If you are a serious astronomy fanatic like a lot of us are, you can probably remember that one event in childhood that started you along this exciting hobby. It might have been that first time you looked through a telescope. But for many of us, it was that first time we saw a rain of fire from the sky that we eventually came to know as a meteoroid shower.
At the time when you see the first one, it's easy to remember the movie "war of the worlds" or some other fantastic image of aliens entering our atmosphere in droves to take over the planet. But with some guidance and explanation of what was going on, we eventually learned that these showers were not at all threatening or any kind of invasion. For the most part meteoroid showers are harmless, part of nature and very fun to watch.
So what are these strange lights in the sky? Are they aliens invading from Mars? Are the comets coming to start the next ice age? Or perhaps asteroids burning up as they enter the earths atmosphere. The answer to the above questions is no to the first and "yes and no" to the other two.
A meteoroid is actually a small piece of space rubble, usually dust or small rocks that come from either a comet or the break up of an asteroid in space and that eventually plummets toward the earth. We say "toward the earth" because the lights you see are the friction of the atmosphere burning up those small space tidbits and creating a spectacular show for all of us as they do so. A particularly exciting moment to witness is when a meteoroid breaks up or explodes on entry. A meteoroid that explodes is called bolides.
There are some interesting details about the life of a meteoroid that make the viewing of shooting stars even more fun. To be seen, a meteoroid only needs to weigh as little as a millionth of a gram. But the thing that makes them so spectacular to see is the tremendous speeds they reach as they enter the atmosphere. Before burning up, a meteoroid will reach between 11 and 74 kilometers per second which is 100 times faster than a speeding bullet.
We tend to think of t seeing a shooting star as a freak event and we associate it with superstition (hence, wish on a lucky star). But there are actually thousands of them every year so it really isn't that rare to see one. In fact, scientists tell us that over 200,000 tons of space matter enters the atmosphere each year and burns up on entry.
Comets are a big source of meteoroids because of the nature of those long tails. A large amount of dust, ice and other space debris gets caught up in a comet's tail as it moves toward the sun. Then as the comet moves away from the sun in its orbit, tons of this matter is thrown off into space to disperse. As the Earth moves in its routine orbit around the sun, it often crosses through clouds of this discarded matter which becomes one of those "meteor showers" that are so popular for viewing.
These showers of shooting stars are pretty easy for astronomers to predict so you can get into position to see the excitement at just the right time of night and be looking at the right area of the night sky. Usually the astronomy magazine or site will give you a general time and location to be ready to look when the meteoroids start to fall.
Now keep in mind, this is a phenomenon of nature, so it may not observe the time table exactly. Also note that there is a notation system for where the meteoroid shower will occur based on what constellation is its backdrop. The section of the sky to focus on for the show is called the "radiant" because that is where the entering meteoroids begin to glow or radiate. The radiant is named for the constellation it is nearest too. So if the meteor shower is going to occur in the constellation of Leo, then its radiant will be called Leonid. This will help you decipher the listing of asteroid showers in the publications.
Comets Visitors From Beyond
The one thing we love the most in the world of astronomy is a good mystery. And if there was ever a mysterious and yet very powerful force of nature that we witness in the night skies, it is the coming of the mighty comet.
The arrival of a comet within view of Earth is an event of international importance. Witness the huge media attention that the Haley or Hale-Bopp have had when they have come within view The sight of these amazing space objects is simultaneously frightening and awe inspiring.
Above all, it is during these comet viewings that the astronomer comes out in all of us. But what is a comet? Where did it come from? And how does it get that magnificent tail?
We should never confuse comets with asteroids. Asteroids are small space rocks that come from an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. While still quite stunning to see, they pale in comparison to the arrival of a comet. Asteroids also have received considerable study by the scientific community.
Not as much is known about comets. As a rule, comets are considerably larger than asteroids. The composition of a comet is a mixture of nebulous, gasses, ice, dust and space debris. One scientist called the composition of a comet as similar to a "dirty snowball" because the composition is so diverse and changeable. The center or nucleus of a comet is usually quiet solid but the "snowball" materials often create a "cloud" around that nucleus that can become quite large and that extends at great lengths behind the comet as it moves through space. That trailing plume is what makes up the comet's magnificent tail that makes it so exciting to watch when a comet comes within view of Earth.
