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Pegasus

Wed, 20 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

With summer about to give way to fall, one of the main star patterns of the new season is climbing into prominence in the evening. The Great Square of Pegasus is in the east at nightfall. It’s tilted as it rises, so it looks like a diamond.




Beta Pegasi

Wed, 20 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

With summer just about ready to give way to fall, one of the signature star patterns of the new season is climbing into prominence in the evening sky. The Great Square of Pegasus is in the east as night falls. It’s tilted a bit as it rises, so it looks a bit more like a diamond than a square.

The jewel at the top of the diamond is known as Beta Pegasi. It’s a red giant — an old, bloated star that shines reddish orange. That color isn’t visibile to the unaided eye because the star is relatively faint — mainly because it’s about 200 light-years away. But the tint should be easy to see through binoculars.

A star’s color is the result of its surface temperature. Hot stars are blue-white, while cool stars are orange or red. Beta Pegasi is thousands of degrees cooler than the Sun. That’s because the star is nearing the end of its life. Changes in its core have caused its outer layers to puff outward, so the star is almost a hundred times the Sun’s diameter. That caused the gas in those layers to get cooler — and redder.

The change in temperature also produces a change in the type of energy the star radiates into space. Stars like the Sun produce most of their energy at visible wavelengths. But most of the light from Beta Pegasi is in the infrared — wavelengths that are too long for human eyes to see. When you add all the wavelengths together, Beta Pegasi shines about 1500 times brighter than the Sun — a red jewel sparkling across the galaxy.


Script by Damond Benningfield

 

StarDate: 
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Teaser: 
Cooling off a giant star



Royal Pole Star

Tue, 19 Sep 2017 05:35:51 +0000

While the star Polaris marks the north celestial pole today, that won't always be the case. Over the next 26,000 years or so, the pole will loop around the northern sky, passing several bright stars. One of these is Alderamin, the leading light of the constellation Cepheus the king, which will mark the pole around the year 7500. It won't be as close to the celestial pole as Polaris, as this chart illustrates, but it will be the closest bright star to the pole for centuries. [Damond Benningfield/Stellarium]

(image)



Cepheus

Tue, 19 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

Cepheus the king passes high overhead tonight. The constellation’s five main stars form a pentagon. None of them is especially bright, though, so you probably need a star chart to find his majesty.




Alderamin

Tue, 19 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

Royal Pole Star While the star Polaris marks the north celestial pole today, that won't always be the case. Over the next 26,000 years or so, the pole will loop around the northern sky, passing several bright stars. One of these is Alderamin, the leading light of the constellation Cepheus the king, which will mark the pole around the year 7500. It won't be as close to the celestial pole as Polaris, as this chart illustrates, but it will be the closest bright star to the pole for centuries. [Damond Benningfield/Stellarium] Cepheus the king passes high overhead tonight. The constellation’s five main stars form a pentagon. None of them is especially bright, though, so you’ll probably need a star chart to find his majesty. Even so, the brightest star in Cepheus has quite a future: It’s destined to become the North Star. Right now the North Star is Polaris, the star at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. The star marks true north because Earth’s axis happens to point nearly straight at it. So as Earth spins, Polaris remains in the same position, never rising or setting. However, as the gravitational forces of the Sun and Moon tug at our planet, it wobbles. That makes its rotation axis gradually point elsewhere. In the year 7500 A.D., it’ll point at the brightest star in Cepheus, Alderamin. Alderamin won’t be as good a North Star as Polaris is now. For one thing, it isn’t quite as bright. For another, while Polaris is less than a degree from the celestial pole, Alderamin won’t get closer than a couple of degrees. Alderamin is a white star. In astronomical jargon, it’s of spectral type A, which means it’s hotter than the Sun. It’s also about 20 times brighter than the Sun. And as stars go, it’s fairly close by — just 49 light-years away. That’s much closer than Polaris, which is hundreds of light-years away. Alderamin is easily visible from dark country locations, and even from many suburbs, passing high overhead tonight: our future North Star.   Script by Ken Croswell, Copyright 2017 Keywords: Cepheus, the KingPolaris, the North StarPrecessionStarDate: Tuesday, September 19, 2017Teaser: Lining up a future North Star [...]



