astronomy

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.

The nineteenth-century English poet John Keats famously described autumn as the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness / close bosom-friend of the maturing sun”-- a welcomed time of harvest beneath golden afternoon light. Autumn customarily heralds the appearance of falling leaves, ripe pumpkins, and wool sweaters. But also, it occasions an elusive apparition in the nighttime sky, a celestial ghost showing up for Halloween— the Gegenschein.

Joyce Tanihara

At Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, we are lucky to have dedicated local astronomers, powerful telescopes, and pristinely dark skies.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESO/R. Hurt

Now is a great time to gaze into our dark skies and to contemplate the Milky Way, our home galaxy . After twilight ends on late September evenings, the luminous band of the Milky Way stretches from the southwest to overhead and beyond, into the northeastern sky. To the southwest in the direction of Sagittarius, the Milky Way’s clouds of stars and glowing gas are brightest. This is the direction of the galactic center, where stars are most concentrated. As we trace the Milky Way from overhead...

September 8th marked the beginning of NASA’s launch window for OSIRIS-Rex , a mission to study an asteroid called Bennu and return a sample of the asteroid’s surface material to Earth for further analysis. This mission is particularly exciting because it will not only give us a peek back in time towards the beginnings of our planet and our solar system as a whole, but also might provide clues as to how life began here on Earth. (Ed. note: Launch was successful , 9/8/16. 7:05 pm EDT) ...

NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Exciting research in the field of astronomy has been the search for exoplanets. An exoplanet is a planet that is orbiting a star other than our Sun.

Public Domain (CC0)

A clear evening in late August offers much to contemplate, both near, relatively speaking astronomically, and far.

Today, I thought you might like to hear how any young person can get started on a career path to astronomy.

NASA

One year ago, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made its historic flyby of Pluto.

Joyce Tanihara

It’s a dark area broken by the faint glow of red lights, and your eyes are just adjusting to make out a figure, hunched over what vaguely looks to be a telescope. “Hey, I’ve got Saturn!” exclaims the figure. “I’ve got a double star,” shouts another voice. “I’ve got the Andromeda galaxy . Come take a look!” says someone toward the back.

If you look to the east after sunset, you will notice a bright, reddish-orange object. This is the planet Mars, 4 th 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...

The luminous glow of light pollution prevents nearly 80 percent of people in North America from seeing the Milky Way in the night sky. That's according to a new atlas of artificial night sky brightness that found our home galaxy is now hidden from more than one-third of humanity. While there are countries where the majority of people still live under pristine, ink-black sky conditions — places such as Chad, Central African Republic and Madagascar — more than 99 percent of the people living in...

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 8 th , 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! Mercury’s rotation is gravitationally locked to the Sun. Mercury ROTATES 3 times for every 2 times that it ORBITS the Sun. A “day” on Mercury is about 59 Earth days long . Think what Mondays would be like there! The long days and...

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. Looking back, we celebrate the achievement of International Dark Sky Park status for Black Canyon, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National Parks. This...

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. Occasionally, gravitational forces within our galaxy will alter a comet’s orbit within the Oort Cloud, so that the comet either escapes our solar system entirely, or...

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. MST marks the solstice, when the Sun shines directly overhead at 23.44 degrees south latitude. Solstice means “still stand of the Sun” in Latin, which refers to the fact that the Sun appears to linger far to the south this time of the year. But the Sun starts moving slowly northward just after the December solstice. This fact was celebrated in ancient Rome...

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.

Meteoroids are particles still in space and smaller than 33 feet. Meteors are...

Ken Crawford

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

It's getting harder to see the stars in North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and it's due to flares, drilling rigs and all the lights from the Bakken oilfield. Since 2010, scientists with the National Park Service have measured a 500 percent increase in the amount of anthropogenic light there — no other national park in America has seen such a rapid increase in light pollution. Kent Friesen is standing in a dark field in the North Dakota Badlands, peering into a huge telescope. ...

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