The origins of comets is similarly mysterious. There are a number of theories about where they come from but it is clear that they originate from outside our solar system, somewhere in deep space. Some have speculated they are fragments left over from the organization of planets that get loose from whatever gravitational pull and are sent flying across space to eventually get caught up in the gravity of our sun bringing them into our solar system.
Another theory is that they come from a gaseous cloud called the Oort cloud which is cooling out there after the organization of the sun. As this space debris cools, it gets organized into one body which then gathers sufficient mass to be attracted into the gravity of our solar system turning into a fast moving comet plummeting toward our sun. However, because of the strong gravitational orbits of the many planets in our solar system, the comet does not always immediately collide with the sun and often takes on an orbit of its own.
The life expectancy of comets varies widely. Scientists refer to a comet that is expected to burn out or impact the sun within two hundred years as a short period comet whereas a long period comet has a life expectancy of over two hundred years. That may seem long to us as earth dwellers but in terms of stars and planets, this is a very short life as a space object indeed.
Scientists across the globe have put together some pretty impressive probes to learn more about comets to aid our understanding of these visitors from beyond. In 1985, for example, the United States put a probe into the path of the comet Giacobini-Zinner which passed through the comets tail gathering tremendous scientific knowledge about comets. Then in 1986, an international collation of scientists were able to launch a probe that was able to fly close to Haley's comet as it passed near Earth and continue the research.
While science fiction writers and tabloid newspapers like to alarm us with the possibility of a comet impacting the earth, scientists who understand the orbits of comets and what changes their paths tell us this is unlikely. That is good because some comets reach sizes that are as big as a planet so that impact would be devastating. For now, we can enjoy the fun of seeing comets make their rare visits to our night sky and marvel at the spectacular shows that these visitors from beyond put on when they are visible in the cosmos.
Our Neighbors In Space
We have a special feeling toward the other planets that circle our sun. Maybe it's all the science fiction stories about visiting the moon, Mars and other planets. But we love to think about those planets that make up what we call "the solar system." that do what our planet does but do it very differently indeed.
The planets of our solar system have taken on personalities and mythical appeal in our literature and arts. It is easy to find artists who render their vision of the planets that make up our society of planets near our sun. The names of the planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are all from our cultural past being gods from Greek and Roman mythology. But the solar system is not just made up of these planets. The solar system is a very busy place indeed.
In 2006, there was quite a bit of controversy as scholars and astronomers agreed to downgrade Pluto and remove its status as a planet. So you have to wonder, what is it that makes something a planet and what happened to Pluto? It didn't just go away so it must still be out there. A planet, by scientific definition is any object in orbit around a sun, that has formed into some kind of round object is a planet as long as it has cleared away any other orbiting items around it. By cleared away, that doesn't mean it has destroyed all space debris etc. For example, our planet has not "cleared away" the moon but it has captured it into its own orbit so we classify as a planet. That's a relief huh?
There are many objects floating around in our solar system other than the planets we know of. It's an interesting piece of trivia that in addition to the planets there are 165 moons orbiting around those nine planets. Some of those moons are so advanced that some scientists have suspected that they might have supported life at some point.
In addition to the regular planets and moons, there are dwarf planets, asteroid belts and routine visits by comets that create a lot of traffic in our cosmic corner of the universe. The two known dwarf planets that exist on the outer rim of our solar system are Eries and Ceres. So when Pluto's status was changed to be removed from the list of planets, it simply joined those two bodies as dwarf planets but still a solid citizen of the community of celestial bodies around our sun.
In addition to these larger bodies, there is an asteroid belt that exists between Mars and Jupiter that most of the asteroids that we see in our night sky come from. There is another belt of large objects further out called the Kuiper belt as well as a "bubble" in space called a heliopause and there is a suspected additional belt outside the known solar system called the Oort belt that we think is the origin of a lot of large asteroids and comets that frequent our solar system and come to orbit our sun.
