Posts Tagged 'astronomy'

Keep Looking Up

by Toby J. Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

The week holds a plethora of sky gazing opportunities.

First off, Saturday, September 18th will debut the very first International Observe the Moon Night. The evening is an offshoot of many programs that exist to explore and study Earth’s closest neighbor, including the very successful Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter which has been sending back detailed images of the lunar surface. The moon will be in its waxing gibbous phase on Saturday, moving from a quarter to a full moon by Thursday, the 23rd of September.

As the moon moves through its phases, there will be a few objects competing for your attention in the night sky. Monday evening, September 20th and Tuesday morning, September 21st, will see Jupiter at its closest proximity to Earth in over 40 years. This will make Jupiter the second brightest object in the night sky after the moon. Jupiter will be visible throughout the evening, appearing almost directly overhead at midnight. As you’re looking for Jupiter you may also be able to see Uranus just above the giant planet. Unlike Jupiter, which is visible to the unaided eye, you’ll need a good pair of binoculars or a telescope to make out the tiny blue green Uranus.

If staying up until midnight isn’t your cup of tea, there’s also the chance for some early morning observations over the next few days with Mercury appearing low in the eastern sky about an hour before sunrise. The best days for viewing Mercury will be September 18, 19, & 20th. While Mercury will look like a pinkish colored light to the naked eye, a telescope may allow you to see the planet pass through a quick change of phases similar to those of our much slower moving moon.

Don’t worry if you don’t have your own telescope, because on Friday, September 24th, The Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center, along with the Astronomy Department of Front Range Community College, will host the Star Nights program at the Stargazer Observatory. The event runs from 8:00 to 10:00 PM on Friday evening and will include the StarLab Planetarium program, access to the telescope at the Stargazer Observatory, and other hands-on activities. The program is offered free to the public, although registration is required due to limited availability. To make a reservation, please contact Toby Swaford at 970-416-2705, extension 2.


Star Gazing

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

Jack Horkheimer

The museum community recently lost one of its best spokesmen with the passing of Jack Horkheimer.  For those of you that never had the pleasure of meeting Jack, he was the executive director of the Miami Museum of Science and Space Transit Planetarium.  To me, however, he will always be The Star Hustler, the original title of his series of short presentations on astronomy, which aired on PBS stations beginning in the mid 1970’s.

Growing up in Central Florida, Jack was a big part of my Saturday evening television viewing; his program came on right before Doctor Who, and he would occasionally appear on the pledge drives for my local Public Television station.  Jack Horkheimer always began his show with the phrase, “Greetings, greetings, fellow Star Gazers…,” and just like that we were off on an adventure into the night sky.  Our wanderings never took us far from home; everything that Jack discussed could be seen right from my backyard without the aid of a telescope.

Jack was an advocate for naked-eye astronomy, and he made you want to run outside and check out whatever astronomical event he was describing just by the pure power of his enthusiasm.  He was a nerd way before it was cool, and he delivered astronomy lessons in a folksy, upbeat manner that came from his genuine love for the subject.  The fact that he often shared his stories while perched atop an animated planetary ring just added to his accessibility.

Whenever I present a program at the museum, I think of the folks like Jack Horkheimer that helped me to find the joy of learning, an appreciation for the wonders of our universe; and to always, “Keep looking up”.

Here’s the last video that Jack Horkheimer recorded for his Star Gazer program, scheduled to air this week on PBS stations.

Stars in our eyes: International Astronomy Day celebration

by Terry Burton, Digital Media Coordinator

Stargazer Observatory

This week we’re excited to be celebrating International Astronomy Day with some great programs. Friday night, you can join us at Front Range Community College’s Stargazer Observatory from 8-10 pm to enjoy the views through their 14-inch Celestron telescope. From this grown-up kid who used to mow lawns to save up money to buy her first telescope, I cannot recommend this highly enough! There’s nothing quite like communing with the cosmos through the eyepiece of a telescope. Friday night we’ll also be presenting a StarLab planetarium show at the observatory, and there will be hands-on space activities too. Space is limited (no pun intended), so if you’d like to join us, please register by calling 970-416-2705, ext. 1.

Saturday we have a full slate of International Astronomy Day activities at the Museum. StarLab planetarium shows will be presented at 11:00 am, 1:00 pm, and 2:00 pm, where you can learn about the fascinating myths of the night sky’s constellations while viewing stars projected in a domed theater. Tickets are free with admission and available at the Museum’s front desk on the day of the shows. Members of the Northern Colorado Astronomical Society will also be on hand to display and talk about different types of homemade telescopes between 11 am and 2 pm. You’ll be able to look at our closest star, the sun, through a solar scope, weather permitting. Other hands-on activities will also be offered between 11 am and 2 pm throughout the Museum.

Our close encounter with Mars

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Just a reminder: this week the planet Mars will be closer to Earth than it has been any other time between 2008 and 2014.The planet and its famous ice cap will be visible both through telescopes and binoculars, and to the naked eye.

For a special treat, be sure to watch the skies tomorrow.  On Friday, January 29th, both Mars and the full Moon will be out. Mars will be in opposition to the sun, and the planet and the Moon will rise together.


