The Universe (Alien Galaxies)

July 31, 2007

The new episode of The Universe for this Tuesday is “Alien Galaxies.” Here’s a preview…

To know our place in the universe take a look far, far away to the realm of Alien Galaxies. Our galaxy is one of hundreds of billions in the universe. The Milky Way consists of more than a billion stars, our sun being only one of them. Take a view of the universe through the Hubble Space telescope and go back almost all the way to the Big Bang. Cutting-edge computer graphics are used to bring the universe down to earth to show what life would be like on other planets, and to imagine what life forms might evolve in alien atmospheres.

And like before, “check your local listings” for a show time near you. You won’t be disappointed.


July 2007’s Full Moon

July 29, 2007

The full moon for July rides low in the southern skies. It is not as low as the full moon of June, because of two things: the orbit around the earth, and it’s place on the ecliptic (the imaginary line in the sky that the sun follows).

The moon orbits the earth in a relatively even ellipse. The difference between being close to the earth (perigee) and far from the earth (apogee) is a scant 25000 miles (225,700 v. 252,000). So the moon, in it’s 27.32 day orbit around the earth, it stays approximately the same size. However, because it’s orbit is inclined to the ecliptic by 5 degrees, the moon can be above or below the ecliptic, and opposite of the sun.

When the sun is high in the sky (summer for the northern hemisphere) the full moon rides low. When the sun is low in the sky (winter) the full moon is high up in the sky on cold December nights.

Tonight is full moon. The moon will be at its “full” position at 8.48pm EDT, and rise at 9.18pm EDT. This month’s full moon is called th “Buck Moon” as the time when deer get their antlers. It is also called the “Thunder Moon” due to the prevalence of thunderstorms this time of year.

Whatever its name, it shines brightly in the night sky, casting pale shadows upon the earthly scene below, and sometimes bothering the sleep of individuals who don’t have curtains in their bedroom windows.

If you are interested in a nice little program that will tell you the rise and set times of the moon and the sun for your area, check out Moonrise. It was developed by a local doctor. It is shareware, and the proceeds go directly to his children.

Stay tuned next month, as August’s full moon will prove to be quite a treat. More on that later.

Veen Observatory Visitors’ Night for July 28

July 28, 2007

With mostly clear skies tonight (Saturday night) the James C. Veen Observatory – located south of Lowell, MI – will be open for public tours and telescopic observations. Here are the particulars:

Time: 9.30pm – Midnight
Admission: $3 – Adults, $2 – kids 17 and under, under 5 free

Full information on Visitors’ Nights can be found on the Grand Rapids Amateur Astronomical Association website – Just click on the Visitors’ Night link in the menu.

There you will find a map showing directions to the observatory, and a FAQ about visitors’ nights. On the main page of the site, click on the OPEN sign, and you will be taken to a page with particulars about the specific night detailing what objects will be featured through the telescopes.

Tonights main feature will be the planet Jupiter. The solar system’s largest planet hangs low in the southern sky, and a telescope will show clouds bands on the planet, plus four of it’s moons. The other big object of the night will be the nearly full moon, it’s light being obvious as it drowns out dimmer stars. In addition, there will also be selected brighter deep sky objects like star clusters.

If you go out to the observatory, we’d love to hear your thoughts about the experience. You can leave comments here, or drop an email to graaa @

Learn the Sky I

July 26, 2007

Did you ever wonder how people got around “back in the day” before all this technology? Columbus sailed to the New World without satellites, GPS receivers, or especially wireless internet. Magellan didn’t circumnavigate the globe by using Google Maps. They used what they had, especially the sky.

During the day, if you can see the sun, you can pretty much figure out what direction is what. And the same can be done at night. Did you know that if you can see the stars, you can’t get lost? By having a familiarity with the stars of the night sky, you can always tell what direction you are facing, and even know your general place on the earth.

When you were younger, and if you were in the Boy or Girl Scouts, you probably had to learn some of the night sky for a merit badge. Then some people just fell in love with the night sky and learned what they could themselves. That is one reason we astronomers are an adventurous bunch. 🙂

There are several ways to learn your way around the sky, and one of them is on a site which shows you how to identify stars and constellations, and how to find your way around.

There are several online sites to learn the sky, and a great one if you are just starting out is The Night Sky site, which shows some basic “find your way” items of interest. Go ahead and check them out to find “what’s up.” Then, on some clear night during the summer months, come on out to the Veen Observatory during a public viewing session to see the stars for real and up close. One of the features of the public nights are star and constellation tours by the astronomers present.

