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

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 western sky darkens, air temperatures drop, birds and animals become suddenly quiet.  Almost instantly, daylight is transformed into deep twilight, as Venus and the brighter stars appear.  Incredibly, where the Sun stood sits a black disk surrounded by a pearly white halo with delicate, spiky streamers extending outward in all directions.  You’re experiencing a total solar eclipse.

By NASA/JPL

October 15, 1997 – The Cassini Mission to Saturn is launched. After almost seven years en-route to Saturn, the space probe entered orbit on July 1, 2004.

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.

To us, the Sun seems like a constant source of heat and light. Compared to many other stars, that’s pretty much true. Since accurate, space-based measurements have been recorded, the total irradiance of the Sun has varied by less than 0.2%.

Many people are familiar with finding Polaris, the North Star, by using the two end stars in the Big Dipper Bowl as ‘pointer stars.’ However, you may not know that if you follow these same two stars in the OPPOSITE direction during spring and summer, you will find the constellation Leo, the Lion. Early in May, Leo is directly south and high in the sky at about 9 pm.

Joyce Tanihara

Have you ever seen a star-like object moving across the night sky over several minutes?  You may have seen an artificial satellite. 

Zach Schierl

Every Boy Scout knows how to find the North Star; just follow the two stars on the end of the Big Dipper’s bowl, and voila… you’re there! The North Star might be the most famous star in the entire sky, yet also the most misunderstood.

Mercury, the innermost and speediest planet, can be hard to see, because it never appears very far from the brilliant Sun in our sky.

By Denys (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This year, on August 21st, there will be a total solar eclipse. So what’s the big deal? The big deal is that the event will be accessible to millions right here in the U.S!

Have you ever seen a comet?  In coming weeks we may have a chance to see two interesting comets. 

So you bought a new telescope…Or, little Bobby just got one for Christmas.  Now what?

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

In the early days of the U.S. space program, President John Kennedy proclaimed, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

NASA/JPL

What’s that brilliant “evening star,” lingering in the southwest after sunset? It’s often confused with airplane landing lights and has even been reported as a UFO! It’s Venus, Earth’s closest planetary neighbor!

If you have attended an astronomy event in the summer, you probably observed Messier objects, such as the Swan Nebula (Messier 17) or the Great Hercules Cluster (Messier 13).  Charles Messier was a French astronomer in the 18th century.  While his interest was discovering comets, now he is best known for the list of Messier objects, which was published between 1774 and 1781.

NASA

Most of us know the old nursery rhyme that begins “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight.” Have you ever asked yourself “How do we measure star bright?” The history of measuring brightness goes back to the Greek astronomer, Hipparchus, who lived in the second century B.C.

December nights are usually cold on the Western Slope, but there are some great celestial treats for those willing to endure the frigid temperatures.

NASA

Some say that we now live in the golden age of solar system exploration.  In 2016 there are more than 15 active, interplanetary probes from the U.S., Europe, Japan, China, India, and Russia.  These are exploring Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Earth’s Moon, comets, asteroids, the distant Kuiper Belt, and the even more distant, interstellar medium.  

As humans on Earth, it’s hard to grasp how vast the Universe is, starting with our own Solar System.  To us, our Solar System seems like a big place.

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