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Published: Sunday, August 19, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Spend the night under the stars -- wide awake

  • A small part of the Milky Way band.

    Mike Lynch

    A small part of the Milky Way band.

This is the time of year to pull an all-nighter under the stars in the Northwest because there's so much see.
Many of the planets are adding to the celestial show in August. If you can get out to the countryside all the better, but if you're watching from the outer suburbs it will still be worth losing some beauty sleep.
As soon as it's dark, check out the low western sky for the triangle made up by the planets Saturn and Mars along with the bright star Spica. You can't miss them since they're the brightest objects in that part of the sky.
If you have a small telescope take at least a quick look at Saturn. It will be a little fuzzy because it's close to the horizon and the light has to pierce through a thicker shield of Earth's atmosphere. You should be able to at least partially resolve the ring system of Saturn, made up of billions of ice covered boulders, rock, pebbles and dust grains.
What is amazing to me is that if you melted all of the ice in Saturn's ring system you would have more than 26 million times more water than all of Earth's oceans combined.
From 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. the biggest attraction in the celestial dome is that incredible ghostly band of milky light that stretches basically from the northern to southern horizon and essentially cuts the sky in half, the Milky Way.
All of the stars that we see are members of the 300- to 400-billion stars that make up the spiral disk of our home Milky Way galaxy. Our sun and solar system live in one of the spiral arms of our galactic disk.
That milky band is the combined light of the billions of stars that make up the thickest part, or plane, of our Milky Way galaxy, which stretches out to a diameter of more than 100,000 light-years. As vast as the diameter of the Milky Way disk is, it's very thin by comparison, estimated by astronomers to be only about 1,000 light-years thick (one light-year equals just under 6 trillion miles).
You can pull up star maps on free planetarium programs like Stellarium or use your smart phone loaded with a GPS enhanced star map app, or you use my new book "Stars," to help you find and point your telescope and/or binoculars at wonderful targets within and around the Milky Way.
If you can hang in there toward morning twilight, you'llsee two super bright stars in the eastern sky. These are the brightest planets we see from Earth: Venus and Jupiter. Venus is the brightest one positioned to the lower left of Jupiter.
As bright as Venus is, it's pretty underwhelming viewing it with any size telescope. All you see is a tiny bright oval and that's it. Venus is completely cloud covered and the clouds are reflecting a lot of our sun's light.
Jupiter is much more interesting with a telescope even though it's a lot farther away at nearly 500 million miles from Earth. Its enormous size makes up for the distance, and you can actually see up to four of its brighter moons that resemble tiny stars on either side of the biggest planet in our solar system.
Even without a telescope you may be able to see Jupiter's moons if it's extra clear and your vision is sharp. If you really stare at Jupiter for an extended time you may a see little appendage or appendages off the bright dot of Jupiter.
Just to the lower right of Venus before the predawn twilight, you'll see an old friend of yours and mine. It's the bright constellation Orion the Hunter, the stalwart of the winter evening sky. One really nice thing about morning stargazing is that you see the same constellations that you do in the evening sky about four to five months later.
Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, "Washington Starwatch," available at bookstores. Check his website, www.lynchandthestars.com.
The Everett Astronomical Society: www.everettastro.org/.
Story tags » Star Gazing

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