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As summer slides into autumn, the Cape and Islands’ dark night skies offer spectacular views of the heavens.  Here’s what you can see now and in the coming weeks:

Stargazing around the Sound

Supermoon (September 8-9):  The moon’s distance from earth varies as it orbits our planet. From time to time, a full moon occurs while our lunar companion is at its closest approach to earth. Called a ‘supermoon,’ these occurrences cause the moon to appear about 10% larger and 30% brighter than usual. The September 8th supermoon will be the last of five during 2014.

Autumnal equinox (September 23): On this date, the first day of fall, day and night are almost equally long. The long days of summer grow shorter after this in the northern hemisphere as we move into fall and winter.

Lunar eclipse (October 8): An eclipse of the moon will be visible from the Cape and Islands (and all of the United States) on October 8th. Such eclipses occur when the moon, earth and sun are aligned in such a way that the full moon passes through our planet’s shadow, causing its light to dim and giving it a distinctive reddish glow.  You’ll need to get up early to see it, however, because this eclipse takes place shortly before sunrise on October 8.

The Leonids meteor shower takes place in November, and will be at its best during the nights of November 17th and 18th. Always unpredictable, the Leonids meteor shower has produced some of the most spectacular displays of shooting stars in history, such as the legendary 1966 meteor ‘storm’ when the sky seemed to rain thousands of shooting stars per minute. This year, like most years, the Leonids meteor shower will probably be much less spectacular, but it’s still a good show. At its peak, the Leonids should produce ten to fifteen shooting stars each hour, which occur as tiny bits of dust left behind by Comet Tempel-Tuttle burn up in our planet’s atmosphere.

Several planets are currently visible. Saturn can be seen in the southwest sky during early evening, though you’ll need a telescope to see its famed rings.  Mars, the red planet, is also visible near Saturn. Dazzling Venus lives up to its nickname, ‘the morning star,’ shining brightly on the eastern horizon for about an hour before sunrise.

If you’re in a dark location on a moonless night, the Milky Way is visible as a band of light stretching across the sky. It’s estimated that two-thirds of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way at night because of the glare of artificial lights where they live. Fortunately, there are still many dark places on Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, providing an opportunity to reconnect with the splendors of our cosmic home.

Get out and enjoy the night sky! 

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