The Brightest

Mon, 18 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

The brightest planet and star in the night sky are in good view at dawn now. The planet Venus is low in the east. It’s the “morning star.” The star Sirius twinkles far to the upper right of Venus. No other star in the night sky outshines it.




New Cluster

Mon, 18 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

The brightest planet and star in all the night sky are in good view at dawn right now. The planet Venus is low in the east. It’s the “morning star,” so it’s a brilliant target. And the star Sirius twinkles far to the upper right of Venus. No other star in the night sky outshines it.

Astronomers have long viewed the splendor of Sirius — first with the unaided eye, then with telescopes large and small. But through all these years of looking, they’ve missed something: a cluster of stars that lies in nearly the same direction as Sirius but far beyond it, in the outer part of the Milky Way galaxy.

The cluster was discovered in data from the Gaia space telescope, which is measuring the distances and velocities of a billion stars. Astronomers spotted a collection of stars just a sixth of a degree east of Sirius — about the width of a toothpick held at arm’s length. The stars were all the same distance from Earth: about 15,000 light-years, indicating they belong to a cluster, now named Gaia 1.

The cluster is 38,000 light-years from the Milky Way’s center. That’s 11,000 light-years farther out than the Sun and Earth are. The cluster is about 60 light-years across, and it emits 10,000 times more light than the Sun.

Such a bright cluster should have been seen long ago. It eluded detection by hiding behind the glare of Sirius. As a result, it took a sensitive new spacecraft to unveil this star-filled denizen of the Milky Way’s outer reaches.

 

Script by Ken Croswell, Copyright 2017

Keywords:

StarDate: 
Monday, September 18, 2017
Teaser: 
Hiding behind a bright star



Moon in the Middle

Sun, 17 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

The Moon starts the week at the center of a beautiful morning lineup. It’s flanked by four points of light — two above, and two below. Venus, the “morning star,” is the bright point above the Moon, while the planet Mercury is the brightest point below.




Moon in the Middle

Sun, 17 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

The crescent Moon starts the week as the centerpiece of a beautiful morning lineup tomorrow. It’s flanked by four pinpoints of light — two above, and two below. The ones below it are a bit tough to find, but the ones above should be easy targets.

The brightest of the Moon’s companions is Venus, the dazzling “morning star.” It rises a few hours before the Sun, so it’s in good view by dawn’s early light.

Although it looks like a star, Venus is really a planet — our closest planetary neighbor. Thanks to the combination of its distance and our viewing angle, it’s at its faintest — it’s only half as bright as it is at its peak. It won’t start brightening until the end of the year.

The true star Regulus stands below Venus. It’s only about one percent as bright as Venus. But it’s one of the night sky’s leading lights, so you won’t have any trouble finding it.

Things get trickier when you look below the Moon. The planet Mercury is to the lower left of the Moon as twilight begins to paint the sky. And it’s pretty bright — only the Moon and Venus outshine it. But it’s so low in the sky, and so immersed in the waxing twilight, that you need a clear horizon to pick it out.

And Mercury has a close companion that’s especially hard to find. Mars is only about a tenth as bright as Mercury, so it’s a tough target. But it lines up between Mercury and the Moon, which can help you find it — the faintest member of a beautiful morning lineup.

 

Script by Damond Benningfield

StarDate: 
Sunday, September 17, 2017
Teaser: 
A beautiful morning lineup



Moon and Venus

Sat, 16 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

Venus is shining as the brilliant “morning star.” Tomorrow, it will stand close to the lower left of the Moon at dawn. The star Regulus and the planets Mercury and Mars line up below them.




Moon and Venus

Sat, 16 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

Venus is a world you probably wouldn’t want to visit. When the solar system was young, though, it could have been the most hospitable of all the planets — a world with oceans and a comfortable atmosphere.

