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.
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.
Astronomy Binoculars A Great Alternative
It seems from the moment you begin to take your love of astronomy seriously, the thing that is on your mind is what kind of telescope will you get. And there is no question, investing in a good telescope can really enhance your enjoyment of your new passion in astronomy. But don't be too hasty to keep up with the big wigs in the astronomy clubs that have advanced telescopes. There is another alternative that can give you most of the advantages of a telescope and some extra flexibility and reduced cost to boot.
That alternative is a good pair of astronomy binoculars. Mostly we think of binoculars as the thing you use to see the football game when you have to sit in the cheap seats. But if you do some homework and had a good grasp on what your stargazing objectives are, the advantages of astronomy binoculars over an entry level telescope can be pretty convincing.
*As a rule, they are cheaper. So you can get a lot of good stargazing at much less of an investment. You can always spend more money later but for now, this may be just the solution for you.
*There are not so many accessories. To own and operate a telescope takes a lot of orientation to how to set up and use the device. Beyond that, tuning it for optimum view and diagnosing it when you have problems can sometimes make the telescope more of the passion than stargazing itself.
*It is much easier to use. If you have not bought a telescope yet, you may have seen telescope owners going through a laborious set up and break down discipline for each use. This is time they are not looking at the stars. The binocular users are happily stargazing as this goes on.
*Binoculars are lightweight and portable. Unless you have the luxury to set up and operate an observatory from your deck, you are probably going to travel to perform your viewings. Binoculars go with you much easier and they are more lightweight to carry to the country and use while you are there than a cumbersome telescope set up kit.
So give the binocular option some consideration. To make the most effective choice, however, here are a few facts about astronomy binoculars that will help you evaluate which ones are best for you...
Binoculars have two lens sets, one at the end of the eyepiece and a set right next to your eyes. The ones closest to the eye are called the ocular lenses which magnify the image (make it bigger). The ones closest to the sky are called the objective lenses and the size of these lenses will determine how much sky you can see at once. So anytime you are evaluating binoculars, there are two numbers associated with the set. So if the binoculars have a rating of 15-40, that means that the ocular lenses magnify 15 times and the later number is a relative number to how much of the sky you can see. The higher the second number, the more you can see. The explanation is simple. The bigger the lens, the more light it lets in. But be aware that the bigger the second number, the larger, heavier and more cumbersome the binoculars will be.
You will have to balance these two numbers with both your budget and what you want the binoculars to do for you. If you decide to go with a lower power binoculars, you could become frustrated with what you can see and you may have to take your eyes away from the view to get your orientation and consult the star map more often because your range of vision is so limited.
There will also be a temptation to buy a set of binoculars that have zoom functions and other features that will allow you to use it for other purposes such as hunting, whale watching or seeing the football game from the cheap seats. While this is good economy, those functions will get in the way when you are using the binoculars for astronomy. So if you are considering this purchase as your alternative to buying a telescope, our advice is buy binoculars made just for astronomy and don't take them to the ball game.
The Basics Of Buying A Telescope
There is a moment in the life of any aspiring astronomer that it is time to buy that first telescope. It's exciting to think about setting up your own viewing station whether that is on the deck of your home or having a powerful but mobile telescope set up to take to the remove countryside to really get a good shot at some breath taking star gazing.
The last thing we would want to do is to take away any of the "fun" of your hobby of astronomy because the joy of what we do as star gazers is a big part of the appeal. But unlike many other hobbies, ours is a passion of science, of learning and of discovery. And don't kid yourself, even a hobbyist with a limited telescopic set up can see some amazing things in the stars. So let's be sure you invest in a solid piece of equipment that you can continue to grow with as your knowledge and ability as an astronomer grows. But how do we do that?
Meet the Geeks.
Now we use the term "telescope geeks" lovingly because any of us who are devoted to our love of astronomy eventually become telescope geeks. And these are the type of people who will know exactly how to evaluate your needs in terms of where you are right now and where you want to go as your hobby grows with you. So if you have not yet associated with a local astronomy club, now is the time to do it.
Start rubbing elbows with people who live and breathe telescopes. Their input is a hundred times more reliable than what a sales brochure or that salesman might have to say because the "telescope geeks" have been where you are, made the mistakes and are eager to help you avoid those same mistakes.
In the world of telescopes, the sales people see, to try to baffle us with all the bells and whistles of their hottest selling model. One of the big check points that is often pushed is the amplification level of the telescope lens. While that is a factor that is worth noting, when it comes to a telescope lens, the old phrase "size matters" is a good guideline.
Just remember that your telescope lens works best when it takes in the most light it can from the object you are viewing. So the wider the diameter of the lens, the better a view you are going to get. So don't fall for the amplification level only. Carefully evaluate the lens size so you have the right fit for what you want to do.
