humidity.  All the water and other particles in the air make the seeing - that's what astronomers call the condition of the atmosphere as regards how well you can image astronomical objects - rather poor.  Even if there is not a cloud in the sky, your view of a planet or the Moon through your telescope will seem to swim around, never quite stay focused, and be rather washed out.  Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it isn't worth going outside on a clear night in summer - it most certainly is!  You just want to be aware of the limitations the air will put on your ability to see details of the sky.

Another factor for summertime stargazing - time.  Sunsets are late at this time of year, since our long days are made "longer" by daylight savings time.  With the Sun still brightening the sky as late as 9pm, you'll need to wait pretty late to get a truly dark sky for the best viewing.  That's okay, though - the later you wait, the cooler the air will be, relieving some of the seeing problems and making your stargazing more enjoyable.

Right now, two wonderful objects are gracing our early evening skies - Saturn and the Moon.  The Moon is currently waxing, or getting bigger, night after night, heading towards First Quarter.  That's the best time to view the Moon, since the deep shadows created along the line separating day and night on the Moon give you excellent depth perception and let you see a lot of detail.  Saturn is a beautiful golden-yellow "extra star" shining in the constellation Virgo.  Both objects can be seen together in the west-southwestern sky around 10:30pm for the next few days.  After that, the Moon will have moved off, but Saturn will linger there for some time yet.

The sky at 10:30pm on July 9, 2011.  Created with Starry Night Sky Explorer

Both Saturn and the Moon are best enjoyed with a telescope.  Seeing Saturn through a telescope for the first time is truly a life-changing experience.  I can't really describe I'll just give you a little preview.

Saturn from the Cassini spacecraft.  NASA

Okay, that's cheating...Cassini has a way better view than anything you can get from here on Earth.  But nonetheless, seeing Saturn's rings for yourself from about a billion miles away is awe-inspiring!  If you don't have a telescope of your own, come by the museum this Saturday night.  We'll be hosting our monthly Star Party and Laser Light Night on July 9, and if the weather holds, we'll surely be looking at Saturn and the nearby Moon.  Stargazing is free, and there's a host of other things to do in the early evening before it gets dark.  The cafe will be open at 6pm for dinner, drinks and snacks, and all the fun starts after that. 

So now you see why I had to title the post as I did.  Don't miss the opportunity to see the magnificent Lord of the Rings.  By the end of summer, Saturn will be too close to the Sun to see, so get outside soon!  Can't get to the museum this weekend?  No worries.  If you've got a pair of binoculars, you can see the rings of Saturn for yourself.  Just be sure to hold them super-steady - a tripod mount like you might use for a camera will be a real help.  Enjoy the view!

Carpe noctem!

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