Today, Venus’s atmosphere is made mainly of carbon dioxide, with surface pressure more than 90 times greater than on Earth. And the surface temperature is more than 850 degrees Fahrenheit.

But a study released last year found that conditions on Venus could have been relatively comfortable for a long time.

Researchers looked at Venus’s atmosphere, its landscape, and its rotation on its axis. And they used models of climate behavior and other factors.

When they ran the numbers, they found that shallow oceans could have covered much of the surface for up to two billion years. And air temperatures could have remained comfortable through most of that period.

Eventually, though, all that came to an end. As the Sun aged, it got brighter, which bombarded Venus with more energy. The oceans evaporated, and water molecules were split apart by solar radiation. The water’s hydrogen escaped into space, while the oxygen combined with carbon to make carbon dioxide. That created a runaway greenhouse effect — transforming Venus from paradise to purgatory.

Even so, Venus is still beautiful to look at. It’s the brilliant “morning star.” Tomorrow, it’s close to the lower left of the Moon at dawn — a beautiful world that might have had a beautiful past.

 

Script by Damond Benningfield

StarDate: 
Saturday, September 16, 2017
Teaser: 
An early solar-system paradise



Saying Goodbye

Fri, 15 Sep 2017 19:13:15 +0000

The Cassini spacecraft ended its mission to the Saturn system on September 15, when it plunged into the giant planet's atmosphere. One of its final views of the planet was this image of the moon Enceladus setting behind Saturn's limb. Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004, and staged hundreds of passes by Enceladus, Titan, and some of the other moons. [NASA/JPL/SSI]

(image)



Mars Returns

Fri, 15 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

Mars is climbing into view in the dawn twilight. It’s not very bright, but it stands near some brighter bodies. Venus, the “morning star,” is high above it, with the star Regulus below Venus. The planet Mercury is below Regulus, with fainter Mars beside Mercury.




Mars Returns

Fri, 15 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

While one European spacecraft steps closer to Mars, scientists are narrowing down the list of landing sites for a craft that will step across Mars.

ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter arrived at Mars last October. But the trip from Earth was just the start of its journey. As planned, it entered a lopsided orbit that’s too high to do its work. So engineers are lowering its orbit. They’re doing so by having the craft drop deeper into Mars’s atmosphere on each lap. That creates drag that pulls the high point of its orbit closer to Mars.

Trace Gas Orbiter will complete the maneuvers in about six months. After that, it’ll start “sniffing” the atmosphere for methane and other compounds that could be produced by living organisms.

In the meantime, scientists are studying landing sites for a rover that will arrive at Mars in 2021. They’ve narrowed it down to two possibilities. One is in a low plain that was filled with water billions of years ago. The other is near the mouth of a valley that may have been filled with water for hundreds of millions of years. Scientists will pick the winning site a year before launch.

And Mars is climbing into view in the dawn twilight right now. It’s quite low in the east, and it’s not very bright yet. But it’s near some brighter bodies. Venus, the “morning star,” is high above it, with the star Regulus a little below Venus. The bright planet Mercury is well below Regulus, with fainter Mars just a whisker away from Mercury.

 

Script by Damond Benningfield

Keywords:

StarDate: 
Friday, September 15, 2017
Teaser: 
Stepping toward the Red Planet



End of Cassini

Thu, 14 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

The planet Saturn is low in the south-southwest at nightfall. It looks like a bright star, with the true star Antares to the lower right. The Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn for 13 years, will end its mission tomorrow by plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere.