It Has to Stand on Its Own Feet.
If you are going to set up a permanent telescope station, then you can bolt the unit down so it is well supported. But many of us have to take our telescopes out into the country for optimum use. So the stand has to be strong and flexible so we can set up the telescope on uneven turf but still feel secure that this important and expensive piece of equipment is going to stand on its own without fear of it falling during our observation time.
We already mentioned strong and flexible as evaluation guides for the telescope stand but add in ease of use as well. You have to be able to set your telescope up and break it down quickly and easily when you are on a remote viewing. You may even find yourself setting up or taking down your telescope in the dark or by lantern or flashlight if you are taking advantage of the great star displays in the late night sky that make this hobby so exciting.
These are the basics of what to look for in your new telescope. Finally, make sure the telescope can be enhanced and expanded without having to throw the first unit away and buy something completely new. You want your telescope to grow as your knowledge and skills grow. If your first telescope meets all of these requirements, you are off on the right foot on a long and enjoyable career as an amateur astronomer.
The Glossary Of Telescopes
When you enter into any new area of science, you almost always find yourself with a baffling new language of technical terms to learn before you can converse with the experts. This is certainly true in astronomy both in terms of terms that refer to the cosmos and terms that describe the tools of the trade, the most prevalent being the telescope. So to get us off of first base, let's define some of the key terms that pertain to telescopes to help you be able to talk to them more intelligently.
The first area of specialization in telescopes has to do with the types of telescopes people use. The three designs of telescopes that most people use are the Refractor, the Reflector and the Schmidt Cassegrain telescope.
*The refractor telescope uses a convex lens to focus the light on the eyepiece.
*The reflector telescope has a concave lens which means it bends in. It uses mirrors to focus the image that you eventually see.
*The Schmidt Cassegrain telescope uses an involved system of mirrors to capture the image you want to see.
*A binocular telescope uses a set of telescopes mounted and synchronized so your view of the sky is 3-D.
Beyond the basic types, other terms refer to parts of the telescope or to the science behind how telescopes work.
*Collimation is a term for how well tuned the telescope is to give you a good clear image of what you are looking at. You want your telescope to have good collimation so you are not getting a false image of the celestial body.
*Aperture is a fancy word for how big the lens of your telescope is. But it's an important word because the aperture of the lens is the key to how powerful your telescope is. Magnification has nothing to do with it, its all in the aperture.
*Focuser is the housing that keeps the eyepiece of the telescope, or what you will look through, in place. The focuser has to be stable and in good repair for you to have an image you can rely on.
*Mount and Wedge. Both of these terms refer to the tripod your telescope sits on. The mount is the actual tripod and the wedge is the device that lets you attach the telescope to the mount. The mount and the wedge are there to assist you with a superior viewing session and to keep your expensive telescope safe from a fall.
*An Altazimuth Mount refers to the tripod of the telescope that holds the device in place and makes it useful during a star gazing session. The altazimuth mouth allows the telescope to move both horizontally (which is the azimuth) and vertically. In this way you have full range to look at things close to the horizon or directly overhead.
*Coma has a different meaning than the one we are used to, and that's a good thing. The coma is the blurry area on the outer rims of your view through the telescope. How big the coma is and to what extent it interferes with your viewing will have is important to the effectiveness of your telesscope.
*Planisphere. A fancy word for a star chart. It is nothing less or more than a detailed map of where everything is in the cosmos and how to find the star you wish to study by keying off of known stars.
*Barlow. This refers to a specialized type of lens that you can buy to enhance the magnification of your telescope.
These are just a few of the basic concepts of telescope operation. We deliberately picked the ones you have to know to discuss telescopes intelligently. But your education into the more complex aspects of astronomy and telescope design and operation will go on for as long as you are a lover of astronomy, which we hope is for the rest of your life.
Astronomy Or Astrology
Have you ever finally just gave in to the temptation and read your horoscope in the newspaper on Sunday morning? Sure, we all have. For most of us, it's a curiosity, an amusement to see what they say our day will be like based on the sign of the zodiac that we were born under. Sometimes we forget that this little diversion is actually part of an ancient science called astrology that has had a powerful effect on many cultures dating back to centuries before Christ.
That is not to say that astrology is a dead art today. It is easy to find astrology advocates in every town, advertising in the newspaper and on television trying to convince us that they can tell our fortune, our future and help cure our ills by exploring the mysteries of astrology.
When you are a lover of astronomy, the confusion between astronomy and astrology by those who don't really understand the differences can get pretty aggravating. And in early civilizations, the two disciplines were not separate. Astrology was just the religious side of the science of astronomy. So what changed?
