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Summer sky watch.

No matter where you are this summer--at the beach, in the city, or in the mountains--you share the sky with every other living thing on Earth. It is the sky that inspired the ancient Greeks to write myths about their gods and goddesses; that helped the ancient Polynesians to navigate the Pacific; the same sky that early astronomers studied to find our place in the universe.

Today, we're still fascinated by the sky. We've landed on the Moon and sent probes to the planets; we discover new stars and galaxies every year.

But you don't need sophisticated spaceships or instruments to see the many wonders of this summer's sky. All you need are your own two eyes, a star chart (see p. 8) and some "travel" plans--to know where in the sky to look and when.

The highlight of early summer's sky show will be an eclipse of the Sun by the Moon on May 10. While most of the U.S. will be treated to a partial eclipse, people living in a 150-mile-wide band of the country stretching from El Paso, Texas, through Missouri, Ohio, and most of the New England states will see the Moon block all but a ring of the Sun's light. The ring phase, called an annular eclipse, will last up to six minutes. Check your local newspapers to know what to look for in your city and when.


Of course, you don't have to wait for an eclipse to set your sights on the Moon, Earth's only natural satellite. On many summer nights, the Moon is a golfer's delight: Every drive, chip, or putt could easily end up in a hole. That's because the Moon is covered with millions of impact craters, bowl-shaped depressions made when meteoroids or asteroids slam into the lunar surface. Some of the dents are the size of a pea, others as big as West Virginia.

If you're not into crater-golfing, explore one of the glorious beaches along the Moon's maria (MAR-ee-uh --Latin for "seas"). Your choices include The Sea of Showers, The Bay of Rainbows, or The Lake of the Dreamers. By the way, none of these seas has any water (the Moon is bone-dry). The maria are actually vast plains of lava that gushed from the Moon's innards and hardened. They were named by 17th-century Earth-bound Moon-mappers who thought the dark areas were filled with water

To see the Moon's craters and maria, you may want to use binoculars. The best time to look is when the Sun's light comes from the Moon's side and casts shadows, making the craters look deep and the maria smooth. You can see this side-lighting especially well during the quarter-moon phases on the evenings of May 18, June 16, July 15, and August 14. In contrast, when the Sun's light falls, directly on the Moon, no shadows are cast to accent the Moon's rugged face. This happens during the full-moon phases: May 24, June 23, July 22, and August 20.


For the next leg of your summer sky tour, we've arranged some deep-space fishing. Though we can't guarantee you'll land a planet, we can tell you where and when to cast a glance.

Shortly after sunset on July 12 (check a newspaper or TV weather report for sunset times), the crescent Moon and the planet Venus will make quite a splash in the western sky. Venus looks like a dazzlingly bright star, but it's really a planet about the same size as Earth some 150 million kilometers away.

For a view of Jupiter, our solar system's largest planet, look beyond the first-quarter moon during the early evening on July 16. The sunlight you see reflected off this planet, some 770 million kilometers from Earth, takes more than 40 minutes to reach your eyes.


The final part of our sky tour is a journey into the legends of the constellations. Each of these sections of the night sky contains a bright group of stars and a story: Ursa Major, the Great Bear, lumbers in search of food in the northwest sky; Leo, the Lion, roars in the west. The Summer Triangle sparkles in the east. Three bright stars mark the triangle: Vega (part of Lyra, the Harp); Deneb (tail of Cygnus, the Swan); Altair (eye of Aquila, the Eagle).

Check out the star chart on the next page for more of the summer constellations free for the viewing. Enjoy the show.
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Brune, Jeffrey
Publication:Science World
Date:May 6, 1994
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