End of Cassini

Thu, 14 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

Saying Goodbye The Cassini spacecraft ended its mission to the Saturn system on September 15, when it plunged into the giant planet's atmosphere. One of its final views of the planet was this image of the moon Enceladus setting behind Saturn's limb. Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004, and staged hundreds of passes by Enceladus, Titan, and some of the other moons. [NASA/JPL/SSI] The end is near for the Cassini spacecraft. After 13 years of exploring Saturn and its moons and rings, the craft will end its mission tomorrow with a fatal plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere. Cassini arrived at Saturn in the summer of 2004. Since then, it’s orbited the planet almost 300 times. It’s discovered lightning crackling inside giant storms, found lakes of liquid methane and ethane on the big moon Titan, and seen geysers of water and ice erupting from the moon Enceladus. But it’s about out of propellants for its rocket engine, so engineers won’t be able to control where it’s going. Scientists don’t want it to crash into Titan or Enceladus, though, because the moons are considered possible homes for life. No one wants want to run the risk — however minuscule — that Cassini could carry microbes from Earth that could contaminate those worlds. So for the last few months, Cassini has been setting up for its demise. It’s been following a path that carried it especially close to Saturn — between its clouds and the inner edge of its rings. And tomorrow, its final orbit will carry it into Saturn’s atmosphere. Cassini will transmit its observations for as long as possible. Eventually, though, the plunge will rip the craft apart. And its remains will burn up, forming bright meteors in Saturn’s sky. That will end one of the most impressive space missions in history — a grand tour of Saturn and its entourage of moons and rings. Script by Damond Benningfield  Keywords: Cassini to SaturnSaturnSpace ExplorationStarDate: Thursday, September 14, 2017Teaser: The final day of a grand tour [...]



Final Act

Wed, 13 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

This artist's concept shows the Cassini spacecraft passing between Saturn and its rings in preparation for its final act: a fatal plunge into Saturn's atmosphere, scheduled for September 15. The craft has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, and has made important discoveries about the planet, its rings, and its more than 60 known moons. Cassini will transmit its final pictures to Earth on September 14, but it will relay other data as it enters the atmosphere. [NASA/JPL]

(image)



Andromeda

Wed, 13 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

Andromeda, the princess, is in the east and northeast as the sky gets good and dark on September nights. It’s not especially bright, but you can find it by looking to the lower left of the more prominent Great Square of Pegasus.




Exploring Saturn

Wed, 13 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

Final Act This artist's concept shows the Cassini spacecraft passing between Saturn and its rings in preparation for its final act: a fatal plunge into Saturn's atmosphere, scheduled for September 15. The craft has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, and has made important discoveries about the planet, its rings, and its more than 60 known moons. Cassini will transmit its final pictures to Earth on September 14, but it will relay other data as it enters the atmosphere. [NASA/JPL] Lakes and seas filled with liquid hydrocarbons dot the surface of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Geysers of water squirt from the south pole of a smaller moon, Enceladus. And lightning sometimes crackles through the clouds of Saturn itself. Those are among the many discoveries made by Cassini, a spacecraft that entered orbit around Saturn more than 13 years ago. When it arrived, Saturn was like a neighbor you’ve never met — you see them in the front yard or on the street, but you don’t know much about them. But Cassini gave us quite an introduction — it turned that giant but distant neighbor into a well-known friend. Cassini watched as small moons created waves in Saturn’s rings, like the wake of a boat speeding across a still lake. In 2011, it kept an eye on a giant storm that eventually spread all the way around Saturn’s northern hemisphere. And it discovered a ridge on Iapetus that makes the moon look a bit like a walnut. Cassini also dropped a robotic probe into the cold, dense atmosphere of Titan. The atmosphere is topped by an orange haze, so Titan’s surface had been hidden from view. The probe photographed dry river channels and flat pebbles of ice on the surface. And Cassini itself used radar and other instruments to map the surface, revealing not only the lakes and seas, but giant dunes, an ice volcano, and many other amazing features. Cassini’s time is up, though, and we’ll talk about its final act tomorrow.   Script by Damond Benningfield   Keywords: Cassini to SaturnSaturnSaturn's MoonsSaturn's RingsTitanStarDate: Wednesday, September 13, 2017Teaser: Getting to know a giant planet [...]



Last-Quarter Moon

Tue, 12 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

The Moon is at last quarter at 1:25 a.m. CDT tomorrow, as the Sun illuminates half of the lunar hemisphere that faces us. This phase is known as last quarter because the Moon is three-quarters of the way through its month-long cycle of phases.




