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 every other week after the Friday morning local newscast (8:10-8:15 AM) and on the following Wednesday night 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, or email us!

Ways to Connect

If you look to the east after sunset, you will notice a bright, reddish-orange object.  This is the planet Mars, 4th rock from the Sun.  Less than one month ago, Mars was at opposition.  This means that it is directly opposite from the Sun, as we view it.  This also means that it is very bright, because it is reflecting light directly back to us.  Opposition is the planetary equivalent of a full moon. 

The diameter of Mars is about 4200 miles, compared to Earth’s diameter of about 8,000 miles and its mass is just 11% of Earth’s.  On May 30, Mars was 47 million miles from Earth.

Imagine… You are on an exo-planet circling a star in the Hydra Galaxy Cluster.  Your powerful telescope zeroes in on a planet 150 million light-years away.  The planet is called Earth, but you won’t be seeing 2016 human inhabitants, you will be seeing images of dinosaurs… Images carried on light that left the Earth 150 million years ago.

You will be looking back in time.

R. Hazzard

  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word “festival” as “a special time or event when people gather to celebrate something.” In Colorado we love our festivals. Here, you can celebrate wildflowers, hot air balloons, rodeos, sweet corn, your favorite beverage, and bluegrass. On the Western Slope, there is another type of festival, and it’s coming up very soon. The 7th Annual Astronomy Festival will be held at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park from June 1st through the 4th. 

  What’s that brilliant, orange “star” rising in the southeast after twilight ends?  It’s actually not a star, but the planet Mars, which is now nearing Earth for its closest encounter since year 2005.  

Art Trevena

A rare cosmic event will occur on the morning of May 9, 2016.  Mercury, the innermost, smallest, and speediest planet, will appear to cross the sun’s disk, as seen from Earth.

Public Domain, w/restoration by Adam Cuerden

My earliest memory of the night sky begins with the nursery rhyme:

Star light, Star Bright,
First Star I see tonight.
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.

Art Trevena

What’s a sure sign of spring? Daffodils emerging in the garden, cheerful songbirds in the trees? These are familiar, terrestrial indicators.

The celestially-minded look upward for their sign— to a softly luminous beehive appearing above the western horizon, shortly after twilight ends. This faint but lovely sight is known as the zodiacal light.

Credit: NASA, ESA, and Amy Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center) et al.

This March is an ideal time to view the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter. On March 8th, Jupiter, the Earth and the Sun were in a line, an annual event called opposition. This happens when Jupiter is closer to Earth than during other times of the year, making Jupiter appear bigger and brighter.

By Anirban Nandi (Own work) [<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0">CC BY 3.0</a>], <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AOrion_constellation_with_star_labels.jpg">via Wikimedia Commons</a>

The first constellation most of us are able to find in the night sky is Ursa Major, the Great Bear.  Most people know the brighter stars as the Big Dipper asterism.  For many of us, the next constellation we discover is Orion, the Hunter.  At this time of year you can see it in the southern sky shortly after sunset.  The brighter stars include Betelgeuse, Rigel, and the easy-to-identify three stars of the belt.

CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

If any of you have attended an astronomy event during the warm season, then you may recall the stars of summer, such as Antares, Vega, and Albireo.  There are several bright stars in winter that are of interest on our cold, clear nights.  One advantage to winter viewing is that dark skies arrive early.


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. 

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