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.
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.
Buying the right telescope to take your love of astronomy to the next level is a big next step in the development of your passion for the stars. In many ways, it is a big step from someone who is just fooling around with astronomy to a serious student of the science. But you and I both know that there is still another big step after buying a telescope before you really know how to use it.
So it is critically important that you get just the right telescope for where you are and what your star gazing preferences are. To start with, let's discuss the three major kinds of telescopes and then lay down some "Telescope 101? concepts to increase your chances that you will buy the right thing.
The three primary types of telescopes that the amateur astronomer might buy are the Refractor, the Reflector and the Schmidt Cassegrain telescope. The first two are named for the kind of lens that is used. It is pretty easy to see that the lens is the heart of the telescope so the kind that you will use will determine the success of your use of that telescope.
The refractor lens is the simplest because it uses a convex lens to focus the light on the eyepiece. So the lens bends outwards for this purpose. The refractor telescope's strength is in viewing planets. The reflector's strength is in seeing more distant objects and the lens is concave or bends in. It uses mirrors to focus the image that you eventually see. The final type, the Schmidt Cassegrain telescope is the most complex and accomplishes the goals of both but it uses an involved system of mirrors to capture the image you want to see.
So to select just the right kind of telescope, your objectives in using the telescope are important. To really understand the strengths and weaknesses not only of the lenses and telescope design but also in how the telescope performs in various star gazing situations, it is best to do some homework up front and get exposure to the different kinds. So before you make your first purchase...
*Above all, establish a relationship with a reputable telescope shop that employs people who know their stuff. If you buy your telescope at a Wal-Mart or department store, the odds you will get the right thing are remote.
*Pick the brains of the experts. If you are not already active in an astronomy society or club, the sales people at the telescope store will be able to guide you to the active societies in your area. Once you have connections with people who have bought telescopes, you can get advice about what works and what to avoid that is more valid than anything you will get from a web article or a salesperson at Wal-Mart.
*Try before you buy. This is another advantage of going on some field trips with the astronomy club. You can set aside some quality hours with people who know telescopes and have their rigs set up to examine their equipment, learn the key technical aspects, and try them out before you sink money in your own set up.
There are other considerations to factor into your final purchase decision. How mobile must your telescope be? The tripod or other accessory decisions will change significantly with a telescope that will live on your deck versus one that you plan to take to many remote locations. Along those lines, how difficult is the set up and break down? How complex is the telescope and will you have trouble with maintenance? Network to get the answers to these and other questions. If you do your homework like this, you will find just the right telescope for this next big step in the evolution of your passion for astronomy.
The Wow Hobby
Some people sometimes view hobbies as sometimes silly or frivolous pastimes. And it's true some hobbies are like that. But it is healthy to have a hobby because it diversifies our interests and keeps us active and fun to be with. But many hobbies are for the few that really get into that area of study. Stamp collecting or rock climbing are valid hobbies. But to be sure, these are not hobbies that just anybody will get into.
Astronomy, by contract, that you could say everybody gets into at some point or another. It is safe to say that everybody at some point has looked up at a magnificent night sky and said "WOW." At that moment, even if was only for that moment, that person became an amateur astronomy hobbyist. They had that "Wow" moment in what can only be described as the "WOW" hobby.
That common experience is what makes astronomy one of the most exciting and popular hobbies of them all. Any hobby has to have a few "wow" moments. Whether it's hitting that strike in bowling or finding that perfect stamp, there has to be a moment when the bell rings. Well astronomy has many "wow" moments that occur virtually any clear night in the stars. From the coming of an asteroid shower to just figuring out another constellation, there is so much to do and play with in astronomy that you can be a hobbyist your whole life and never get bored.
Besides the excitement of astronomy, another reason it makes a great hobby is that it is easy and cheap to get started. Unlike skiing for example, to just start enjoying astronomy, all you need is the night sky. But there is no end to the levels of complexity and sophistication you can get to as you move along in astronomy as well. So like any good hobby, astronomy is endlessly fascinating and tremendously addictive because there is always more you want to learn and more you can do to make your knowledge and experiences more interesting and fun.
A great side benefit of how many people are into astronomy is that it is a tremendously social hobby as well. This is unusual for a hobby that is associated with a science, that is executed by staring up in the sky by yourself and that is not competitive. But in any town or city, there are at least a few and probably dozens of astronomy clubs and associations that meet regularly to discuss astronomy.
This is the perfect way to introduce a new recruit to the hobby of astronomy. These clubs thrive on sharing their love of astronomy with new members, kids and those just learning how to explore the stars. Most astronomy clubs schedule regular "safaris" to go out away from the lights of the city and get a good night of sky watching done. Going on such an outing with a big group of enthusiasts is the type of experience that will take a passive interest into astronomy and change it into a healthy obsession.