Van Maanen’s Star

Tue, 12 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

The Sun outshines most other stars, but that won’t always be the case. Billions of years from now the nuclear reactions in its core will shut down. The Sun will then expel its outer layers into space. All that will remain will be the Sun’s dead core, known as a white dwarf — a faint cosmic cinder.

We can get a glimpse of that future by looking at a white dwarf that was discovered 100 years ago. It’s the closest single white dwarf yet seen.

The star is named for the astronomer who discovered it: Adriaan van Maanen, who worked at Mount Wilson Observatory in California. Yet the discovery was an accident. Van Maanen was actually examining another star. He was comparing photographic plates taken in 1917 with some taken three years earlier. He noticed a faint star in the constellation Pisces that had moved quite a bit during the interval — a sign that the star was close by.

To confirm that, Van Maanen and other astronomers measured its distance. And they found that, as expected, it’s one of our nearest neighbors — just 14 light-years from Earth. But the star is so faint you that need a telescope to see it; the Sun emits more light in 24 hours than this feeble star does in 15 years.

Only two other white dwarfs are closer to Earth. But both of them are companions to much brighter stars. In contrast, Van Maanen’s Star is all alone and fading from view — just as the Sun will billions of years from now.

Tomorrow: a final look at a giant planet.


Script by Ken Croswell, Copyright 2017

 

StarDate: 
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
Teaser: 
Discovering a faint loner



Moon and Aldebaran

Mon, 11 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

Aldebaran, the brightest star of Taurus, perches close to the Moon as they climb into view around midnight, and especially close at first light tomorrow. As seen from parts of the western U.S., the Moon will pass in front of Aldebaran, blocking its light.




Moon and Aldebaran

Mon, 11 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

You can’t tell it just by looking, but our solar system is orbiting the center of the Milky Way galaxy at about half a million miles per hour. And the stars around us are moving at similar speeds. In fact, one of the first stars to have its motion measured stands quite close to the Moon tonight. Aldebaran is the leading light of Taurus, the bull. It’s just an eyelash away from the Moon as they climb into view around midnight, and even closer to the Moon at first light. In fact, as seen from parts of the western United States, the Moon will pass in front of Aldebaran, blocking its light — an event known as an occultation. Three centuries ago, Edmond Halley studied an occultation of Aldebaran that happened in the year 509. And he got a surprise: He found that, over the centuries, Aldebaran had shifted position relative to the other stars. Studies of two other stars showed that they, too, had moved. That change in a star’s position is known as proper motion. It’s caused by a combination of motions — ours, and the other star’s. Aldebaran is fairly close — just 65 light-years away — so its motion is more pronounced than that of many other visible stars, which are farther away. Since the occultation of 509, in fact, Aldebaran has moved roughly a quarter the diameter of the Moon in our sky. It’s a tiny shift. But it adds up. Over the millennia, Aldebaran will drift slowly southward — depriving the bull of his bright eye. Script by Damond Benningfield  Keywords: AldebaranHalley, EdmundHistory of AstronomyStarsStarDate: Monday, September 11, 2017Teaser: The “shifty” eye of the bull[...]



Milky Way

Sun, 10 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

This is a great time of year to watch the Milky Way, the glowing band of stars that outlines the disk of our home galaxy. The Milky Way arcs high overhead around 9 or 10 p.m., before the Moon rises. You need dark skies to see it.




Arthur Compton

Sun, 10 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

Hubble Space Telescope may get all the attention, but it’s not an only child. It’s one of four space telescopes built to study the universe at different wavelengths: the Great Observatories. One of them was named for a physicist who was born 125 years ago today. Arthur Holly Compton was born in Ohio in 1892. He developed an early interest in science, and earned his PhD in physics from Princeton. Compton joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, where he studied X-rays. His experiments proved that X-rays and other forms of light can behave like solid particles. It was an astounding discovery — and it earned him a Nobel Prize. Compton also studied cosmic rays — mysterious radiation from outside Earth. His work showed that the “rays” are actually solid particles with an electric charge, so they interact with Earth’s magnetic field. During World War II, Compton was a key player in the development of the atomic bomb. He oversaw the construction of the first nuclear reactor, and led the creation of plutonium-fueled bombs. Decades later, when NASA built a Great Observatory to study gamma rays, its detectors took advantage of Compton’s Nobel-winning discovery. So the agency named the telescope in his honor. And for a decade, scientists studied some of the most powerful objects in the universe with Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory. Script by Damond Benningfield  Keywords: AstronomersCosmic RaysGamma-Ray AstronomyHistory of AstronomySpace ObservatoriesStarDate: Sunday, September 10, 2017Teaser: From cosmic rays to gamma rays[...]