As fascinating as these many celestial bodies who are our neighbors in space is the origin of our solar system. We have to break it down to simple terms to understand the terms but we know that the early history of the solar system and the universe was one of great bodies of gas and clouds of matter eventually cooling and heating, exploding and spinning off stars and other massive space giants that became more stars, galaxies and solar systems. It was from this erratic activity that our sun separated from the gasses and carried with it the material that became our solar system. The gravity of the sun captured sufficient matter that it began to go through the process of forming, cooling, exploding and separating. This is what happened as the planets all went through he same process eventually establishing stable orbits and small objects falling into orbit around them.
When you think of how powerful and out of control this process is, it's amazing to step back and see the beauty of the organization of our solar system today. The more detail you learn about the history of our solar system, the more you will enjoy your explorations of the planets with your telescope. That that discovery is part of the fun of astronomy.
The Night Sky
No matter how far along you are in your sophistication as an amateur astronomer, there is always one fundamental moment that we all go back to. That is that very first moment that we went out where you could really see the cosmos well and you took in the night sky. For city dwellers, this is a revelation as profound as if we discovered aliens living among us. Most of us have no idea the vast panorama of lights that dot a clear night sky when there are no city lights to interfere with the view.
Sure we all love the enhanced experience of studying the sky using binoculars and various sizes and powers of telescopes. But I bet you can remember as a child that very first time you saw the fully displayed clear night sky with all the amazing constellations, meters and comets moving about and an exposure of dots of light far to numerous to ever count.
The best way to recapture the wonder of that moment is to go out in the country with a child of your own or one who has never had this experience and be there at that moment when they gaze up and say that very powerful word that is the only one that can summarize the feelings they are having viewing that magnificent sky. That word is - "Wow".
Probably the most phenomenal fact about what that child is looking at that is also the thing that is most difficult for them to grasp is the sheer enormity of what is above them and what it represents. The very fact that almost certainly, virtually every dot up there in the sky is another star or celestial body that is vastly larger that Earth itself, not by twice or ten times but by factors of hundreds and thousands, can be a mind blowing idea to kids. Children have enough trouble imagining the size of earth itself, much less something on such a grand scope as outer space.
But when it comes to astronomy, we do better when we fall into deeper and deeper levels of awe at what we see up there in the night sky. Some amazing facts about what the children are looking at can add to the goose bumps they are already having as they gaze eyes skyward. Facts like...
*Our sun is part of a huge galaxy called the Milky Way that consists of one hundred billion stars just like it or larger. Show them that one hundred billion is 100,000,000,000 and you will se some jaws drop for sure.
*The milky was is just one of tens of billions of galaxies each of which has billions of stars in them as well. In fact, the Milky Way is one of the small galaxies.
*If you wanted to drive across the Milky Way, it would take you 100,000 years. But you can't get there driving the speed limit. You have to drive five trillion, eight hundred million miles per year to get all the way across that fast.
*Scientists calculate that the Milky Way is 14 billion years old.
These little fun facts should get a pretty spirited discussion going about the origins of the universe and about the possibility of space travel or if there are life on other planets. You can challenge the kids to calculate that if every star in the Milky Way supported nine planets and if only one of them was habitable like earth is, what are the odds that life would exist on one of them? I think you will see some genuine excitement when they try to run those numbers.
Such discussion can be fun, exciting, and full of questions. Don't be too hasty to shut down their imaginations as this is the birth of a lifelong love of astronomy that they are experiencing. And if you were there that first moment when they saw that night sky, you will re-experience your own great moment when you was a child. And it might set off a whole new excitement about astronomy in you all over again.
The History Of Astronomy
If you have a passion for star gazing, telescopes, the Hubble and the universe and this thing we call "astronomy", you are far from alone. Of course, we know that astronomy is a highly respected science that has produced some of the most amazing accomplishments of the twentieth century. On top of that, it is a thriving area of fascination and one of the most exciting hobby areas going with thousands of astronomy clubs and tens of thousands of amateur astronomers watching the stars every night just like we do.
But did you know that astronomy is one of the oldest and most respected sciences of them all? As far back as before the times of Christ, the wise and thinking people of societies of the time were looking at the stars and finding ways to track and chart them. We who love the hobby of astronomy can chart a proud history of astronomers that tracks across millennia and through virtually every culture in civilization. So for the sake of having some really good trivia to toss around at astronomy club next week, let's highlight some of the big moments in the history of astronomy.
