Showing posts with label Astronomy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Astronomy. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Galileo's Telescope

Galileo Galilei showing the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope - Photo: Wikimedia
Rumors of a Dutchman creating a device that would bring objects closer so you could see them more clearly reached Galileo in 1609.  He started using the device after he refined it to a 10-power telescope and made some amazing discoveries with it.  In 1610, he looked around Jupiter to find three satellites all in a straight line.  When he looked back, they were in all directions.  He surmised they were orbiting Jupiter and that, if this were true, then the Earth wasn't the center of the universe.  This theory went against what the church taught.  

The church believed Galileo to be quite wrong.  They said everything he could see in his new telescopic device went against everything the Bible said.  Galileo argued that even the interpreters of the Bible could have made a mistake in the interpretation.  He was accused of heresy, but proclaimed innocent and told not to teach any of the Copernican belief system.

Unbeknownst to the church, Galileo continued to study Jupiter and the movements of its moons.  He also started working on a paper about the ocean's tides.  He was brought before the court for trying to teach the Copernican system after being told not to.  He was placed under house arrest and until his death in 1642, he investigated even more areas of science.  

He made even more fascinating discoveries with his telescope.  He found there companion stars next to Saturn which was actually the edges of the rings that encircle the planet.  He found spots on the sun's surface and watched Venus go through its many phases from a planet down to a sliver of light.

He published his findings in a book called “The Starry Messenger” in 1610.  People were quite excited about some of the theories found in the book.  Imagine finding for the first time that the Earth was round, and not flat.  What would you think?

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

How to Look Up

Vitebsk amateur astronomical observatory (MPC COD B42) - Photo: Wikimedia
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 an 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 ancestor's 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 furthermost 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 websites and books galore to guide you.

* Get some history.  Learning the background to the great discoveries in astronomy will make your moments stargazing more meaningful.  It is one of the oldest sciences on earth to 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 stargazing 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.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Historical Timeline for TELESCOPES

Hubble - Photo: Wikimedia
It seems all the technology for telescopes started back in 2560 BC.  Artisans in ancient Egypt polished rocks, glass, and semi-precious stones to make eyes for the sarcophagi.  What follows is some major points in the history of how telescopes came to be today.
  • In 470 BC, Mozi, a Chinese philosopher, focused the sun's rays by using concave mirrors.
  • In 4 BC, Seneca the Younger used water to magnify letters and words.
  • In 23, Pliny the Elder discovered doctors using a crystal ball with the sun's rays beaming through it to cauterize wounds.
  • In the ninth century, telescopes were possibly made from Visby lenses, a Middle Eastern glass.
  • In 1520, Leonard Digges, an English mathematician, invented two telescopes – Reflecting and Refracting.
  • In 1608, A Dutch lensmaker, Hans Lippershey, applied for a patent on a design for a telescope.
  • In 1609, Galileo improved on Lippershey's design and renamed it “perspicillum” - An Italian word for a telescope.
  • In 1616, Niccolo Zucchi invented a reflecting telescope.
  • In 1663, James Gregory, a Scottish mathematician, produces a telescope with a parabolic primary mirror and an elliptical secondary mirror.
  • In 1668, Isaac Newton designed a telescope using a parabolic primary mirror and a flat diagonal secondary mirror.
  • In 1733, Chester Moore Hall created the achromatic lens.
  • In 1880, Ernst Abbe invented the first orthoscopic eyepiece.
  • In 1910, The Ritchey-Chretien telescope that is used in many of the large astronomical telescopes is invented by George Ritchey and Henri Chretien.
  • In 1930, The Schmidt camera is created by Bernhard Schmidt.
  • In 1937, Grote Reber developed a telescope for wavelengths ranging from radio to Xrays.
  • In 1944, The Maksutov telescope is designed by Dmitri Maksutov.
  • In 1962, The UK launched an orbiting solar telescope.
  • In 1990, the Hubble Telescope was launched into space.
  • In 2013, the James Webb Space Telescope will be launched and take the place of the Hubble.

