September 2003 Sky from the Keeble Observatory
There are moments in each life that sear themselves indelibly into memory. 9/11.
The first Apollo landing on the Moon. The assassination of a president. Our country's
sole vehicle for carrying humans into orbit is the so-called space shuttle and,
two of them have provided us with such memories.
The destruction of Challenger in 1986 made brutally clear that the decision-making
processes internal to the shuttle program had ignored warnings from engineers that
cold weather launches could be unsafe. Indeed, the problems of O-ring erosion could
be traced to the first flight of Columbia, yet they had never been fully addressed.
The culture of NASA decided that, if they had avoided a catastrophic failure of
the boosters to that point, the boosters would never fail catastrophically. Nature
was not so kind, and Challenger was lost with all her crew.
Readers of this web site may recall several years ago when I decried NASA's decision
to outsource shuttle operations to a private consortium. At that time I suggested
that the motives of a for-profit, low-bid contractor were likely at odds with the
safety goals of crewed space flight. I further noted that cutting the NASA budget
to the bone, reducing the number of experienced expert technicians who serviced
the spacecraft would probably lead to another disaster.
Sadly, as the recently released report of the commission investigating the loss
of Columbia and her crew makes clear, the lessons of Challenger were not fully learned,
and that budget pressures contributed to what were entirely correctable flaws. More
sadly, this is one occasion when I hate to have been right.
Lunar phases for 2003 September: First Quarter on the 3rd, at 8:35 am; Full on the
10th, at 12:37 pm; Last Quarter on the 18th, at 3:04 pm; New Moon on the 25th, at
Saturn rises about 1:00 am, and is high to the southeast at sunrise. Mercury and
Jupiter are visible as morning stars in the predawn sky almost due east. Jupiter
is brighter and higher in the sky. Mars rises earlier each night - even though we
missed seeing it at closest approach last month (thanks to all who came out to the
Observatory anyway!). As we move into the fall and winter, Mars will also be higher
and higher in the sky. It should continue as a good observing target through the
rest of the year.
You'll notice that sunsets are getting earlier each day, occurring at about 7:15
pm by the middle of September . it would be 6:15 were we not on daylight time. That
too will pass! Looking at the sky about an hour later, we see the bright, blue-white
star Vega almost directly overhead. This star, also known as alpha Lyrae, because
it's the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, is younger than our Sun. It is
also known to be surrounded by an extended cloud of comets, just like our solar
system. Good binoculars and a quiet, clear night will allow you to see that the
fourth brightest star in Lyra, epsilon Lyrae, is actually a binary system. A modest
telescope would further resolve this into four stars - two close binaries orbiting
each other at somewhat larger separation! Also close by Vega is the wispy Ring Nebula,
which actually looks like a pale smoke ring. You'll need a clear, moonless night
to clearly discern this stellar remnant which is something like what our Sun will
become in five or six billion years.
Just to the east of Vega is the bright star Deneb (alpha Cygni), marking the tail
of the Swan in the constellation Cygnus. The head of the swan is toward the south,
marked by the modest star Albireo. A small telescope will reveal that this, too,
is a binary. This system is quite lovely, with one star a brilliant blue and the
other bright orange. The color differences reflect their temperatures; the blue
star's visible surface is much hotter. Cygnus also marks the orientation of the
plane of our Galaxy, and is the general direction in which our entire solar system
orbits in the Milky Way. Follow the plane of the Milky Way to the south, and just
off the horizon is the familiar teapot shape of Sagittarius, which marks the direction
towards the center of the Galaxy. The actual center, some 30,000 light years distant,
is not visible due to the intervening dust. To observe the core regions, astronomers
rely on radio, infrared and x-ray telescopes.
Casting our view out of the plane of the Galaxy, we see the open square of Pegasus
to the east. Shifting our view slowly towards the north, we will see the irregular
and relatively unimpressive constellation Andromeda, then the W shape of Cassiopeia.
On a clear, moonless night, observing away from Town and City lights, your eye may
pick out a faint smudge in Andromeda. What you are seeing is the Andromeda galaxy,
a system of some hundred billion stars like our own home Galaxy. A mere 2 million
light years away, this is the most distant object you can see without a telescope.
As winter approaches, Andromeda will be higher in the sky and you'll be better able
to see this distant wonder.
For your own monthly star chart, you can direct your web browser to
http://www.skymaps.com. You will find extensive descriptions of what's worth
looking for, and you can download and print a single copy for your personal use.