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A Trip Through the Milky Way

By Jane Houston Jones and Jessica Stoller-Conrad

Feeling like you missed out on planning a last vacation of summer? Don’t worry—youcan still take a late summertime road trip along the Milky Way!

The waning days of summer are upon us, and that means the Sun is setting earlier now.These earlier sunsets reveal a starry sky bisected by the Milky Way. Want to see thisview of our home galaxy? Head out to your favorite dark sky getaway or to the darkestcity park or urban open space you can find.

While you’re out there waiting for a peek at the Milky Way, you’ll also have a great viewof the planets in our solar system. Keep an eye out right after sunset and you can catch alook at Venus. If you have binoculars or a telescope, you’ll see Venus’s phase changedramatically during September—from nearly half phase to a larger, thinner crescent.

Jupiter, Saturn and reddish Mars are next in the sky, as they continue their brilliantappearances this month. To see them, look southwest after sunset. If you’re in a dark sky and you look above and below Saturn, you can’t miss the summer Milky Way spanning the sky from southwest to northeast.

You can also use the summer constellations to help you trace a path across the Milky Way. For example, there’s Sagittarius, where stars and some brighter clumps appear assteam from a teapot. Then there is Aquila, where the Eagle’s bright Star Altair combinedwith Cygnus’s Deneb and Lyra’s Vega mark what’s called the “summer triangle.” Thefamiliar W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia completes the constellation trail through thesummer Milky Way. Binoculars will reveal double stars, clusters and nebulae all along the Milky Way.

Between Sept. 12 and 20, watch the Moon pass from near Venus, above Jupiter, to theleft of Saturn and finally above Mars!

This month, both Neptune and brighter Uranus can also be spotted with some help from atelescope. To see them, look in the southeastern sky at 1 a.m. or later. If you stay awake,you can also find Mercury just above Earth’s eastern horizon shortly before sunrise. Usethe Moon as a guide on Sept. 7 and 8.

Although there are no major meteor showers in August, cometary dust appears in anotherlate summer sight, the morning zodiacal light. Zodiacal light looks like a cone of softlight in the night sky. It is produced when sunlight is scattered by dust in our solarsystem. Try looking for it in the east right before sunrise on the moonless mornings ofSept. 8 through Sept 23.

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This illustration shows how the summer constellations trace a path across theMilky Way. To get the best views, head out to the darkest sky you can find. Credit:NASA/JPL-Caltech

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