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 11:10 pm.
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
You will find extensive descriptions of what's worth looking for,
and you can download and print a single copy for your personal use.