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.
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!
Late on the evening of April 14th and into the early morning hours of April 15th, skygazers throughout the America’s and much of the Pacific region will be treated to a total lunar eclipse. This eclipse will be the first of two for the year. By the time the sun, earth and moon line up it will have been 857 days or 28 months since we last saw our moon completely in the shadow of our planet.
As the holidays approach, the days shorten, bringing with them our glorious Western Slope night skies. Joining us to celebrate the season is a brilliant cluster of stars, called the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters.
Rising on our eastern horizon, the Pleiades first appears as a cloud-like thumbprint. As your eyes adapt to the darkness, you’ll be able to pick out point-like stars, as many as six or seven.
Look low in southwest as the sky darkens in early December. That brilliant “evening star” is actually not a star, but the planet Venus.
Venus is at its brightest now, in part because it’s relatively close by, only about 35 million miles from Earth. Venus is so very bright that it can cast shadows, and it’s sometimes confused with airplane landing lights, or even reported as a UFO.
Did you know that the Big Dipper is NOT a constellation? It’s actually an asterism - a pattern of stars in the sky, much like a pattern of clouds.
While there are many asterisms that are commonly known, none of them are constellations. Other fall and winter asterisms include the Little Dipper, the Winter Hexagon, and the Great Square of Pegasus.
The Big Dipper is part of the constellation, Ursa Major, the Great Bear. What most people see as the handle of the Big Dipper is the tail of the bear, while the bowl of the dipper is part of the body of the bear.
This is the third in a series on Women in Astronomy. Today, we meet Caroline Herschel.
Caroline Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany in 1750. Her early life was a conflict between her father, who wanted her to be educated in music and science, and her mother, who thought that household chores were the appropriate life for a woman.
In 1772, Caroline moved to England and joined her brother, William, who was already working in astronomy and music. Over time, they gradually left music and became full-time astronomers.
Early fall nights can be crisp, but it’s rewarding to go out after dark on these clear, moonless evenings to see some stars and constellations in our Western Slope skies.
Rising in the northeast just after dark, you will find a group of stars that looks like a “W” on its side. These stars are part of the constellation Cassiopeia, which commemorates a queen in Greek mythology.
The sun rises in the east each day in our western slope skies and appears to shine with constant brightness. However, we shouldn’t take the sun for granted, because the sun’s energy sustains most life on Earth. And, in this age of widespread, complex technology, the sun can impact our daily lives.
The sun, in fact, is not constant, and we need to pay attention to our active, local star.
Just about any clear night provides an invitation to go outside and see what’s up. Some nights, however, might offer a special attraction: a meteor shower; a conjunction between the Moon and a bright star or planet; or even a lunar eclipse. If you are a beginner stargazer you can maximize your sky watching efforts by taking a few simple steps.
Start with a star chart, and/or a Planisphere or a star-charting app that runs on a smart phone, tablet, or PC. These are valuable tools in learning the night sky, displaying any number of sky objects for any hour of the night.
As August began, all of the bright planets were visible in our western slope skies. Since all of our solar system planets orbit the sun, the visible planets change from night to night.
As of today’s program, we have already lost Mercury from view for the rest of this month. It was visible in the early dawn for the first two weeks of the month. However, we still have Venus shining low on the evening horizon. Saturn will end the month just a little higher than Venus. Jupiter rises well after midnight, followed by Mars even later.
The Perseid meteor shower sprinkles the night sky with shooting stars in August.
The meteors are bits of icy and rocky debris left behind by the Comet Swift-Tuttle, which was discovered in 1862. As Earth flies through the comet’s path, some bits of comet dust slam into the atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. They quickly vaporize, creating bright but brief streaks of light in the night sky.