The December solstice is coming! At 4:03 p.m. Mountain Standard Time on December 21st, the Sun reaches its most distant point south in 2014, as viewed from Earth. This defines the December solstice, which is the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere and the longest day in the Southern Hemisphere.
With fewer hours of sunlight during autumn the nights grow longer and there is a distinct chill in the air after the sun sets. You may notice the sky appears darker and the stars just a little clearer. A star chart or an astronomy app for a phone or tablet will guide you to the fall constellations and many of the stars visible in our skies.
On these late October evenings, you may see a hazy band of light stretching from the southwestern horizon and crossing overhead to the northeast. This is the Milky Way, an object of great wonder throughout human existence.
Next time you see the Big Dipper out of the corner of your eye, take a look at the star in the middle of the handle. If you have decent eyesight, you may see not one, but two stars: a brighter star known as Mizar, and a fainter star called Alcor.
"BORING!" said the 5-year-old of the little blue dot appearing through the telescope…
Perhaps at first glance, but considering that Neptune, the 8th planet, is 30 times farther from the Sun than Earth, it’s actually an amazing sight. At approximately 2.8 billion miles away, it cannot be observed with the un-aided eye. Seeing the disk and color requires a moderately sized telescope, and a keen-eyed astronomy buff.
We learn in grade school that the Moon, our nearest neighbor in space, causes tides on the Earth’s oceans. It does so through its gravitational attraction to the Earth. But the gravitation interplay between Earth and Moon has other, subtler effects as well.
The Sun sets late on these long summer days, and it’s not fully dark until almost 10 PM. And, because of this week’s late-rising moon, the sky remains dark long after twilight, allowing us great views of the Milky Way and the stars of summer.
With the arrival of warmer temperatures, perhaps you’ve been enjoying some outings to the mountains or a float trip on a river. While there is no doubt that summer is in full swing here in western Colorado, it’s not until this coming Saturday that the Universe makes it official.
Those of us that live on the Western Slope are no stranger to spectacular scenery. The jagged peaks, chiseled canyons, and expansive plateaus of western Colorado are treasures that we all cherish. But one of our most spectacular natural wonders may also be one of our least appreciated: our incredibly dark and pristine night skies.
Have you ever seen the planet Mercury? When conditions are near optimal, Mercury is easy to see. However, optimal conditions are rare, and many casual observers search for Mercury without success. This is because of the planet’s proximity to the sun. The safe time to view Mercury is after sunset or before sunrise, depending upon the Mercury's orbit.
Last month on the program we learned that only the five superior planets can be at opposition. The fast movement of our planet’s orbit brings us between those five planets and the sun every year. In April, Mars was at opposition. This month, on Saturday, May 10th, its Saturn’s turn to shine!
The Big Dipper is a great starting point for learning the night sky. Located near the pole of the sky, it never completely sets or dips below the horizon—it’s visible in the night sky year-round from the Western Slope!
The Big Dipper itself is not a constellation, but it resides in one called Ursa Major, the Great Bear, third largest of the 88 constellations. The name originates from the dipper-shaped pattern formed by the seven main stars in the constellation.