So go outside and learn the sky. Amaze your friends.

And don’t worry about getting lost. The stars are there to guide you.

The Universe (Saturn: Lord of the Rings)

July 24, 2007

The new episode of The Universe for this Tuesday is “Saturn: Lord of the Rings.” Here’s a preview…

Are the rings of Saturn a real celestial phenomenon or merely a cosmic Illusion? Technology allows the experts to get closer to the furthest planet visible to the naked eye. Old questions are answered and new ones arise. Does Saturn hold the key to Earth’s weather and will one of its moons supply us with all the oil we’ll ever need? Cutting-edge computer graphics are used to show what life would be like on other planets and to imagine what kinds of life forms might evolve in alien atmospheres.

So please make the effort to watch. Just check your listings for when it’s playing, and if you can’t watch it then, use the magic of TiVo, DVR, etc. Heck, even a VCR if you still have one. These shows are worth it.

And as a side note, Saturn is slipping towards the sun from our vantage point, and will shortly be lost in the solar glare. But have no fear, Saturn will be a morning object in a short time.

The “Evening Star” Takes a Bow

July 22, 2007

If it’s clear, go outside just after sunset and take a look at the bright object to the west, and bid it a fond farewell. The Venus is leaving the evening sky soon.

In it’s travels around the sun, Venus spends part of the year in our evening sky, and part of the year in the morning sky. This year Venus has been a staple of the evening twilight since early spring, but in early August the planet slips into the glare of sunset and disappears from our sight, leaving Jupiter as the lone bright planet in the sky.

But take heart. Because of the angle of the ecliptic (the imaginary line the sun and planets travel in the sky) Venus will be quickly rising in the morning sky late in August and be a fixture for the rest of 2007 and much of Spring of 2008.

Sunset Ecliptic
Venus and the Ecliptic at sunset, July 28

Sunset Ecliptic
Venus and the Ecliptic at sunrise, August 28

So if you want to get your last glimpse of Undómiel, the Evenstar, run out and take a peek, before you have to get up really early to see Venus in a month.

One Small Step…

July 20, 2007

Thirty-eight years ago today, we took our first literal steps towards the heavens, as Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed their small, flimsy craft on the surface of the moon.

Apollo 11 (astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins) took off from Cape Canaveral on July 16th on it’s historic mission, and a few days later, after a 240 thousand mile journey, arrived in orbit around the moon. Leaving Collins in the service module, Armstrong and Aldrin left in their Lunar Module for the surface of the small, rocky world 60 miles below them.

Not all went smoothly, as there were several problems along the way. But at 4.18pm EDT on July 20, 1969, mission control in Houston heard these words from space…

Contact light! O.K., engine stop…
Descent engine command override off…
Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

And with those words, two people from the planet Earth were sitting on the Moon, on the Sea of Tranquility.

Hours later, at 10.56pm EDT, Neil Armstrong made his way down the ladder of the craft, stepped onto the lunar surface, and uttered the now-famous words “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” thus beginning the human exploration of the moon.

Armstrong and Aldrin only spent a few hours outside the LM (2.5 hours in all) and not even a whole day sitting on the surface, but they both ended a journey that began with John Kennedy’s famous statement in 1961, and started a journey that would see 10 more humans walk on the moon’s surface over the next three years.

In an interesting bit of trivia, Armstrong and Aldrin received a phone call from President Nixon while they were on the moon. Nixon said that is was”the most historic phone call ever made from the White House.”

From his daily Diary, it states “The President held an interplanetary conversation with Apollo Astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin on the Moon.”

Regarding the phone call, when President Nixon visited the astronauts in their quarantine when they arrived back on earth, he quipped to them “That was a collect call, by the way.”

Here are some links to information about the mission:

Apollo 11 History from NASA
Apollo 11 Mission from Kennedy Space Center
Apollo 11 – Reminiscing About July 20, 1969 (Local Angle)

In an interesting astronomical twist, tonight’s moon is in nearly the same place in the sky, and also about the same phase as it was in 1969. In addition, the planet Jupiter is nearby, just like back then.

Tonight’s sky at 10.56pm

The sky on July 20, 1969

The good news is that even though there has not been a human presence on the moon since December of 1972, there are plans to return. And who knows? Perhaps a young person reading this, or someone you know, will be one of those lucky explorers.

So if you have a chance tonight, go on out and look up at the moon, and imagine the sense of wonder just as others have over the years, hoping for a chance to set foot on another world.