By going out with a group, you can rub elbows with people who know the night sky, can help you learn how to spot the great constellations and how to train your eyes to see the really cool stuff going on over our heads virtually every night. Astronomy is a passion that is shared equally by everyone from children, to college students to serious scholars in the field to even professional astronomers who work at exploring the universe full time. On any given night, you or your child may be sitting next to an award winning professional astronomer who will happily provide a private lesson looking up at the cosmos just for the sheer fun of shared learning.
The great thing is that everything we have talked about here costs virtually nothing. You can get started with your love of astronomy and learn as you go so when you are ready to make some investment in equipment, you have learned from others what is just the right thing for you. Sure, eventually you will want some astronomy magazine subscriptions, a star map or two and binoculars or a telescope. But those things come as your love of the hobby matures. Meanwhile, get out there, meet others who share your excitement about star gazing and get to know a hobby that never stops making you say "WOW".
Bonding With The Universe
As parents, we often worry about what our children are getting excited about. We hope we can guide them to "bond" with healthy things like a love of learning, of family and of healthy social activities. But we also worry they will bond with the wrong people like internet stalkers or the wrong crowd at school. Wouldn't it be great if we could harness that tremendous energy and desire to latch onto something and bond with it and help our children "bond" with the universe through a love of astronomy?
Kids love to get excited about what you are excited about. So there lots of ways you can "spring" the fun of astronomy on them that will jump start them on a long and happy exploration of the hobby of astronomy. Here are a few to get your imagination going.
*Work it into an evening in the backyard. If you know the night sky will be particularly exciting the night of a big family barbecue, plan to have some blankets out there. Then as everybody else is playing Frisbee, just lay out a blanket, lay flat on your back and start staring up into the sky with a binoculars. Like the old prank of staring at a far away spot to get people's interest, your kids will see what you are doing and what to know what is going on. As you let them take a peek, their curiosity will take off like a wild fire and they are hooked.
*A surprise visit to the country. Sometimes it is hard to see the vast display of stars from within the city. So if you announce that you are going to show them a surprise one night and have them pile into the car, their curiosity will be going wild as you leave the city. When you find that quiet park, field or lake side spot, all you have to do is point up and say "just look" and the magnificence of the night sky will do the rest.
*A special Christmas gift. You can buy your children an affordable and durable beginner's telescope along with some easy star maps written just for kids. Imagine when they open this exciting gift and want to know how to use it. Don't be surprised if you are setting up the new telescope in the snow to show them the great things they will see in the cosmos with the gift that Santa wanted them to have. The gift of astronomy.
*Unleash the power of a meteor shower on them. You can keep your eye on the events that are predicted for the sky watchers in your area. When the next big meteor shower is about to explode over your area, watch the weather for a clear night and get your kids excited about what they are about to see. As the lights begin to go off over head and you create fun and interesting narration to this dramatic display, the children will be addicts for life for the great experiences that can be had as students of astronomy.
*Plan a surprise event in with something you are already doing. For example, on vacation, you can plan your route on a cross country trip to bring you within visiting distance of one of the great multimillion dollar telescopes in this country. By contacting them ahead of time, you can be sure they are conducting a tour that coincides with your visit. Just imagine if they can look up at a telescope that is bigger than their house and maybe look through the eyepiece as some amazing cosmic sight, it will be the hit of the vacation.
Astronomy is a great activity to introduce on a family camping trip. As the family sits around the fire after a fun night of camping, all you have to do is just look up and go "Wow, look at that!" When those little heads look up, they will look back down changed children, children in love with the stars.
Astronomy is a healthy passion for your kids and one they can grow with their entire lives. And there is probably no better gift you can give them than the love of the stars, of science and of nature that is all wrapped up together when your kids bond with the universe through astronomy.
What If They Let You Run The Hubble
It is probably the dream of any amateur astronomer to be able to be the boss of one of the great multi million dollar telescopes even if it was just for one hour or for a few shots. Sure, we can have a lot of fun with our binoculars. And as we improve our personal equipment set, we get better and better at pinpointing what we want to see in the sky.
But there is only so far we can go within the constraints of a family budget in building the perfect telescopic operation. Probably the next level then is to work together with others in your astronomy club. By pooling our resources, we can make more progress both in acquiring much more sophisticated equipment and in synchronizing our telescopic operations.
