Hey! Want to Visit an Observatory?

April 17, 2008

In just a little over a week, the 2008 Public Night Season will begin at the James C. Veen Observatory, located south of Lowell, Michigan. If you haven’t been there before, or it has been a while, you are in for a great experience and a fun time.

Twice a month (if the skies are clear) – beginning at the end of April and continuing through the end of October – the members of the local astronomy club (Grand Rapids Amateur Astronomical Association, or GRAAA) open the facilities to the public for tours, A/V presentations, and the opportunity to look at some of the wonders of the night sky. Some of the objects including the Moon and the planets, and even things further out into space: galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae full of gas and dust.

Listed below are the dates of the 2008 Public Observing Sessions, along with the times the observatory will be open…

April 26 – 9:00pm until 12:00am
May 10 – 9:00pm until 12:00am
May 31 – 9:00pm until 12:00am
June 14 – 9:30pm until 12:00am
June 28 – 9:30pm until 12:00am
July 12 – 9:30pm until 12:00am
July 26 – 9:30pm until 12:00am
August 9 – 9:00pm until 12:00am
August 30 – 9:00pm until 12:00am
September 13 – 8:00pm until 11:00pm
September 27 – 8:00pm until 11:00pm
October 11 – 7:30pm until 10:30pm
October 25 – 7:30pm until 10:30pm

Although we have these dates listed as being open, we will be open if the sky is clear only. Really, you can’t see much through a telescope if it’s raining.

So if you are interested in coming out on one of these nights, your best bet is to visit the club’s website (listed on the right) on the night you wish, and see if we are open. If you’re not near a computer, you can call us at 616.897.7065 and a recorded message will tell you if we are open or not.

The Public Night page on the website has a full schedule, plus some of the featured objects for each session. You will also find detailed information on the Public Nights, plus a FAQ.

It’s a fun time for the whole family. We hope to see you at the observatory this year.


Flip That Light Switch!

March 29, 2008

That’s correct. Turn that light off tonight at 8.00pm (local time).

“Why do that?” you ask. Well, two reasons.

The first is to participate/celebrate “Earth Hour,” a world-wide effort to reduce energy consumption around the globe. It’s the idea of the World Wildlife Fund, who started this in 2007 in Sydney Australia.

Going hand in hand this year is “Lights Out America,” which was started in San Fransisco in an effort to reduce energy consumption, and bring the problems of light pollution to the general public.

Even Google is “going dark” for the day.

So do your part. From 8.oopm to 9.00pm tonight, turn off your lights, unplug any appliances you aren’t using. Turn of the television. Heck, turn off and unplug your computer for an hour! (Yes, you’ll survive an hour without being online). Make a difference in your community.

And if you’re looking for something to do for that hour, go outside if it’s clear and watch the sunset and the stars come out. You’ll be taking part in something wonderful.

For more information…

Earth Hour

Lights Out America  

The Universe (Constellations)

February 19, 2008

The next episode of the amazing series The Universe continues tonight. The new episode is called “Constellations.” Here’s a preview…

A constellation is a group of stars that are connected together to form a figure or picture. These star pictures help organize the night sky and provide a useful tool for astronomers even today. Explore some of the 88 official constellations and learn about some of the highlights of each–like the star that’s due to go supernova in the constellation Orion. Discover the 13th zodiac sign that no one talks about, and find out why Polaris, the North Star, will one day have to surrender its title.

One of the things we do at our observatory during public nights is point out the constellations to the visitors. Did you know that if you know just a bit of the night sky, you can find out which direction you are facing, and where you are on the Earth?

Check local listings for the time of the show (and visit our observatory this year to find out more about the figures in the sky).

The New Year’s Eve Sky

December 31, 2007

If you’re not out partying at midnight, and it’s clear where you are, step outside and take a look at the wonderful panorama that the sky is presenting at midnight.

