Water on moon? Imaginations sparkle

Posted Sept. 29, 2009, at 8:26 p.m.

In one of the most startling discoveries in decades, it has been learned that the moon, previously considered to be dry and barren, appears to harbor water although how much is not completely clear.

In a recent issue of the journal Science, Dr. Lawrence Taylor said that spectra of the hydroxyl group, a major component of the water molecule, was detected from the lunar surface. Ironically water was found in samples of lunar soil brought back by the Apollo missions 40 years ago but was dismissed as contamination from the humid Houston air. Taylor was one of those who dismissed it and now says that he has to admit that he was wrong.

In the first flush of discovery, some say that this could be a source of water for future moon explorers, but Taylor says that would not be easy. He estimates the concentration to be about one quart of water for every cubic yard of lunar soil and rock.

Focus on the planets

Mercury rises in the east about an hour and a half before dawn. The first half of October will be the best time to see Mercury. On Oct. 6, look for Mercury just to the lower left of Venus for one of its best morning appearances for the year.

Venus is the bright “Morning Star” in the east at dawn. It is the brightest object in the morning sky. Venus gradually sinks toward the horizon as the month progresses.

Mars rises shortly after midnight and is high in the southeast at dawn. Mars lies just to the south of Castor and Pollux as the month opens and, by month’s end, has grown large enough so that the polar caps should be visible in 8-inch telescopes.

Jupiter stands in solitary splendor in the southeast at dusk. A small telescope will reveal surface features as the equatorial belts. Jupiter’s four moons will also be seen dancing around the giant planet occasionally passing in front of, or occulting, each other.

Saturn rises in the east as the morning twilight brightens. On the morning of Oct. 8, Saturn and Mercury appear to be nearly touching Venus directly above the duo.

Uranus lies just to the south of the Circlet of Pisces and may be seen as a faint blue-green disk by telescope.

Neptune is in Capricornus but the very dim blue-gray disk will be difficult to spot. The finder chart in the September issue of Sky & Telescope will help to locate Uranus and Neptune.

October events

1 Sunrise, 6:33 a.m.; sunset, 6:17 p.m.

4 Full moon, 2:11 a.m. As the full moon nearest the autumn equinox, this is the Harvest Moon.

5 Venus, Mercury and Saturn line up from top right to lower left in the east at dawn.

8 Mercury and Saturn are separated by less than one-third of a degree in the east about an hour before sunrise. This will be the closest approach of two planets in 2009.

11 Moon in last quarter, 4:56 a.m.

13 The moon is at perigee, or nearest approach to Earth.

15 Look to the southeast at dawn where Mercury, Venus, and Saturn form a nearly straight ascending line. The thin crescent moon is to the lower right of Venus.

18 New moon, 1:12 a.m.

21 This is the peak night for the Orionid meteor shower. This year should be very favorable with the new moon just past. Look for up to 30 bright, fast meteors per hour radiating from the vicinity of Orion’s “club.”

23 The sun enters the astrological sign of Scorpio but is still in Virgo astronomically.

25 The moon is at apogee or farthest distance from Earth.

26 Moon in first quarter, 8:41 p.m. The bright object to the lower left of the moon is Jupiter.

30 The sun enters Libra on the ecliptic.

31 Halloween, a cross-quarter day marking the mid-point between the fall equinox and winter solstice. Sunrise, 7:12 a.m.; sunset, 5:26 p.m.

NOTE: The clocks fall back on Nov. 1.

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