Western Slope Skies

Every other Friday at about 8:10 am, repeats the following Wednesday at 8:00 pm
  • Hosted by Black Canyon Astronomical Society

Western Slope Skies is produced by members of the Black Canyon Astronomical Society, who take a look at our “local” night sky. Hear it on the Friday morning local newscast (from 8-8:15 AM) and on Wednesday nights at 8 PM during Global Express.

Do you have a question about the night sky or other astronomical topics? Ask it in our comments section below!

NASA/JPL (Public Domain)

The planet Mercury is the closest planet to our Sun.  Its average distance from the Sun is only 35 million miles. Mercury has the fastest orbital speed in the Solar System…88 days.  Perhaps this is why the planet is named after the speedy messenger to the Roman gods!

The New Year is well upon us. This is always a good time to reflect on the year gone by and look to the new adventure that is about to begin. By now you’ve probably set your resolutions for 2016. The national parks are no different. 2015 was a banner year for dark skies throughout the Colorado Plateau, but we still have much work to do in 2016.

Art Trevena

Comets are small, icy and rocky bodies that orbit the Sun. Many comets have highly elongated orbits that extend to the farthest reaches of our solar system, out to a sizeable fraction of the distances to the nearest stars. Out there, in what astronomers have termed the Oort Cloud, a vast collection of comets is thought to exist.

Art Trevena

In late December the Sun follows a southerly path across our Western Slope skies, and daylight hours are short.   December 21 at 9:48 p.m.

Brocken Inaglory - This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

A Primer on Meteor Showers

Typically, meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through particle clouds left by the passage of a comet.  The particles burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in a brief streak of light.  The particles can range in size from dust to 33 feet in diameter.

The terms “meteor,” “meteoroid,” and “meteorite” are related, but are not identical terms.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/yellowstonenps/14582291897/in/photostream/
NPS photo by Neal Herbert - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Today I am going to discuss a few simple tips that will allow you to take pictures of the night sky.  These may not compare with professional images, but they will be YOUR images!

Ken Crawford

This is a continuing series on Women in Astronomy.  Today we meet Williamina Fleming.

It is easy to see that the sky above is blue. So why blue?  

If you rise early on these crisp October mornings, you may see an eye-catching planetary sight in our pre-dawn sky. 

Daniel V. Schroeder

It’s that time of year again… Watching the leaves change color with cooling temperatures, warm apple cider, a pumpkin patch, light seems to slip away sooner.  What marks the fall season for you?

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Courtesy of Greg Owens

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park has long been known for some of the steepest cliffs, oldest rock, and craggiest spires in North America. The Gunnison River has sculpted this vertical wilderness of rock, water, and sky.  A grand piece of this wild landscape includes the pristine dark skies.

NAOJ, JAXA, NASA, Lockheed Martin

What is that brilliant light in the sky? If you are an early riser you may see a jewel in the east. Called the “morning star” as well as the “evening star” by cultures the world over, this light flickers a bit less than stars. It is not a star but the planet Venus. Had you looked about a month ago, Venus would have been the “evening star,” ripe for viewing by night owls. This planet is often referred to as our “sister” planet.

Art Trevena

The summer night sky elicits an extra sparkle of excitement when we see the silvery, arcing band of the Milky Way, a beautiful cross-cut view of our home galaxy. 

Brocken Inaglory - This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

I remember being bundled in a blanket and being taken outside into the chill midnight air as a child. I would be sleepy and warm, held in my father’s arms. He would extend his arm and point, “look at the sky!”

"Astronomy Amateur 3 V2" by Halfblue at the English language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Astronomy_Amateur_3_V2.jpg#/media/File:Astronomy_Amateur_3_V2.jpg

By definition, Astronomy is a natural science which is the study of celestial objects.

It all started with humans looking at the night sky with just their eyes, and contemplating all those gleaming lights above them.

Today there is the Hubble Space Telescope which brings us brilliant photos of far off galaxies, space probes reaching out and sending back images of planets, asteroids and comets, and huge land based telescopes, that since Galileo’s time have grown from 1.5 centimeters, to 1 meter, to 10 meters in diameter.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

On February 18th, 1930, a 24-year-old Kansas farmhand-turned-astronomer made a discovery that forever changed our understanding of the Solar System. On that evening, Clyde Tombaugh, who had grown up on family farms in Illinois and Kansas, discovered Pluto. Tombaugh’s discovery nearly doubled the size of the known solar system overnight.