The Midnight Sky
Click for a larger image

Mars is directly south at the midnight hour, shining with it’s ruddy light upon the winter scene. It is still the brightest object in the current night sky, barely beating out the star Sirius (which lies below Mars, to the lower left of the constellation Orion).

And even though Mars steals the show this year, the “star” of the New Years’ Eve sky belongs to the star Sirius.

Sirius is visible every night during the winter, and is the brightest star in the night sky. It makes it’s travels through the southern sky nightly, following the constellation Orion in the sky. Sirius, the “Dog Star” is part of the constellation “Canis Major”, or the “Big Dog.” The “Little Dog,” or “Canis Minor”, lies above Sirius between it and the constellation Gemini. These two constellations (Canis Major and Minor) are the two faithful dogs which help Orion as he hunts in the night sky.

But it is at midnight on New Years’ Eve that Sirius takes it’s prominent place in the sky.

On December 31st, Sirius reaches upper culmination (the highest point in it’s nightly travels in the sky) at midnight. Now, depending on your location in your local time zone, Sirius may or may not be exactly at its highest point, but on average it is. And, like the ball dropping in Time’s Square, the playing of “Auld Lang Zine”, the toasting of the New Year, Sirius comes by each and every year at this time.

So if it is clear, take your significant other outside and show them the wonderful night sky at midnight. And, while the strains of that classic song waft through the windows, share your New Years’ kiss under the stars. How can you beat that for a romantic setting?

Astronomers Discover a Multiple-Planet Star System

November 6, 2007

Astronomers announced the discovery of a fifth planet orbiting another star. This makes this star system the largest extrasolar planetary system.

The star in question is 55 Cancri, a star in the constellation Cancer that is the same age and mass as our sun. The planet which was newly announced lies in the “habitable zone” around the star, orbiting every 260 days. It is the fourth planet from the star. Now, before you say “hey, it’s another earth-type planet!” be aware that from reports this planet seems to be 45 times the mass of the Earth, and could be more of a Jupiter or Saturn-type gas giant.

Just think. In 1995 the only planets were knew of were the ones orbiting our sun. now, a scant twelve years later, there have been over 250 planets discovered orbiting other stars.

For more information about this, please read the news release at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Google Astronomy

August 22, 2007

There’s a new application for all astronomy enthusiasts and people interested in the night sky, and it comes from the well-known people at Google.

From the same people that brought you Google Earth and Google Mars, comes Google Sky.

All you need is the latest version of Google Earth, and in it you will find a new add-on application that allows you to view the night sky from your location. You can zoom in on galaxies, stars, nebulas, etc. The more you zoom in, the more detail you will see. You can even bookmark constellations and other objects of interest.

So go ahead. Download Google Earth, and start exploring space. And once you do that, go out and see what the real stars look like (which we do at our observatory).

For other views of this application from astronomers, we invite you to read Dr. Pamela Gay’s Star Stryder blog and Dr. Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog.

The Summer Triangle

August 19, 2007

During the year, there are times when the patterns in the sky form recognizable shapes. One of the easiest things to see during the summer months is the Summer Triangle. It is made up of the stars Altair, Deneb, and Vega, three of the brighter stars of the summer sky. Altair is the brightest star in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle; Deneb the brightest star of the constellation Cygnus, the swan, and Vega – the brightest star of the summer skies – in the constellation Lyra, the Lyre.

The Summer Triangle is considered an asterism, which is a pattern of stars which is either part of a whole constellation, or parts of several constellations. The Big Dipper is probably the most famous asterism.

In early summer these stars and their constellations rise before midnight, but during August they are directly overhead in the mid-evening skies, and is still visible low in the northwest before dawn.

The Summer Triangle

Even though it’s the “Summer Triangle”, this asterism is visible from late spring into early winter, but it is most prominent during the summer months. Winter has it’s version of the triangle itself, with the stars Betelgeuse, Procyon, and Sirius.

So whatever the time of year, there’s a triangle above your head at all times. It’s up to you to decide if it’s equilateral, isosceles, or something else.