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.
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 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.
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.
Space The Final Frontier
While it was just a TV show, that little speech at the beginning of the original Star Trek show really did do a good job of capturing our feelings about space. It is those feelings that drive our love of astronomy and our desire to learn more and more about it.
The thing that is most exciting about studying the universe is also the most frustrating and that is that no matter how expert we get, we are always just getting started. But if it's any consolation, some of the most advanced minds in science and from history always felt that way about space. Even the greats such as Copernicus and Einstein looked up into space and felt like they were just a spec in the presence of such infinity.
Of course space is not infinite. It has to be finite which means somehow there must be an end to it. But if there is, nobody on this tiny planet has figured out where it is. The only thing that has brought us to "the end of the universe" is our limited ability to see any deeper into space.
But conquering the final frontier of space means more than just seeing more stars and planets and building the biggest telescope we can. There are some mind blowing concepts about how space works that we have ahead of us to conquer. The big bang and the expanding universe alone was enough to set your mind to spinning. But then we have the coming of Einstein and the theory of relativity to set the entire idea on its ear. All of a sudden space is not just three dimensions but the dimension of time becomes exportable and the twisting and maybe even travel through time seems almost possible.
The frontier of space is as much a journey of the mind as it is of distance. When Steven Hawking showed us the mysteries of black holes, all of a sudden, time and space could collapse and be twisted and changed in those intergalactic pressure cookers. If not for the wonders of radio astronomy, these ideas would remain just ideas but slowly science is catching up with theory.
But the brilliance of mathematicians and genius minds like Hawking and Einstein continue to stretch our concepts of space. Now we have the string theory that could revolutionize everything we know about space, time and how the universe relates to itself. We can't just say, no, we have discovered enough. It's the final frontier. The Starship Enterprise would not stop exploring so neither can we. Because there is a hurdle still ahead that has a name but no real answer to it yet. It's called the Unified Field Theory and those that know tell us that when the Einsteins and Hawkings of our day crack that theory, every other theory will fall into place.
These exciting concepts seem some tools to put the enormity of space in context. That may also be the value of science fiction. Not only are science fiction writers often the visionaries of what comes to be in the future but they give us the idea that space is knowable, that despite how big it is and how small we are, we can conquer this frontier like we have conquered others before us.
For mankind, that is often enough. If we can get the vision that we can conquer something, even if it is something so massive, so impossibly huge, it seems that we are capable of anything. And the love of astronomy, maybe unlike any other force on earth, has brought together mankind toward that common goal of conquering the universe. The quest to establish an international space station and to cooperate on spreading our reach off of this planet seems to find commonality between nations that otherwise cannot get along on the surface of the earth.
That alone may be a reason that we must continue to support astronomy locally and the space program nationally. It is something that seems to bring peace rather than war and make us a better people. But more than that it is as though this is what we were created to do. To reach out to the stars may be our destiny. If so then our love of astronomy is more than a hobby, it's a calling.
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.
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.
Look Up In The Sky
When television was young, there was a hugely popular show based on the still popular fictional character of Superman. The opening of that show had a familiar phrase that went, "Look. Up in the sky. It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Superman!" How beloved Superman has become in our culture and the worldwide fascination with extraterrestrials and all things cosmic only emphasizes that there is a deep curiosity in all humans about nature and astronomy, even if many people would not know to call it astronomy.
Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences of all time. When archeologists unearth ancient civilizations, even as far back as the cavemen, they invariably find art that shows mans unquenchable fascination with the stars. To this day, you can easily get an animated discussion at any gathering on the topic of "Is there intelligent life on other planets?"
Many have tried to explain mankind's seeming obsession with outer space as a result of an ancient memory or as part of mankind's eternal nature. Whatever the cause, people of every age and every nation share this one deep interest, to know more about the universe that our tiny planet is just a part of.
It's rather strange because the actual conduct of a serious student of astronomy is really not the stuff of high adventure. You will never see a "Raiders of the Lost Arc" or "Jurassic Park" movie made about an astronomer. Excitement for lovers of this science is to stay up all night watching the cosmos through a powerful telescope. But that fact does not seem to discourage the tens of thousands to get into astronomy each year and the huge interest worldwide with the stars, the planets and the universe.
There may be no other universal human fascination that does so much to make national boundaries and even international animosity seem to evaporate. Other than the Olympic movement, international cooperation to achieve great strides for human kind in space seems to go forward without interruption even when the nations cooperating in those projects are virtually at war back on the surface of the earth. It is a strange thing to watch as Russian, American and other astronauts work together like brothers on space missions even as their home nations are busily pointing missiles at each other back at home. It almost makes you think that we should put more energy and money into the space program, not less because it seems to be a bond that heals tension rather than creates it.
Why is astronomy so exciting even though we have no dinosaurs, moving animals or any real danger to most who are obsessed with the discipline? It may go back to a basic curiosity that all human beings have about their natural habitat and this big mysterious thing out there called space. Maybe it goes back to that old saying at the beginning of Star Trek that space is "the final frontier".
But we all share that ongoing sense of excitement each time we take out our telescopes and gaze directly at the cosmos above us. We feel we are looking at the very dawn of time. And in light of the issues with the speed of light which means that many of the twinkling stars out there are really light from those stars that started their journey to us thousands of years ago, we are in actually looking directly at the past every time we direct our eyes skyward.
But we don't have to worry about ever conquering the final frontier and finding our curiosity satisfied. There will always be more to learn and discover in the world of astronomy. And it is likely that mankind's curiosity about astronomy is just as limitless as well.
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