And this all started with the polishing of a few stones.

More and newer information on Wikipedia

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Our Neighbors in Space

Crab Nebula - Photo: Wikipedia
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 into simple terms to understand the terms but we know that the early history of the solar system and the universe was one of the 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 the 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 discovery is part of the fun of astronomy.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Looking at Globular Clusters

Globular Clusters in NGC 4490 - Photo: Flickr
Globular clusters are defined as a dense grouping of thousands to millions of stars.  They are comprised of young stars at millions of years old to older stars at billions of years old.  The stars in these clusters are usually very tightly bound together.

They are considered deep sky objects.  They are easily found in the night sky in the hours before midnight in the months of April through September.  They appear in your telescope as concentrated patches of gray mist.  The amazing part is the average distance between any of the given stars is between ¾ to 1 ½ light years.  

The most spectacular of all is the NGC 5139.  You can see it with your naked eye because it is three times the moon's diameter.  There are millions of stars that take up your viewfinder.  It is truly a wondrous sight to behold.  If you live in or around North Carolina close to the latitude of +36 degrees, you will be able to spot it easily in the night sky.

Clusters such as these are very common.  In the Milky Way, there are 150 known clusters.  The Andromeda galaxy could have upwards of 500.  The giant elliptical galaxies, such as M87, have as many as 10,000.  The neat thing is the globular clusters contain some of the first stars that were created when time began.  Their origins are still unclear.  

The major part of these clusters is found near the galactic core.  And another large majority lie on the celestial sky side.  Clusters contain a high density of older stars but they are not great locations for planetary systems.  The orbits of the planets become unstable in the dense clusters. These clusters can be dated by viewing the temperature the coolest white dwarf stars are in the group.  Common results say some of these stars are 12.7 billion years old or older.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Amazing HUBBLE

English: The Hubble Space Telescope as seen fr...
The Hubble Space Telescope as seen from the departing Space Shuttle Atlantis, flying STS-125, HST Servicing Mission 4.
(Photo credit: 
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  There are also a number of sites where you can enjoy some stunning pictures from the Hubble including and

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.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The History of ASTRONOMY

Florinus Astronomy 1705 - Photo: Wikimedia
If you have a passion for stargazing, 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 clear 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 leads 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 have 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 the 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.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Comets - Visitors From Beyond.

Comet - Photo: Pixabay
The one thing we love the most in the world of astronomy is a good mystery.  And if there was ever a mysterious and yet very powerful force of nature that we witness in the night skies, it is the coming of the mighty comet.

The arrival of a comet within view of Earth is an event of international importance.  Witness the huge media attention that the Haley or Hale-Bopp have had when they have come within view The sight of these amazing space objects is simultaneously frightening and awe-inspiring.  

Above all, it is during these comet viewings that the astronomer comes out in all of us.  But what is a comet?  Where did it come from?  And how does it get that magnificent tail?

We should never confuse comets with asteroids.  Asteroids are small space rocks that come from an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.  While still quite stunning to see, they pale in comparison to the arrival of a comet.  Asteroids also have received considerable study by the scientific community.  

Not as much is known about comets.  As a rule, comets are considerably larger than asteroids.  The composition of a comet is a mixture of nebulous, gasses, ice, dust and space debris.  One scientist called the composition of a comet as similar to a “dirty snowball” because the composition is so diverse and changeable.  The center or nucleus of a comet is usually quiet solid but the “snowball” materials often create a “cloud” around that nucleus that can become quite large and that extends at great lengths behind the comet as it moves through space.  That trailing plume is what makes up the comet’s magnificent tail that makes it so exciting to watch when a comet comes within view of Earth.

