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Touring the Skies By: Jim Bonser (

August 2, 2013
Northern-Sun Print
s. 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Saturn will continue to thrill this month. By all means, if you own a telescope, be sure to train it on Saturn. If you don’t own a telescope, find out when your local astronomy club will be having a public night and mark it on your calendar so you don’t forget. Those amazing rings are absolutely spellbinding. They are what started me on my astronomical journey when I was only a boy, and yet I never tire of looking at the ringed planet. Saturn is in the southwest as twilight fades about 35 degrees from the horizon – a little less than half way from the horizon to straight overhead (the Zenith, remember?). On September 1st Saturn will set just after midnight. On September 31, Saturn will dip below the western horizon about 2 hours earlier – at about 10:15. Sadly, Saturn is slipping away as we head into the fall months so don’t miss an opportunity to get out and enjoy this unique planet’s beauty. At an astronomy club picnic I attended in July, I brought my solar scope fitted with an H-alpha filter to allow safe viewing of the Sun in H-alpha light. I won’t bore you with the details of how the filter works, but it allows you to see incredible details such as prominences; which are loops of ionized gas that look like tongues of fire on the edges of the sun and also flares and other details on the Sun’s ‘surface’. This time there was a fantastic prominence that looked like an immense lasso projecting out into space. Probably a dozen Earths could have been captured by this blazing lasso and without exception, everyone who stepped up to the eyepiece and looked at it gasped, “Oh wow!” The Sun has been fairly quiet lately so I was not expecting such a wonderful show and almost didn’t bother to setup the scope. Just goes to show you that you should never pass up an opportunity to look closely at what God has made – there are always surprises to be enjoyed! Aside from Saturn and the Sun, there is not a lot going on as far as Solar System activity this month. Neptune reaches opposition this month on the 27th. It will shine at magnitude 7.8. In a really dark location some people can see objects as faint as 7th magnitude – but I really doubt even they will be able to see Neptune without a telescope or binoculars. If you manage it, drop me a note and share your experience, I would be interested in hearing about it. Oh, there are two other noteworthy Solar System events this month we should be watching for. One is the Perseid meteor shower which is best from August 11 through the 13th. The moon will be setting early so the sky will be dark and we should be able to see lots of these ‘flashy’ meteors. The best time to view them is usually an hour or so before dawn. That is when the radiant is the highest. The ‘radiant’ is the place from which all of the meteor shower meteors seem to fly out from or ‘radiate’. It is the place in the sphere of Earth’s atmosphere that plows into the stream of particles left behind by comet Swift-Tuttle. The Perseid radiant is located between the ‘W’ of the constellation Cassiopeia and Perseus in the northeast. The best place to watch is usually about 25 or 30 degrees from the radiant toward whatever part of the sky is darkest and not brightened by city lights or yard lights. I usually like to get out with a lawn chaise and a sleeping bag and a thermos of hot chocolate and look to the east-northeast. Even if I don’t see many meteors, the peace and quiet and beauty of the heavens make the effort worthwhile! And the hot chocolate doesn’t hurt, either! Perseids are fast and bright and sometimes bursts of meteors with as many as 200 per hour have happened in recent years. Who knows? Perhaps this will be another year for the record books! And speaking of comets, a new comet is on its way and might be visible by the end of the month. This comet is named ISON. ISON will be in the northern part of the sky when it gets closer and hopefully begins to display a spectacular tail for us. Comets are very unpredictable and it may blaze or fizzle, only time will tell, but let’s hope for a blaze! Clear Skies!

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