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September Astronomical Highlights: Andromeda Galaxy and a Comet

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By Kelly Kizer Whitt

Relief from the heat of summer and long days baking in the sun is on its way. The Northern Hemisphere's fall equinox occurs on Sept. 22 at 6:54 P.M. PDT. The harvest moon—the full moon that comes closest to the equinox—is just two nights later, on Sept. 24 at 7:53 P.M. PDT. On this date, the moon is in the constellation Pisces.


As you admire the full harvest moon, turn your gaze higher in the sky to find a circle, square and distant galaxy. The round shape close to the full moon is the Circlet of Pisces, part of the constellation of the fish. Above the Circlet and spanning a much larger swath of sky is the Great Square of Pegasus. The constellation of Pegasus rises in the east in September, with the asterism (grouping of stars) set more on end like a diamond. Imagine a large baseball diamond in the sky, with home plate nearest to the horizon. The star marking third base, Alpheratz, is actually not part of the constellation Pegasus but part of neighboring Andromeda.

While you're gazing at Alpheratz, measure 15 degrees to the left of the star to reach the Andromeda Galaxy. An easy way to do this is to stretch your arm out and create a fist, then extend and spread out your pinkie and index fingers (rock on). The distance between these fingers should mark about 15 degrees of sky and get you in the vicinity of Andromeda. You'll probably need binoculars to see it. Now that you know where to find Andromeda, try again on a moonless night and away from artificial sources of light. You may even be able to find it without optical aid.

Four Bright Planets

This month, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars are arrayed across the sky from west to southeast. On Sept. 1, Venus is quite close to the star Spica in Virgo, and the pair can be found near the horizon soon after sunset. Venus is the easiest to find because it's so much brighter than all the other points of light in the sky, but it sets shortly after the sun. A crescent moon is wide of Venus on Sept. 11 and then above Venus on Sept. 12.

On Sept. 13, the slowly growing crescent moon is close to Jupiter in the constellation Libra. The somewhat bright star closest to Jupiter is Zubenelgenubi. By Sept. 17, the moon has evolved to slightly more than half full and hop-scotched over Saturn, which is not far from the center of the galaxy. When you look toward Saturn, you are looking toward the heart of the Milky Way.

Lastly, the moon meets up with Mars on Sept. 19 in Capricornus. Mars is coming down from its "high" of opposition when it was particularly bright. The Red Planet will start September brighter than Jupiter but dim steadily until Jupiter once again surpasses it.

With all the bright planetary targets in September, there's one planet that's a fun challenge to try to find. Neptune reaches opposition on Sept. 7 at magnitude 7.8. You'll need optical aid to see it. Because it's so dim, it's difficult to distinguish from background stars. The best time to see Neptune is not necessarily opposition but whenever a brighter planet skims past it so you can focus your binoculars or telescope on the easy-to-find planet and then spot Neptune popping up in the background. You'll have to wait until December for just such a close encounter between Neptune and Mars.

Comet Giacobini-Zinner Nears Naked-Eye Visibility

You might get to see a comet without optical aid in September. Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner might reach naked-eye visibility around Sept. 10 in dark-sky locations. Start during the first couple days of the month by looking near the bright star Capella in Auriga, found in the northeastern sky after dark. Capella should be easy to find because it's the brightest star rising in this region of sky.

With binoculars, search for the comet by sweeping the area near Capella and looking for a hazy, diffuse area of light that stands apart from the pinpricks of stars. The comet won't stay near Capella for long, however. Each night it dives closer to the horizon, so you'll have to stay up later as September wears on to be sure the comet has risen and is visible.

By Sept. 19, the comet is positioned between the constellations of Gemini the Twins and Orion. (The comet will be a wide left of Orion's reddish shoulder star Betelgeuse.) By the end of September, the comet is nearing Sirius in the constellation Canis Major. Giacobini-Zinner will complete a large loop around the Greater Dog over the coming months as it slows its progress through the sky and dims until it's out of the reach of most backyard telescopes.

Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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