The most significant shift that set in motion the separation of the two lines of thought began in the first century when Ptolemy wrote the very first book on astronomy called the Tetrabiblos. In it, he began to suggest that astronomy should be considered a separate science from astrology. It was quite a revolutionary book because it also was the first scientific document to suggest that the earth was not the center of the universe and that astronomy should be focused strictly on the observation and recording of events in the cosmos.
Over the next 2000 years, we have come a long way. Not only has science and religion completely gone their separate ways since Ptolemy but the science of astronomy makes tremendous strides every year that are so phenomenal, Ptolemy would be truly astounded.
Probably the biggest point of diversion between a student of astrology and astronomy is the belief that the position of the stars has meaning over the events on our lives. Of course, we do know that the weather and tides and other important aspects of our lives are affected by the stars, planets and heavenly bodies, particularly the moon. But these things are happening because of completely explainable scientific laws in motion, not because of mystical forces at work.
What can we, as devotees of astronomy conclude about the close relationship between astrology and astronomy? Well, for sure we want to be able to explain to anyone who is confused by the similarity in the words what the differences are. We do not want to see the two approaches to the stars and planets to become confused again. But we should do all we can do keep that distinction clear without becoming skeptical or demeaning towards those who may still hold to the teachings of astrology.
It is important to remember that what is part of a person's religious life has a level of sacred belief to the one holding it. And it is not respectful to scoff at such things. If for no other reason than out of respect for the ancient origins of astronomy, we should give courtesy who still are exploring whether astrology has any validity for them.
If we can treat each discipline with respect but maintain the separation that must exist between astrology and astronomy, there is no reason both approaches to our admiration of the galaxies cannot coexist in peace and harmony. And for our purposes as astronomers, that harmony will allow us plenty of freedom to enjoy our quest for knowledge for many more centuries to come. And who knows, you might still like to read the horoscope on Sunday morning every so often.
The Amazing Hubble
In the history of modern astronomy, there is probably no one greater leap forward than the building and launch of the space telescope known as the Hubble. While NASA has had many ups and downs, the launch and continued operation of the Hubble space telescope probably ranks next to the moon landings and the development of the Space Shuttle as one of the greatest space exploration accomplishments of the last hundred years.
An amazing piece of astronomy trivia that few people know is that in truth, only about ten percent of the universe is visible using conventional methods of observation. For that reason, the Hubble really was a huge leap forward. That is for the very simple reason that the Hubble can operate outside of the atmosphere of Earth. Trying to make significant space exploration via telescopes from the terrestrial surface of planet Earth is very difficult. That very thing that keeps us alive, our own Earth's atmosphere presents a serious distraction from being able to see deeper and further into space.
The Hubble space telescope was named after the great scientist and visionary Edward Hubble who discovered that the universe was expanding which was explained by what is now known in science as Hubble's Law. To truly get a feel for the amazing accomplishment that was achieved with the launch of the Hubble telescope, spend some time on Nasa's web site dedicated to the project at http://hubble.nasa.gov. There are also a number of sites where you can enjoy some stunning pictures from the Hubble including http://heritage.stsci.edu/ and http://www.stsci.edu/ftp/science/hdf/hdf.html.
It's hard to believe how long the Hubble has been orbiting earth and sending back amazing video and pictures of what it is discovering in space. But the Hubble was actually initially launched on April 25th 1990. It was the culmination of literally decades of research and construction which began in 1977. Expectations were high as the orbiting telescope was put in place and actually began to function as it was designed to do.
All was not always perfect with the telescope and the early pictures were disappointing. After some study NASA discovered that the reason for the early failures was the curvatures of one of the main lenses of the orbiting telescope.
We probably could never have kept this intricate piece of equipment operational as well as we have had we not had the Space Shuttle program to give us a tool to implement repairs and improvements to the Hubble. In 1993 a new lens was installed on the Hubble which corrected the problem of picture resolution that was noted in the early operation of the telescope.
Two other repair and upgrade mission have been made to the Hubble since it launched, both of them in 1997 to upgrade older equipment and to retrofit the telescope to extend its useful life through 2010. It's pretty amazing to think that this scientific and mechanical marvel has been operating now for ten years without maintenance. We can be assured that plans are in the works for NASA to upgrade or replace parts on the Hubble to extend its useful life even further as that 2010 time frame draws closer.
It is hard to imagine the science of astronomy or the natural quest for greater knowledge of our universe without the Hubble. While many times those who would not fund space exploration have tried to cut funding for the Hubble, the operation of this telescope is just too important to astronomers and to the scientific well being of mankind and our planet not to continue to use the Hubble, or its next natural successor. We will always need to have a set of eyes in the sky to watch the universe and discover more of its mysteries.
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.
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