The origins of comets are similarly mysterious.  There are a number of theories about where they come from but it is clear that they originate from outside our solar system, somewhere in deep space.  Some have speculated they are fragments left over from the organization of planets that get loose from whatever gravitational pull and are sent flying across space to eventually get caught up in the gravity of our sun bringing them into our solar system.  

Another theory is that they come from a gaseous cloud called the Oort cloud which is cooling out there after the organization of the sun.  As this space debris cools, it gets organized into one body which then gathers sufficient mass to be attracted into the gravity of our solar system turning into a fast moving comet plummeting toward our sun.  However, because of the strong gravitational orbits of the many planets in our solar system, the comet does not always immediately collide with the sun and often takes on an orbit of its own.  

The life expectancy of comets varies widely.  Scientists refer to a comet that is expected to burn out or impact the sun within two hundred years as a short period comet whereas a long period comet has a life expectancy of over two hundred years.  That may seem long to us as earth dwellers but in terms of stars and planets, this is a very short life as a space object indeed.  

Scientists across the globe have put together some pretty impressive probes to learn more about comets to aid our understanding of these visitors from beyond.  In 1985, for example, the United States put a probe into the path of the comet Giacobini-Zinner which passed through the comet's tail gathering tremendous scientific knowledge about comets.  Then in 1986, an international collation of scientists was able to launch a probe that was able to fly close to Haley’s comet as it passed near Earth and continue the research.

While science fiction writers and tabloid newspapers like to alarm us with the possibility of a comet impacting the earth, scientists who understand the orbits of comets and what changes their paths tell us this is unlikely.  That is good because some comets reach sizes that are as big as a planet so that impact would be devastating.  For now, we can enjoy the fun of seeing comets make their rare visits to our night sky and marvel at the spectacular shows that these visitors from beyond put on when they are visible in the cosmos.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Viewing Deep Sky Objects and Comets

Cygnus Wall - Photo: Wikipedia
Deep sky objects are usually located outside our solar system.  The listing includes star clusters, nebulae, galaxies, and multiple stars.  There is also a list of 110 objects on Messier's list that you can try to locate.  The key to viewing all these heavenly bodies is to go outside on a really dark night and you must have a large telescope (one which an aperture that is greater than six inches).  Light pollution filters may also help improve your view.

What looks like one star in the sky actually becomes two or three when looking through your telescope.  There is a four-part star in Orion's Nebula.  There are also stars that brighten and dim as you watch them over time.  These are called Variable Stars.

Star clusters are thousands of stars grouped together.  They create a spectacular view when looking through a small telescope.  An example of this is the Pleiades.  This is a group of seven bright stars in the Taurus constellation that can be seen with the naked eye.  But once you view them through the telescope, you will find there are thousands of stars in the cluster.

Large gas and dust clouds in space are called Nebulae.  An emission nebula will produce light where a dark nebula will absorb the light.  They can be a challenge to find.

Galaxies have massive numbers of stars that are held together by gravity and are usually found in clusters.  They come in many shapes and sizes – spiral, barred, elliptical, and sometimes irregular shaped.  They appear as faint, fuzzy patches of dust.  

Comets are fascinating to watch as they travel across the sky.  They develop tails and can change brightness as they get closer to the sun.  Not all comets will look the same either.  They may brighten or darken depending on where in the sky you locate them.

Monday, October 9, 2017

MOON Gazing

Moon Gazing - Photo:
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 backyard.

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 another 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.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Shooting Stars

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.

Photo of a part of the sky during a meteor sho...
Photo of a part of the sky during a meteor shower over an extended exposure time. 
The meteors have actually occurred several seconds to several minutes apart. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 earth's 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 after the constellation it is nearest to.  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.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017


English: Principle of operation of an equatori...
The principle of operation of an equatorial mount to keep a telescope pointing
in the same direction. The black spots denote rotation axes seen end-on.
The green telescope is rotated at the same rate as the earth but in the
opposite direction, while the red telescope is not driven.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Astrophotography can be a rewarding pastime for some beginner astronomers.  Conventional 35mm cameras, Schmidt cameras, and CCD or Digital cameras can be used to take your spectacular pictures.  

