short feature

Zach Schierl

Early autumn is Milky Way season. You may have seen its graceful arch creeping higher above the horizon over the past few months. Now, in early September, our galaxy stretches from north to south, nearly overhead, at about 10 pm.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

This summer Mars has been closer to Earth than at any time since 2003, which has made it prime time for viewing the Red Planet. But if you have viewed Mars through a telescope recently, you may have been disappointed to find that details on the planet were blurry.

This may be a great year to see summertime meteors.

As evening twilight darkens the July sky, a brilliant orange star rises in the southeast. This is actually not a star, but the planet Mars.

The Ring, the Dumbbell, the Eskimo, the Helix. These lyrical names are assigned to deep sky objects known as planetary nebulae. Hubble Space Telescope images of these display some of the most beautiful objects in the night sky.

In your childhood, you may recall playing with a Spirograph. That’s a popular toy comprising a set of interlocking geared shapes that can be variously situated on paper to trace elaborate geometric patterns. Nature is a master at creating geometric patterns — from the whorls of a nautilus to the petals of a dahlia. Nature is no less masterful in space — one can find a superb example 800 million miles or 1.2 billion kilometers away, at the north pole of Saturn. There, we find a surprising hexagonal pattern whirling in the Saturnian atmosphere.

Ricky Smith

These days, most of us spend our evenings retreating to our favorite corners of the Internet. Our chosen cyber spaces are often unique, different from those of our family members, coworkers, and neighbors. Each of us jokes about distinct factions of pop culture. It’s easy to feel disconnected, like there are no unifying experiences left. And yet, if we crave connections and shared experiences, all we have to do is find a dark spot and tilt our heads to the sky.

“The Roman god, Jupiter, drew a veil of clouds around himself to hide his mischief. But his wife, the goddess Juno, was able to peer through the clouds and reveal Jupiter's true nature,” as noted in a NASA press release. So, too, is NASA’s Juno space probe revealing the true nature of the gas-giant planet, Jupiter.

According to National Geographic, ninety-nine percent of the population of the U.S. and Europe can’t see the Milky Way from their homes. That makes many of us here on the Western Slope very special!  Feels good to be part of the one percent, doesn’t it?

What’s that brilliant object in the western evening twilight? An Airplane? A bright star? No. It’s Venus, Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor!

Billions of years in the future, our Sun will become a red giant star. Its diameter will extend beyond the orbit of Venus and likely even Earth. However, there are even larger stars…the supergiants.

Famed astrophysicist Carl Sagan once remarked, “We are made of star stuff,” meaning that everything material we know is composed of chemical elements whose origins lie in the cosmos.

As seen from Earth, the Sun appears to move around the Earth in a plane that is inclined 23.5 degrees to the Earth’s celestial equator, the plane formed by projecting the terrestrial equator into space. This plane is called the ecliptic and it also defines the plane in which, with some variations, all the planets in the solar system orbit the Sun. This is one piece of evidence for planetary formation starting from a disk of dust and gas orbiting around the Sun.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

It’s mid-February, and love is in the air. But for some constellations, it seems love can be blue.

Humans have been looking at the Moon and contemplating its “face,” and various light and dark features for millennia.

Did you see the solar eclipse in the U.S. last August?  If you’re eager to see another eclipse, you’re in luck.  We can see the first part of a total lunar eclipse from the Western Slope during the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, January 31.

As we welcome in a New Year, let’s explore the astronomical wonders that we can see from the Western Slope during 2018.

With Winter fast approaching, with its long cold nights, the month of December may not seem to be an ideal time for star gazing. Fortunately, those willing to brave the cold will be amply rewarded by views of the most magnificent constellation in the sky, the brightest star, as well as a famous nebula. 

Bryan Cashion 2017

Mid December nights are cold and often snowy on the Western Slope.  But, here’s an observing challenge:  Catch the peak of this year’s Geminid Meteor Shower on the night of December 13th to 14th.

Early in the evening, on a late November night, the Big Dipper skims the northern horizon. Turning our attention east-northeast, we first come to Capella, the brightest star in the constellation Auriga, the Charioteer, and the sixth brightest star in the sky. Unlike most proper star names, Capella is Latin, and means the little she-goat. Capella is a multi-star system about 42 light years distant.

Art Trevena/BCAS

Have you ever looked at a full or gibbous Moon through binoculars or a telescope? If so, you may have noticed some bright streaks that radiate outward from a few bright craters.

Johannes Kepler published the Laws of Planetary Motion in the 17th century. In combination with Newton’s Law of Gravity, scientists still use these laws to determine the motion of objects around a larger object, including planets and suns in other solar systems. These exo-planets, so-termed because they are external to our solar system, have become an area of research in recent years.

In the summer of 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes.  Their original 5-year mission was to study Jupiter and Saturn.  Voyager 2 was actually launched 2 weeks before Voyager 1, but arrived at Jupiter after Voyager 1. Both probes are still functioning today after more than 40 years.

Peering upward on late September evenings, the sky is dominated by the Milky Way, which arches from the southwest to the northeast.  High overhead, we can easily view the Great Rift, an area within the Milky Way but, seemingly, almost completely devoid of stars.  In fact, this absence of stars is due to the gas and dust, common in spiral galaxies such as our own, which obscures the stars beyond.

Tyler Nordgren

Consider how the night sky has influenced life on Earth. What have the darkness, the stars, and the moon helped create?

Trying to find the official constellations can be a challenge, but most of us saw shapes in the clouds without even trying as children. In the same way, we can see new shapes in the stars, if we simply slow down and look. In doing so, we can reconnect with all the people who for millennia passed the time after dark by simply looking up at the stars, and coming up with their own constellations. 

The summer night sky is teeming with bright stars, but one outshines them all and has stories to tell that rival its brightness. Head outside at nightfall and look almost straight overhead to spot the brightest star in the summer sky, the red giant, Arcturus.

NASA

“As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames / No light, but rather darkness visible,” wrote English poet John Milton in Paradise Lost, describing the infernal realm into which the archangel Lucifer fell. Milton’s words could equally describe a more astronomical sort of descent-- the whirling dervish and collision of orbiting black holes, warping the very fabric of space and time around them. Such events are detectable from Earth in the form of gravitational radiation, a phenomenon offering a novel way of seeing the Universe.

What value can be found in a truly dark, star-speckled sky? Simply put, there is no universal answer.

My husband is an amateur astronomer and we are fortunate to have great dark skies at home and at other Western Slope venues.

Most people assume that we use telescopes for observing and ask how many we have and what kind. We explain that we have several telescopes, but some of our favorite viewing is with binoculars.

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