For many centuries the science of astronomy was not distinct from the practice of astrology. For clarity, astronomy is the study of the stars, planets, and the universe with a clearly scientific approach. Astrology is the study of the zodiac signs and how they influence our growth, our personalities and our daily lives. In modern times, we as people of science discount the astrological side and focus on the astronomy of the heavens. But they were one study for millennia before the age of science made them separate.
There is historical evidence that astronomy was a recognized science as far back as the Babylonian civilization hundreds of years before Christ. But the study of the stars was not limited to one country. There were similar movements going on in China, India, and Ancient Egypt and all over the Arabian Peninsula. The integration of astronomy and religion is so prevalent that we see it in the Christmas story in which the Magi, Zoroastrian priesthood probably from the equivalent of ancient Syria, followed a star to the Christ child. These astronomers were also astrologers and it was that mixture that lead them to be part of this historic event.
The first book on astronomy was written by Ptolemy during the Greek empire. Since that historic publication, the who's who list of great astronomers charts a path right through the center of modern science including Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Sir Issac Newton, Jung, Michelangelo, Benjamin Franklin and more recently even Einstein and Stephen Hawkings would join that noble list. It seemed that from the renaissance on to this day, virtually any man or woman of intellect dabbled in astronomy at least somewhat and it has always been considered a sign of the learned to know about the universe and things astronomical.
Astronomy has had an impact on so many areas of our lives that we really don't recognize. Many words in our language had their roots in astronomy such as...
*Influenza which comes from the Latin root word for influence. This reflects an early belief that the position of the moon and stars may influence health and cause or cure disease.
*Disaster which comes from the Latin for "bad star".
*Lunatic which has the root word "Luna" in it which is the Latin word for moon. This highlights the long held belief that is even prevalent today that irrational behavior and even wild and dangerous things happen during a full moon.
Astronomy and its interrelationship with astrology has also influenced culture, education and religion to a very large extent over the centuries. In the English language, the first two days or our week, Sunday and Monday are a reference to astronomy as their literal interpretations would be "The Day of the Sun" and "The Day of the Moon."
So if you have found astronomy becoming a consuming passion in your thoughts and what fascinates you about the world we live in, you are in great company as this area of study has been a major part of culture and thought virtually since the dawn of civilization. And it will continue to fascinate mankind for as long as those beautiful stars shine over our heads.
Dude You Re Getting A Telescope
You might remember the Dell computer commercials in which a youth reports this exciting news to his friends that they are about to get their new computer by telling them, "Dude, you're getting a Dell!" It was a cute series but it reflects the excitement young people get about anything new, particularly if it's a new machine.
So when its time to finally get your children that very first telescope, you want to make sure it's just the right thing. There are a number of reasons you should put some serious thought into just what this beginner telescope should look like. Perhaps this will be your children's first experience with a real telescope. They may have a healthy and thriving love of astronomy from your family trips to the country to watch a meteor shower or just to gaze at the stars. And you may have piqued their interest showing them how to enhance the experience with binoculars or even letting them play with your telescope.
But this is a big moment. You want them to "bond" with this first telescope the way you did and catch the excitement of using the power of a telescope to do things with their love of astronomy that they could never do before. The reasons for taking care with your choice are many including...
*A telescope is a big step into the lifelong hobby of astronomy. If they get the wrong thing, frustration could make them lose interest both in the machine and in the field of study.
*Kids have a short attention span. You want this beginner telescope to take them from where they are to the next level while giving them those gratifying moments discovering new things in the stars every time they use it.
*It has to be a hardy piece of equipment. Kids don't always know how to treat delicate equipment. So the starter telescope should have some good "training wheels" on it.
*It has to be their teacher even when they don't know they are in school. A good beginner telescope, accompanied by some stimulating documentation that is written just for kids will stimulate their excitement and use it to teach them to work hard to reach new heights in their quest for knowledge about the stars.
A lot about how you go about getting this first telescope will depend on your own expertise in astronomy. If it is your passion and you have developed a pretty sophisticated knowledge about telescopes over the years, you not only are well equipped to make this choice but you will be there to guide them as they begin to use it.
