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June 29, 2011

STARLINE: Get to know your galaxy; and happy birthday, Neptune!

— July 1 brings a partial solar eclipse, the third eclipse of the year and the third we can't see. It will be visible only from part of the Antarctic Ocean so not only will we not see it but very few people at all will see it.

The Milky Way is that band of light in the sky and July is a great time to see it. The Greeks imagined that the Milky Way was made by spilled milk from a celestial goddess. Native Americans thought the strip was a dusty path across the sky where buffalo roamed. But when Galileo inspected the Milky Way with a telescope in 1610 he saw that it consisted of uncountable faint stars. The Milky Way in the sky is a projection of the disk of stars in which we live: the Milky Way galaxy. 
 
To identify the Milky Way in July start by finding the constellation Scorpius at about 11 p.m. just above the southern horizon. The stars of Scorpius actually look like a scorpion with a curled tail. Scorpius lies directly in the Milky Way. Above and to the left of Scorpius is Sagittarius, the Archer, although the bright stars in Sagittarius make a "teapot" pattern. The center of the Milky Way is in the direction of Sagittarius.
 
From Sagittarius you can follow the path of the Milky Way to the northeast high in the sky through Cygnus, the northern cross, and down to the northeast horizon. You can see the Milky Way from dark areas in the city but you will get a much better view from the dark countryside. On July 4 we celebrate Independence Day but this year we are also celebrating the Earth being at aphelion, the Earth's greatest distance from the sun. 
 
This year the Earth's aphelion distance is 94,555,000 miles and the perihelion distance (close approach) is 91,445,000 miles. The Earth's orbit is almost circular.

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