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Wyoming Skies for August

July 28, 2009

(A monthly look at the night skies of Wyoming, written by Ron Canterna, professor in the University of Wyoming Department of Physics and Astronomy.)

August is always a particularly good time for viewing our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

The night skies this month are dominated by the bright star Vega looming directly overhead. Notice a little to the east the northern cross, or Cygnus the swan, which presents itself. A large number of star clusters can be easily recognized with binoculars in this part of the Milky Way.

Cassiopeia, the big "W" in the sky, lies along the northeast horizon and also is home to many star clusters. The constellations of Scorpius, the scorpion, and Sagittarius, the teapot, are easily visible to the south. Note the brilliant red star Antares in Scorpius. This is the direction to the center of the galaxy.

If you notice any dark regions or prominent dark patches along the Milky Way "haze," these are dust lanes that are projected against the background of fainter stars, blocking out the distant light.

Planet Watch: Mercury and Saturn are on the western horizon right after sunset. Saturn is oriented so that you will not see its rings, which occurs every 14-15 years. Jupiter rises around 9 p.m. and dominates the entire night.

Mars rises at 2 a.m. followed by the bright "morning star" Venus, which rises two hours later.

The yearly August Meteor Watch: The Perseids should peak in early morning around August 13-14, with a spectacular expected rate of 60 shooting stars per hour.

August 2009 Interest: Going to Mars

This past month NASA and the American people celebrated the first human landing on extra-terrestrial soil, the moon. The trip was quite short and brief (eight days or so) compared to a "real adventure," such as going to Mars. A Martian trip will take about 180 days, or half-a-year, just to get there.

NASA estimates that the round trip would last about 500 days, due to extensive exploration and long travel time for the mission. A large crew of at least six or more well-trained and cross-trained astronauts would be needed for the long trip.

Water and air would have to be recycled, food may have to be grown in flight or on a Mars site. The long confinement would stretch the psychological concerns of the crew.

Water and air may be "recharged" once Mars is reached, but that will depend on the site chosen and the planned use of the Martian environment.

Finally, two possible propulsion systems would be considered: A safe nuclear thermal engine, based on earlier 1960s NASA designs and research, or a traditional liquid oxygen and hydrogen chemical engine.

The size and weight requirements will be enormous, similar to those of the International Space Station. Landing on the moon was a great human accomplishment by the United States. Going to Mars, a more colossal human achievement, may require more than one nation.

For more information, visit the Wyoming Skies home page ( or send an e-mail to


Posted on Tuesday, July 28, 2009

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