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Sky Watch by J. Alex Knoll

What’s next after the shuttle?

Thirty years three months and several days ago, the twin Solid Rocket Boosters strapped to the space shuttle Challenger ignited in unison, discharging a wake of flames and propelling up, up, up against gravity’s pull and into low-earth orbit.

Look for the thunder

As the sun sets in the northwest at 8:31 Friday, July’s full moon rises in the southeast. Native American and folk lore call this the Thunder Moon, the Hay Moon and the Buck Moon. We’re all familiar with this moon’s strong, mid-summer storms, and farmers still begin their harvest of winter livestock feed at this time.

While the green flash of sunset it hard to spot, it is real

We usually focus on the darkened sky in this space, but these late summer sunsets provide a chance to glimpse a strange solar phenomenon. Simply called green flashes, these are bursts of light as the sun crosses the horizon line. Those who’ve seen it describe a green-colored, flame-like burst as the sun winks from sight. Perhaps you’ve already witnessed it and chalked it up to your eyes playing tricks.

The stars and planets are the original fireworks

While these are the shortest nights of the year, many a fond memory is set star-gazing on warm summer evenings. And in between the bursts of flame and the clouds of smoke honoring our independence this week, Friday’s new moon provides a dark backdrop highlighting the greatest show in the heavens.

Can you see the Milky Way?

A week after solstice, the 28th marks the latest sunset of the year, at 44 seconds past 8:35. And while a few bright lights will pierce the glare of twilight, it isn’t until nearly 10pm that the sky truly darkens and the stars start to shine.

Hidden amid the year’s shortest night, the sky beckons

With days upon days of scorching weather already, you might be surprised that summer begins only this week, on June 21, with the summer solstice. On this day, the sun reaches its farthest point north in the sky, 231⁄2 degrees north of the equator directly over the Tropic of Cancer. That morning the sun rises at 5:40 and sets 14 hours, 55 minutes later at 8:35.

The full moon is at its lowest, while the sun nears its peak

Week’s end finds the waxing gibbous moon high in the south at sunset, around 8:30. Thursday evening it shines to the west of golden Saturn and the blue-white star Spica, but the next night it has snuggled within 10 degrees of both, forming a loose triangle. Saturn and Spica are currently about a dozen degrees apart, but keep an eye on them over the coming months as the ringed planet edges eastward for an autumnal conjunction.

Let the waxing crescent guide you through the heavens

As the sun sets near 8:30 Friday, look for an ever-so-slender crescent moon hugging the west-northwest horizon. Just two days past new phase, only about five percent of the lunar disk will be illuminated. To spot this sliver of moon, you’ll need an unobstructed view of the horizon, and binoculars may help you to pick it out from the lingering glare of dusk.

Look overhead to Corona Borealis

With week’s end, the sun sets at 8:20 and each night after almost a minute later. But it’s still more than an hour later that the glow of dusk gives way fully to darkness. By that time Saturn shines high in the south, the only planet visible until well before dawn.

Look for the hero Hercules between the stars of spring and summer

The waning gibbous moon rises in the southeast a couple hours before midnight at week’s end, but Tuesday’s last-quarter moon does not crest the horizon until almost 2am.