But if you are just encouraging them in a wonderful hobby that you yourself have not been involved with in depth, first of all, congratulations. You are giving them a wonderful gift of not only knowledge but the love of astronomy and the natural wonder of nature. But you also need some help. So here are some quick guidelines.
*Find the astronomy geeks. They are easy to find in hobby shops, astronomy clubs and societies at the local college. They will help you enthusiastically.
*Look at the telescope you are considering through their eyes. It should not be too complex. Don't get something that will intimidate them.
*Don't buy a toy. Your kids will know the difference.
*Make sure it can grow and be expanded as their knowledge expands.
If you put some wise consideration into just the right starter telescope, your kids will be as excited they have ever been for a gift. Don't be surprised if you hear one of them squeal, "Dude, you got a telescope!"
The Universe Through A Child S Eyes
There is something about parenthood that gives us a sense of history and a deeply rooted desire to send on into the next generation the great things we have discovered about life. And part of that is the desire to instill in our children the love of science, of learning and particularly the love of nature.
Your fascination with the universe and how to explore it as we so often do in the field of astronomy can be highly academic and dry as maybe it was if you took a course in astronomy. But when you get out there in the field at night, your equipment is just right and the night sky comes alive with activity, there is no other experience like it for majesty and pure excitement. And that is the kind of experience we want our children to come to love as much as we do.
It's actually not a big jump from play to learning for children when it comes to learning about the natural world, science and astronomy. Exploration is a natural part of being a child and growing up in a fascinating world and universe. So if we can find ways to take that natural desire to explore and instill a life long passion for astronomy, we will have given our children a truly great gift.
So with a few simple family activities, we can instill that love of astronomy in our offspring. Here are some ideas.
*Make star gazing part of family life. You already love to go outdoors as often as possible to enjoy the stars. So don't let that be your private passion. Get everybody into the act. The kids will love it and look forward to those nights as much as going to the circus.
*Make each new experience in growing into astronomy a fresh threshold. So the first experiences might be what you experienced as a kid, just laying on your back out in the country with the panorama of the stars overhead trying to take it all in. Go ahead and challenge them to count the stars. It's a fun exercise and one they will save to use as a joke on their kids when they do this same thing in a few decades.
*Take them along the road of learning, introducing binoculars so they can focus on particular areas of the night sky.
*Now they are hooked and want to know about why some of the stars are brighter than others. They have no idea they are going to astronomy school and don't even know it. You can tell them about the constellations as you point out how to find them by keying off the North Star. By being able to find things in that mass of stars and knowing there is such a vast amount more they can pick out, they are ripe for learning from star maps and about how the galaxies work.
*Think of their excitement as they notice the changes in the night sky. The phases of the moon and the effect of the rotation of the earth on the position of the planets. Help them find their favorite celestial bodies each night. Before long they will learn to chart the movement of the stars just like the early astronomers did.
*Now you will get caught up in the excitement of finding new things to reveal to your excited crew of fledgling astronomers. When you reveal that you are going on a safari to see an eclipse, a meteor shower or the once in a lifetime appearance of a comet, that gift will as big as anything you might spring on them for Christmas.
The wonders of the night sky will captivate your children the way it has you for years. And you will have done them the greatest favor you ever could do by making them lifelong lovers of the universe.
How To Look Up
The beauty of astronomy is that anybody can do it. From the tiniest baby to the most advanced astrophysicist, there is something for anyone who wants to enjoy astronomy. In fact, it is a science that is so accessible that virtually anybody can do it virtually anywhere they are. All they have to know how to do is to look up.
It really is amazing when you think about it that just by looking up on any given night, you could see virtually hundreds of thousands of stars, star systems, planets, moons, asteroids, comets and maybe a even an occasional space shuttle might wander by. It is even more breathtaking when you realize that the sky you are looking up at is for all intents and purposes the exact same sky that our ancestors hundreds and thousands of years ago enjoyed when they just looked up.
There is something timeless about the cosmos. The fact that the planets and the moon and the stars beyond them have been there for ages does something to our sense of our place in the universe. In fact, many of the stars we "see" with our naked eye are actually light that came from that star hundreds of thousands of years ago. That light is just now reaching the earth. So in a very real way, looking up is like time travel.