The right pieces are needed to make this a success.  You will need a shutter cable for the 35mm, an equatorial telescope mount to help with tracking your object for up to an hour sometimes.  A “T” mount to help align the camera with the eyepiece holder, and a guiding eyepiece to help keep your object in the center of your frame. 

There are many ways to pursue this hobby.  One is by using a camera mounted to the side of the telescope.  Another has the camera on the back of the telescope, using the scope as a guide.  The last is to use a camera that is attached to a movable mount on a tripod.  If you use these, please make sure your camera is steady and firmly attached with no vibrations or shaking. 

If you are just starting out, take your digital camera and select some constellations to snap.  To set your digital camera up, check your aperture and sensitivity settings.  Also, check your shutter speed.  All of these should be set to where more light can be focused especially when taking pictures at night.

Focusing means doing the manual focus on the camera or digging through the many menus until you find the right one and set it to what you want.  Then try to shoot something far away to see if the setting you programmed works.

White balancing is usually by default.  At night, the default setting will the sky to a brown-reddish color.  If you are going to incorporate long exposures of the night sky, try setting the balance to Tungsten.


After you take several pictures, transfer them from the camera onto the computer.  Sometimes they come up grainy, try reducing the size down by increments and you should soon have a clear picture.

Sunday, July 9, 2017


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.

243 Ida and its moon Dactyl. Dactyl is the fir...
243 Ida and its moon Dactyl. Dactyl is the first satellite of an asteroid to be discovered. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

243 Ida and its moon Dactyl. Dactyl is the first satellite of an asteroid to be discovered. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Pictures in the Sky - ASTRONOMY

One of the earliest activities we engaged in when we first got into astronomy is the same one we like to show our children just as soon as their excitement about the night sky begins to surface.  That is the fun of finding constellations.  But finding constellations and using them to navigate the sky is a discipline that goes back virtually to the dawn of man.  In fact, we have cave pictures to show that the more primitive of human societies could “see pictures” in the sky and ascribe to them significance.

The Big Dipper constellation, where Hubbard sa...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Constellations also have been important in culture and navigation long before we had sophisticated systems of navigation.  Early explorers, particularly by sea, relied exclusively on the night sky to help them find their way to their destination.  In fact, when “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492” and “discovered” America, he could not have done it without astronomy and the help of navigation of the cosmos, much of which is made possible because of the important constellations.  

When learning to find the great constellations in the sky, we use the “find one, you found them all” system.  That is because the easiest constellation to find will guide us to the rest of them.  That constellation is The Big Dipper.  Look to the northern sky on a clear night and widen your field of vision from just focusing on one star and it will pretty much jump out at you.  In will look like a big kitchen pot or ladle, right side up in the fall, upside down in the spring.

When you have the big dipper under control, you can pretty easily find the North Star.  This is the star that those ancient sailors depended on the most to find their way to land.  Start with the far edge of the bowl of the Big Dipper, the side that is opposite the handle.  There are two stars that make up that side of the bowl.  So start at the bottom of the pot and mentally draw a line to the top star of the bowl.  These two stars are “pointing” to the North Star.  Just keep following that line, curving a bit with the sky and the bright star that you come to is the North Star.  You can impress your friends or family if you know the scientific name for this star is Polaris.

The North Star can then take you to The Little Dipper.  The key here is that Polaris is the tip of the handle of The Little Dipper and the bowl hangs down from the handle like it was hanging up in the kitchen.  Be patient with this one as the stars that make up The Little Dipper are dimmer than The Big Dipper.  But it pretty cool once you find it.

These are the obvious starting places but from The Little Dipper you can find the constellation known as “The Swan” or Cygnus.  Just use the same system you used to find The North Star but continue drawing that line that started in those pointer stars in the bowl of The Big Dipper.  Go about half as far as you went to find Polaris and you are there.  You will see a trapezoid of stars about as big as The Big Dipper.  This trapezoid forms the tail of The Swan.