All of this is good and its fun to tweak it and play with it always finding improvements. But when we are sitting back and dreaming, it's those big institutional size telescopes that really grab our interest. Maybe you have had a chance to visit one at Kitt Peak, Arizona, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, Palomar Mountain, California or Mt. Locke, Texas to name just a few and as you walked around jaw dropped to your shoes, you thought, maybe if I could just run it for an hour, how awesome would that be?
The good news is that while these huge observatories are not going to let you come in and turn the gears of the mightiest telescopes yourself, many of them will perform specific observations for you and allow you to "see through their eyes" via the internet for that short observation. This is a powerful option for an amateur astronomer and one you want to prepare for carefully. Here is what you do...
1.Begin compiling a list of the great telescopes of the world, their locations and how to contact them. Google will help you with finding lists of these observatories to contact by pointing you to specific directory sites like http://astro.nineplanets.org/bigeyes.html
2.You can start by submitting your request to a specific observatory. Now here is where you have to do your homework. If you have a specific celestial event you wish to observe, there will be particular telescopes around the globe that will be in the best position to get those shots for you. So study up and find just the right telescope and when the perfect moment for that observation would occur. Get out ahead of this homework as you need to submit your request in plenty of time for it to go through approval and for them to get back to you and to interact with you to nail down what you are going to have them look at.
3.There are two ways you can direct the operators of the telescopes. You can give them specific coordinates to focus on and a specific time frame to perform the observation. The other way is to give them a star, a planet or a particular star system to observe and let them figure out the coordinates. That might be easier because you know what you want to see.
4.Now you sit back and wait for the email that the observation is done. You will not be able to watch them do the observation dynamically. That would be nice but it just isn't possible yet. These are telescopes, not web cams. But they will post the pictures from your observation on a particular web location and email the results to you for study.
It's pretty cool, free and customized to what you requested. And you can brag to your friends as you make color copies of your shots that you had Kitt Peak do these up for you personally. And you would not be lying.
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.
There is a lot of exciting stuff going on in the stars above us that make astronomy so much fun. The truth is the universe is a constantly changing, moving, some would say "living" thing because you just never know what you are going to see on any given night of stargazing.
But of the many celestial phenomenons, there is probably none as exciting as that time you see your first asteroid on the move in the heavens. To call asteroids the "rock stars" of astronomy is simultaneously a bad joke but an accurate depiction of how astronomy fans view them. Unlike suns, planets and moons, asteroids are on the move, ever changing and, if they appear in the night sky, exciting and dynamic.
Like rock stars, asteroids have been given their fair share of urban myth and lore. Many have attributed the extinction of the dinosaurs to the impact of a huge asteroid on the earth. This theory has some credibility and, if it is true, it evokes some pretty startling images and foreboding fears in the current reining species on earth, the human race.
The fact that asteroids are fast moving space debris only makes their movement and activity more interesting and exciting. Unlike a moon, planet or star, the odds that an asteroid could hit the earth are entirely reasonable and in fact, there are many documented cases of small asteroids making it through our atmosphere and leaving some pretty impressive craters in the earth's surface.
Popular culture has happily embraced the idea of an asteroid impact. The idea has spawned many a science fiction story adding the idea that alien life forms may ride asteroids to our world and start a "war of the worlds" situation. But by far, the most talked about concept that has captured the imagination and the fears of science fiction fans and the general public is of another asteroid hitting the earth that could wipe out life as allegedly happened to the dinosaurs. In fact, the movie "Armageddon" was based on this idea and the concept that somehow mankind could avert that catastrophe with technology.
But probably the best way to calm our fears and replace science fiction with science is with understanding and knowledge. The truth is, there has been a lot of study of asteroid activity and the serious scientific community has gained significant knowledge of these amazing celestial bodies. A number of probes to asteroids have been conducted which have given us a wealth of information about their composition and how we might predict their behavior.
We now know that the majority of asteroids we get to witness come from an asteroid belt that exists between Mars and Jupiter. It is from this community of asteroids that many of the notable asteroids emerged. Scientists have gained significant knowledge about the composition of asteroids and separated them into classes including class S which comes of the part of the belt that is closest to Mars, classes C, D and V which are classified by composition and a class called "Centaurs" whose flight patterns take them closer to Jupiter and Uranus.
Some of the probes NASA has conducted on near flying asteroids have performed some pretty amazing studies of these eccentric celestial bodies. In 1994 the Galileo probe got within 1000 miles of the asteroid Ida and discovered that Ida actually had its own moon.
Other probes have fired impactors into asteroids and even landed on an asteroid to produce some amazing scientific data for us. There is much to learn about asteroids in our love of astronomy and that knowledge only makes our enjoyment of seeing them in the cosmos even more exciting.
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