“Star light, star bright, the first star I see tonight…” The opening lines of the famous nursery rhyme are a poetic, but potentially misleading, tribute to the magic of sunset and twilight. Often the first “star” you see at nightfall isn’t a star at all, but rather a planet! In fact, right now the two brightest objects in the night sky after the Moon are both planets: Venus and Jupiter. These two planets will be putting on a dazzling performance over the next few weeks.

Spring is quickly shifting into summer. For us at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, this means that the busiest visitation days of the year are just around the corner. Folks from all over the world will soon fill the visitor center, planning adventures into the canyon and asking about park wildlife. Rangers will begin presenting geology walks along the rim and talks out at Chasm View. It’s an exciting time of year in the park.

Women in Astronomy – Sydney Wolff

This is a continuing series on Women in Astronomy.  Today we meet Sidney Wolff.

Our closest star, the Sun, is a middle-aged star.  This is good for us, but what exactly does ‘middle-aged star’ mean? 

Throughout their lives, stars are in a battle between gravity trying to collapse the star and pressure of the internal nuclear reaction trying to expand the star.

Make a note… It may take time, but gravity always wins!! 

Star formation begins with a massive cloud of dust and gasses.  The large majority of the cloud is hydrogen. 

You may know the Greek myth of Perseus, a young hero who slew the petrifying Medusa and the sea monster Cetus, in order to rescue the beautiful Andromeda from her cruel mother Cassiopeia.  The ancient Greeks saw fit to immortalize the story in the sky, by tracing constellations resembling these characters. We recognize these constellations today-- in particular, Andromeda with its legendary naked-eye galaxy M31, our closest spiral galactic neighbor.

Hubble Space Telescope - NASA

The winter evening sky was dominated by two exceptionally bright “stars” that are actually planets — resplendent Venus, nearest of planetary neighbors, in the west, and regal Jupiter, largest of the planets, in the east. As we enter spring, Venus and Jupiter remain celestial highlights, and will treat us to a special double-feature in mid-April — each planet will be very close to a prominent open star cluster.

If you rise early on Saturday, April 4 you will be treated to an unusual event:  the third of four total lunar eclipses occurring within a period of just two years.  This has been called a lunar eclipse tetrad. 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, near Montrose, CO, is an excellent place to observe night skies free from light pollution. When it comes to constellations, one of the most famous is Ursa Major, meaning “The Big Bear,” which includes “The Big Dipper.”

2015 is a banner year for solar system exploration.  Although the European Venus Express Mission and NASA’s Messenger Mission to Mercury are ending, other missions will be gearing up in 2015.  NASA’s New Horizons probe will fly by Pluto in July, and in March, another NASA probe, called Dawn, will enter orbit around Ceres, the l

Venus, Mars, and a thin crescent Moon will create a stunning sight in our early evening sky on February 20.  If skies are clear, find an open spot with an unobstructed horizon and look to the west between 6:15 and 7:00 p.m.   At first you may see brilliant Venus next to a thin, crescent Moon.  As twilight fades, fainter Mars will appear between Venus and the Moon.  Use binoculars for a truly amazing view!        

As twilight ends this winter, look to the east. You may see a very bright “star” that does not twinkle. This is Jupiter, the largest planet of the Solar System, eleven times the diameter of the Earth.

For astronomers, it’s not all black and white…

At first glance, our night skies can appear as a dark canvas illuminated with points of mono-hued light.  But, as your eyes adapt, and on closer inspection, one can pick out stars with colors that are blue, white, gold, and reddish orange.

The Moon is very bright during the first week of January, and it’s tempting to go for a snow shoe trek or ski tour by moonlight.  But two weeks ago, the moon was hardly visible at all.  There is one main factor that determines the visibility and brightness of the moon:  lunar phase. But, varying Earth-Moon distance also plays a role.

This is an ongoing series on Women in Astronomy.  Today, we meet three modern women in astronomy, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Andrea Ghez, and Carolyn Porco.

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