That line that we are drawing from the pointer stars is our roadmap to another well known constellation which is Cassiopeia.  If you use that line and imagine you are directly under the two pointer stars, you will se a big “W” just off to the left of the line.  This is the constellation Cassiopeia, the wife of the king of Egypt, Cepheus, in Greek mythology.  There are so many more wonderful constellations to find and a good star map can continue your quest.

Like Cassiopeia, all of the constellations have wonderful stories and myths related to Greek culture.  It is just as fun to find the star clusters themselves as it is to enjoy the rich culture related to that constellation.  For all of the signs of the zodiac, for example, there is a related constellation in the sky.  So whether you are serious about astrology or not, its fun to find the constellation that relates to your “sign” (or that of your children) and be able to see how the ancients related to these pictures in the sky.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

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.

English: Pleiades Star Cluster
Pleiades Star Cluster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

MOON Fever

Of all of the celestial bodies that capture our attention and fascination as astronomers, none has a greater influence on life on planet Earth than it’s own satellite, the moon.  When you think about it, we regard the moon with such powerful significance that unlike the moons of other planets which we give names, we only refer to our one and only orbiting orb as THE moon.  It is not a moon.  To us, it is the one and only moon.

Full Moon view from earth In Belgium (Hamois)....
Full Moon view from earth In Belgium (Hamois).
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The moon works its way into our way of thinking, our feelings about romance, our poetry and literature and even how we feel about our day in day out lives in many cases.  It is not only primitive societies that ascribe mood swings, changes in social conduct and changes in weather to the moon.  Even today, a full moon can have a powerful effect on these forces which we acknowledge even if we cannot explain them scientifically.

The most obvious physical phenomenon that is directly affected by the gravity of the moon are the tides of the ocean.  The tides are an integral part of how maritime life is regulated and the comings and goings of the fishing world in coastal communities.  But not very many people know that at certain times of the year when the orbits of the earth bring the sun and moon into right alignment, there can even be tidal effect on inland bodies of water and even on the solid earth.  Eons ago, when the moon’s orbit was closer to the Earth, it was the effect of the moon that caused massive changes in the topography of the land and on continental drift as well.  This reflects the powerful effect the moon has had on both human history and on global geographical history as well.

You may sometimes wonder where the moon came from.  Was it a planet that traveled too close to Earth and was captured in our orbit?  Actually, the prevailing theory of modern science is that the moon was the result of a large scale collision with the still developing Earth early in its development which caused this large “chuck” to spin off into an orbiting body.  This explains the similarity in composition as has been confirmed by many of the moon exploratory space missions that were conducted by NASA.

But this background also highlights another important influence the moon has had on Earth’s development that is seldom recognized and that is the stabilization of Earth’s orbital pattern.  Most know that Earth is not round but more of an egg shaped orb.  To be blunt, the Earth would wobble.  Without the moon’s stabilizing influence, this shape would shift dramatically so the tilt of the axis, that is the polar caps would shift dramatically with each seasonal rotation producing climacteric, changes much more violent and drastic than we are used to.  It is possible that life as we know it could not have developed here had the moon not been there to “keep the Earth in line” and continue to stabilize the orbital position of the Earth so our climate could remain stable and mild.

A third significant influence of the moon comes from that origin as coming from a collision which “ripped” the body of the moon from the developing core of the Earth.  Because of this disruption in how the core of our planet developed, the metals that are usually intact in the core of the planet are actually scattered up and down the geography of the earth in diverse ways.  Usually the metals of the planet are all concentrated deep in the core.  But because of the collision which took the moon out to orbit, metals that have been crucial to the development of our industrial and technological cultures are readily available and easy for use to mine.  This again, is something we can thank the presence of that lovely moon in the sky for.