Everybody knows how to look up. Children first discover the amazing light show on display for free every clear night by just looking up. You can probably remember that very first time you noticed that explosion of stars above you when you were a child. Now it is time to foster that same love of astronomy in your own children. You have to teach them how to look up.
While anyone can look up and fall in love with the stars at any time, the fun of astronomy is learning how to become more and more skilled and equipped in star gazing that you see and understand more and more each time you look up. Here are some steps you can take to make the moments you can devote to your hobby of astronomy much more enjoyable.
*Get out of town. The furtherest you can get from the lights of the city, the more you will see in the night sky.
*Know what you are looking at. It is great fun to start learning the constellations, how to navigate the night sky and find the planets and the famous stars. There are web sites and books galore to guide you.
*Get some history. Learning the background to the great discoveries in astronomy will make your moments star gazing more meaningful. It is one of the oldest sciences on earth so find out the greats of history who have looked at these stars before you.
*Get a geek. Astronomy clubs are lively places full of knowledgeable amateurs who love to share their knowledge with you. For the price of a coke and snacks, they will go star gazing with you and overwhelm you with trivia and great knowledge.
*Know when to look. Not only knowing the weather will make sure your star gazing is rewarding but if you learn when the big meteor showers and other big astronomy events will happen will make the excitement of astronomy come alive for you.
And when all is said and done, get equipped. Your quest for newer and better telescopes will be a lifelong one. Let yourself get addicted to astronomy and the experience will enrich every aspect of life. It will be an addiction you never want to break.
For many of us, our very first experience of learning about the celestial bodies begins when we saw our first full moon in the sky. It is truly a magnificent view even to the naked eye. If the night is clear, you can see amazing detail of the lunar surface just star gazing on in your back yard.
Naturally, as you grow in your love of astronomy, you will find many celestial bodies fascinating. But the moon may always be our first love because is the one far away space object that has the unique distinction of flying close to the earth and upon which man has walked.
Your study of the moon, like anything else, can go from the simple to the very complex. To gaze at the moon with the naked eye, making yourself familiar with the lunar map will help you pick out the seas, craters and other geographic phenomenon that others have already mapped to make your study more enjoyable. Moon maps can be had from any astronomy shop or online and they are well worth the investment.
The best time to view the moon, obviously, is at night when there are few clouds and the weather is accommodating for a long and lasting study. The first quarter yields the greatest detail of study. And don't be fooled but the blotting out of part of the moon when it is not in full moon stage. The phenomenon known as "earthshine" gives you the ability to see the darkened part of the moon with some detail as well, even if the moon is only at quarter or half display.
To kick it up a notch, a good pair of binoculars can do wonders for the detail you will see on the lunar surface. For best results, get a good wide field in the binocular settings so you can take in the lunar landscape in all its beauty. And because it is almost impossible to hold the binoculars still for the length of time you will want to gaze at this magnificent body in space, you may want to add to your equipment arsenal a good tripod that you can affix the binoculars to so you can study the moon in comfort and with a stable viewing platform.
Of course, to take your moon worship to the ultimate, stepping your equipment up to a good starter telescope will give you the most stunning detail of the lunar surface. With each of these upgrades your knowledge and the depth and scope of what you will be able to see will improve geometrically. For many amateur astronomers, we sometimes cannot get enough of what we can see on this our closest space object.
To take it to a natural next level, you may want to take advantage of partnerships with other astronomers or by visiting one of the truly great telescopes that have been set up by professionals who have invested in better techniques for eliminating atmospheric interference to see the moon even better. The internet can give you access to the Hubble and many of the huge telescopes that are pointed at the moon all the time. Further, many astronomy clubs are working on ways to combine multiple telescopes, carefully synchronized with computers for the best view of the lunar landscape.
Becoming part of the society of devoted amateur astronomers will give you access to these organized efforts to reach new levels in our ability to study the Earth's moon. And it will give you peers and friends who share your passion for astronomy and who can share their experience and areas of expertise as you seek to find where you might look next in the huge night sky, at the moon and beyond it in your quest for knowledge about the seemingly endless universe above us.
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