The Labor Day Holiday has me off a day or two on my blogging duties, yet I’m nostalgically catching up as this week the Voyager probes celebrate 40 years of exploration, and I still remember when they were launched when I was a young boy of seven. Between Viking landing on Mars in 1976 and Voyager launches in 1977, and of course the original Star Wars Episode IV, my boyhood propelled me to stargazing and space exploration. Ah the wonders of childhood! Here is your guide to the sky for September 5 to 10, 2017…
Corn Harvest Moon, Day and night nearly equal in length
Full Moon takes place Wednesday Morning at 3:03 am and this one is called the Corn Harvest Moon by numerous Native American tribes as it was the end of the corn growing season. Note it is not the official “Harvest Moon” which is the Full Moon nearest the Autumnal Equinox and falls on October 5th this year. More about that in upcoming posts! Sunrise currently is at 6:05 am and sunset is at 7:00 pm for this week as we inch toward the equinox on September 22 when we have 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness.
Planets for the week, Voyager memories
Brilliant Jupiter is low in the western sky and sets about one and a half hours after the Sun. Try catching it in binoculars and finding the Galilean Moons as pinpoints on either side of the planet. Saturn is in the South and visible until 11:15 pm. A two inch (5 cm) diameter telescope easily shows the spectacular rings.
This week NASA celebrates the 40th Anniversary of the Voyager Missions. Voyager I and Voyager II were launched in late August and early September of 1977 with missions to explore the outer Solar System, focusing on Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager II would go on to explore Uranus and Neptune as well. Until the New Horizons Mission was launched in 2006, they were the fastest spacecraft ever built by humans. After launch both probes encountered Jupiter in 1979 revealing incredible clouds and storms in its atmosphere, incredibly detailed images and measurements of its natural satellites or moons, and discovering a thin, dusty ring not visible from Earth. In late 1980 and mid 1981 they would reach Saturn, exploring its magnificent rings in detail showing hundreds of individual rings almost like the groves in vinyl records (yes, I am that old). Imaging Titan it found the moon had a thick atmosphere of Nitrogen and discovered numerous shepard moons between the rings. Additionally it measured wind speeds in excess of 2000 km per hour in Saturn’s atmosphere. The Voyagers revealed these planets in ways no earthly telescopes could do, sparking dreams of future exploration such as Galileo and Juno missions to Jupiter, and Casinni Huygens to Saturn. Both spacecraft are still functioning and measuring the Inter Stellar Boundary area of our solar system where the influence of the Sun is no longer felt. These missions were historic and continue to influence discoveries event today. For more see here.
The inner planets Mercury and Venus are visible this week as well. Venus rises at 3:20 am, and Mercury at 4:53 am in the eastern sky. Blazing Venus will be hard to miss as it is the third brightest object visible in our skies after the Sun and Moon. Mercury is much fainter, but is worth looking for if you are an early riser. Mars also faint is re-emerging in our morning sky rising around 4:58 am and you might catch it in twilight. It will improve as the month goes on.
Bright Passes of ISS
Tomorrow morning (Wednesday) look for the International Space Station from 4:28 to 4:32 am moving from west to northeast. See it Thursday from 5:10 to 5:16am moving from the west-northwest to northeast. On Sunday see it from 5:03 to 5:08 am in the same direction as Thursday.
The Labor Day Weekend has passed, and fall is on its way. With the remaining days of Summer, get outside and do some stargazing. Find Jupiter and Saturn and remember the Voyagers, or look to ISS and dream of the future of human space exploration. Keep your eye on the sky!