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Summer night sky events to look forward to

April 17, 2012
By Aileen O’Donoghue (

This is my last column for the summer. After this, Eye on Invasives by Hilary Smith will fill this every-other-Tuesday slot, so let me tell you about astronomical summer events and programs.

The BIG event this summer occurs on June 5 staring at about 6 p.m. and continuing to sunset: the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. This event won't be visible from the Adirondacks again until Dec. 8, 2125. Venus' next transit will occur on Dec. 11, 2117, but it will be the middle of the night here. So let's hope for clear skies this year!

Many events are planned around June's transit by the astronomers of the Adirondack Public Observatory. On June 4, there will be a 7 p.m. lecture and discussion about the transit at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake. On June 5, the astronomers of the Adirondack Public Observatory will host a public viewing with telescopes at the Little Wolf Beach in Tupper Lake, just below the future site of the observatory, starting at 5:30 p.m. Our view of the transit will end at sunset, but as the sky darkens, Mercury, Mars and Saturn and other cosmic objects will become visible and provide delightful telescope views. In Canton, I and fellow APO board member Jeff Miller will have a public viewing at St. Lawrence University. Watch the community calendar in this paper and on North Country Public Radio for details about these events.

A little more than two weeks before Venus' transit, the moon will pass between us and the sun to give us an annular solar eclipse. An annular eclipse occurs when the moon's disk is slightly smaller than the sun's, leaving a ring, an "annulus" of the sun visible around the moon. This occurs when the moon is near its orbital apogee, the farthest point from Earth. The moon will be at apogee on May 19, about 1.3 days before the annular eclipse on May 20, making the moon's disk appear about 13 percent smaller than the sun's and leaving a thin ring of bright sun visible around the dark disk of the moon. Unfortunately, this will occur after sunset for us but be visible in the far western United States. If you're going to be out west for the event, check out the NASA eclipse page at

eclipse.html for maps and times.

An odd thing about May's eclipse is that, due to Earth's orbital motion to the west as viewed from the sun, the shadow of the moon contacts the Earth in the west and moves eastward during the eclipse (or you can think of the Earth contacting the moon's shadow and moving westward underneath it). This year, the first contact of the shadow is at dawn in southeast China on May 21. About mid-way through the eclipse, the shadow will cross the international date line, where it will occur on May 20. Though a simple consequence of how we manage our calendar, it's still fun to be aware of an event that starts on one date and ends on the previous one!

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A beautiful gathering of the waning crescent moon with Jupiter, Venus and the Hyades star cluster, the "V" in Taurus, on the morning of July 15. This is an "open" or "galactic" cluster of stars that formed together a stellar "litter." At a distance of 153 light years, it's the closest cluster to the Earth. The bright red star in its midst, Aldebaran (Al-DEB-uh-ron, the follower who follows the Pleiades) is not a part of the cluster but lies along our line of sight to it at a distance of 67 light years. As shown in the diagram, this gathering of stars and planets will be just below the Pleiades in the eastern sky, providing an excellent binocular view for the intrepid observer who rises early!

Throughout the summer, the APO will host a number of public events. On June 22, "Black Holes," an episode of Discovery Channel's "How the Universe Works" series, will be shown at 7 p.m. at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake. The video will be followed with a discussion led by Jeff Miller.

On July 13, Dr. Ken Kremer, a freelance science journalist and scientist and photographer, will speak on "Eight Years of Mars Rovers and the Search for Life - Mars and Vesta in 3-D." The talk will be at the Wild Center at 7:30 p.m. He will discuss the NASA Rover missions to Mars and the new Curiosity mission (expected to land on Mars on Aug. 6). On July 14, the day after his talk to the public, Dr. Kremer will present an interactive program about the Mars robots for kids of all ages, also at the Wild Center, from 11 a.m. to noon.

In Potsdam, on the second Friday of each month, former APO board member Jan Wojcik and "Star Date" writer Bruce McClure hold planetarium shows at SUNY Potsdam's Stowell Hall. On clear nights, this is followed by public viewing at Clarkson's Reynolds Observatory, of which Jan is the director, on the Hatch Road.

Starting in July, the APO astronomers will host public observing sessions, "star parties," every first and third Friday of the month. Currently they're scheduled for July 6 and 20, Aug. 3, and 17, and Sept, 7 and 21. If Friday evening is rainy or cloudy, they will be moved to the next night (Saturday).

Even without this handy column, local astronomers are anxious to share our love of the sky with you. Check out the Adirondack Public Observatory website at for events. Listen for me on North Country Public Radio about once a month during "The Eight O'Clock Hour," or email me with any questions or comments at Best wishes for a delightful Adirondack summer!



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