Enif

Sat, 09 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

The brightest star of Pegasus, the flying horse, is Enif, from an Arabic name that means “the horse’s nose.” It’s to the upper right of the Great Square of Pegasus, which is in the east in early evening.




Last Discovery

Sat, 09 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

In the last couple of decades, astronomers have discovered more than 50 moons of Jupiter. All of them were found in pictures of the giant planet. In fact, the last moon of Jupiter or any other planet discovered without the aid of photography was found 125 years ago tonight. Edward Emerson Barnard was one of the leading observers of his age. And he was observing the sky with one of the leading tools of the age: a 36-inch telescope at Lick Observatory in California. Barnard was a junior member of the staff, so he hadn’t been allowed to use the telescope until just a couple of months earlier. And even then, he had it for just one night a week. But he made the most of that time. In August of 1892, for example, he discovered a cloud of gas around a bright “new” star known as a nova. From that, he became the first astronomer to deduce that a nova is a type of stellar explosion. On the night of September 9th, Barnard saw a small “star” near Jupiter. He thought it was a moon — the first discovered since 1610. The following night, he borrowed the telescope from a colleague to confirm the discovery. The odd little moon was named Amalthea after a character from Greek mythology. It was the last moon discovered just by looking through a telescope. About that time, Barnard started taking photographs through the telescope. And just weeks after he found Amalthea, he discovered a comet in one of his pictures — the first comet ever discovered with photography. Script by Damond Benningfield  Keywords: AstronomersHistory of AstronomyJupiter's MoonsTelescopes and Modern ObservatoriesStarDate: Saturday, September 9, 2017Teaser: Picking out a new moon[...]



Ophiuchus

Fri, 08 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

The 13th constellation of the zodiac rolls across the sky this evening. Ophiuchus is in the southwest at nightfall and begins to set after midnight. It covers such a huge area that it takes several hours for the whole thing to drop below the horizon.




Feedback

Fri, 08 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

Stars are born when giant clouds of gas and dust break apart and collapse. And if that’s all there was to it, the Milky Way galaxy would give birth to a couple of hundred stars every year. Instead, thanks to feedback from the stars themselves, it makes only a few. Feedback is a process that clears away the material for making more stars, but can also trigger the birth of more stars. Very young stars, for example, produce strong winds and jets that blow away the gas and dust around them. Since stars are born in clusters, a lot of young stars can be sweeping away the star-making material at the same time. That greatly reduces the number of stars that can be born in a cluster. Mature stars add to the feedback — not only with winds, but also with radiation. Hot stars generate a lot of ultraviolet radiation, which vaporizes tiny particles of dust — eliminating possible building blocks for new stars. The heaviest stars explode as supernovae. These blasts can clear out the space for light-years around a supernova, creating big, empty bubbles. And supernovae also accelerate subatomic particles around them to almost the speed of light. These “cosmic rays” help to sweep away the raw materials for making more stars. But supernovae can also enhance the stellar birth rate. Their blast waves can cause distant clouds of gas and dust to collapse to form stars. So feedback is a complex process — one that both aids and hinders the birth of new stars. Script by Damond Benningfield  Keywords: Lifecycle of StarsStarbirthSupernovaStarDate: Friday, September 8, 2017Teaser: Slowing down the stellar birth rate[...]



Bright Moon

Thu, 07 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000

The just-past-full Moon lights up the sky tonight. Since we're getting close to the autumnal equinox, the Moon mimics the Sun and rises almost due east. It arcs high across the south later on.