Summer Stars

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Summer Stars Viewing Guide from University of Redlands astronomer: Look soon for the Solstice, Aphelion and meteors

REDLANDS, CA (May 27, 2011)— Novice star gazers will find dazzling sights in the summer skies during the next few months, including the Summer Solstice, the Aphelion and brilliant meteor showers.

Tyler Nordgren, a physics professor and astronomer at the University of Redlands, encourages families to put sky watching on their summer activity list.

On June 21 at 10:16 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time (PDT), the Northern Hemisphere will welcome the Summer Solstice when the sun’s rays will directly strike the Tropic of Cancer. This solar event marks the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and simultaneously heralds the beginning of winter in the Southern. The day on which the Summer Solstice occurs has the longest period of daylight of the year.

“We’ve all heard that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, but this is only mostly true,” said Nordgren, who is the author of “Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks.” “Over the course of a year, the place the sun rises on the horizon actually changes from south of east to north of east, as well as southwest and northwest for sunset. On the Summer Solstice, the sun rises and sets the farthest north that it ever travels and holds that position for several days. Solstice literally means ‘sun stands still.’”

Nordgren’s book chronicles how non-scientists can see these changing celestial motions for themselves, something that cultures all over the Earth have been doing for millions of years.

“The legends the Summer Solstice has spawned continue to create interest in astronomy. Mid-summer celebrations such as gatherings at Stonehenge abound,” said Nordgren. “However, I encourage families to squeeze in a short science lesson as the event is actually based on the Earth’s axis.”

Many people assume that they experience summer because the Earth is closer to the sun. In fact, the opposite is true for summer in the Northern Hemisphere. On July 4, Earth will celebrate the Aphelion, which occurs when it is at its farthest from the sun at 94.5 million miles. The Aphelion will occur at 3:44:45 (PDT). This event does not impact the seasons nor does the Perihelion, the point where the earth is closest to the sun.

Additional summer events include the Southern Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower, which can produce about 20 meteors per hour at its peak. Looking east after midnight on July 28 and 29 should provide the best opportunities for viewing the showers; less dramatic viewing opportunities also will occur from July 18 to August 18. The radiant point for this shower, the point in the sky from which all meteors will appear to be coming from, will be in the constellation Aquarius.

“To see a meteor shower, families need no equipment more complicated than lawn chairs. Just find a dark place away from street lights, lie down, and look up,” said Nordgren.

Another meteor shower known as the Perseids Meteor Shower is one of the most exciting showers to observe, producing up to 60 meteors per hour at its peak, which will occur this year on August 13 and 14, with less dramatic shows from July 23 to August 22. The radiant point for this shower will be in the constellation Perseus.

On August 11 planet watchers will find Neptune at opposition, meaning the planet will be at its closest approach to Earth and its face will be fully illuminated by the sun. Planetary oppositions often present the best opportunities for finding and viewing planets in the night sky. Because Neptune is a great distance from Earth, 4.4 billion kilometers, and due to its small size, it will be invisible to the naked eye and appear as no more than a tiny blue dot in all but the largest telescopes.

Nordgren has served as an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory and Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he helped build a new type of telescope to directly observe the size and shape of such household stars as Pollux and Polaris (the North Star). He is a member of the National Park Service Night Sky Team working to protect our park's dark skies and promote astronomy education.

Nordgren was part of a team of seven astronomers and artists who converted the “Spirit” and “Opportunity” Mars Rover camera calibration targets into functioning sundials and saw them land safely in Gusev Crater and Meridiani Planum.

This November will see a new sundial headed for Mars that Nordgren helped design when NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Rover “Curiosity” launches from Florida on its way to the red planet.

Note to the media: Tyler Nordgren is available for interviews and to comment on these occurrences. He can be reached via cell phone at (909) 215-8130.

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