The planets and “The Planets”

by Jeff Bowell, guest blogger

The beginning of 2010 offers anyone interested in astronomy the opportunity to view several members of our Solar System. At those times when, thanks to snow clouds, the night sky can’t be seen, why not experience the Solar System through the most famous musical depiction of the planets: The Planets, by the English composer with the decidedly non-English name of Gustav Holst.

Your first experience with this music will almost certainly be a memorable one (I’ll never forget the first time I heard it) and, of all of Holst’s works, this is the easiest to find. If your local library has anything by Holst in their “classical” CDs section, they’ll have this.  Also, there are many extracts or full-movement performances available on the internet.

The first-time listener to The Planets will find that much of the music, particularly the first and last movements, sound strangely familiar.  There’s a good reason for this. Many contemporary composers, particularly those who compose music for movies, have borrowed freely and lavishly from The Planets!

The movements as presented in the The Planets – Suite for Large Orchestra, are “Mars, the Bringer of War,” “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” “Mercury, the Messenger,” “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” (or Mirth, as it’s sometimes given), “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” “Uranus, the Magician,” and “Neptune, the Mystic.” The planet (or non-planet) Pluto hadn’t yet been discovered in 1914, when Holst began writing the piece. When Pluto was discovered in 1930, Holst chose not to write an eighth movement for The Planets.

The planets we can see this month won’t follow Holst’s performance order. We’ll start with what can be seen just at or after sunset, since things seen then are the earliest to set and vanish, and then work our way eastward, or to the left.

JUPITER is visible this month, and will be for part of February as well. To see Jupiter, first determine where to see the sunset from your location. Go outside maybe half an hour after the sun’s gone down, and face where the sunset was. If you look halfway up the sky and just s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y to the left, you’ll see what looks like a bright, solitary “star.” That “star” is the planet Jupiter, the largest of the planets in our Solar System and the quickest to disappear into the little bit of light still present from the set sun. If you observe Jupiter through a small telescope or binoculars held steadily (using a tripod, or resting your arms on a car roof helps), you might see several tiny star-like points of light lined up on either side of the planet, and if you look again in two or three nights, you’ll see that these lights will have shifted position. The lights are actually several of Jupiter’s moons, named the “Galilean” moons, since the astronomer Galileo was the first to see them and determine what they were.

Holst was inspired by the astrological traditions associated with the various planets as he composed the movements of The Planets. “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” brims with good feeling and merriment, an appropriate portrayal of Jupiter, who was depicted astrologically as rousing and roistering. The contrasting slow section in the middle of the movement has a hymn-like quality to it, and indeed later was used as a hymn in England (rather to Holst’s disapproval), with the words “I Vow to Thee, My Country.”

NEPTUNE is, sadly, never visible to the naked eye and you’ll need a fairly large telescope to see it, but it’s just 2 degrees to the lower right of Jupiter, shifting to the lower left as the month progresses. Even through very powerful telescopes Neptune can be hard to spot, so don’t be disappointed if you can’t see it. Instead, I’ll dare any first-time listener of The Planets to listen to “Neptune, the Mystic,” the movement written about the most mysterious and distant planet known in Holst’s time, in a darkened room. That’s all I’ll say about it, except to invite you to let me know, via the comments section of this post, what you thought if you’re brave enough to try!

URANUS, the farthest planet that can be seen without a telescope, can be found just one constellation to the east (or the left) of Jupiter. It’ll be passing in front of the constellation Pisces, the Fishes, by mid-January. You’ll need a star chart (available at the Museum’s front desk, or check online) to find the “Circlet” portion of faint Pisces, but Uranus will be just below that particular group of stars. If you’ve got 7X50 binoculars, you might be able to see the planet look like a blue-green disc, with the color coming from clouds filled with tiny methane crystals.

“Uranus, the Magician” is one of the funnier moments of The Planets, as the magician of Holst’s imagination is rather something of a bumbler. After a bombastic introduction, the music starts off in a galumphing way. The piece sounds similar to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas, the music Disney used for Mickey Mouse and the magic brooms in the film Fantasia. Gustav Holst’s daughter Imogene stated that, to her knowledge, her father never had heard the Dukas work at the time he wrote The Planets, and that might indeed be true, but I’d wager that one piece might well remind you of the other.

MARS is easily seen low in the east after sunset. Distinctly reddish-orange, Mars will be passing in front of the constellation Cancer, the Crab, and will be closest to Earth in its orbit (and therefore, its brightest) on January 29th, the same night that a full moon will appear to be passing the planet. By midnight, Mars will be high in the southern sky, and will have dropped to the westward in the hours before sunrise.

The movement “Mars” opens The Planets, and is remarkable in how brutally repetitive and mechanical-sounding the rhythm that underlies the music is. Holst composed “Mars” just months before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the act that led to World War I – what the British called “The Great War.” The mechanical nature of the piece seems to anticipate the mechanized warfare that would soon begin. This is powerful, frightening music.

We’ll look at Venus, Saturn and Mercury in the next posting. In the meantime, I hope that, along with getting outside and seeing the planets of January for yourselves, you’ll have the opportunity to hear the music Gustav Holst is most remembered for, even though paradoxically, he didn’t at all consider it his best work.

As always, Good seeing (and good listening)!

Blue shadows around the Front Range

by Jeff Bowell, guest blogger

Sometimes, shadows aren’t black.

I was reminded of this during my career as a musician with many, many hours spent on stage. Some stages would have overhead banks of lights, and these lights could produce shadows of the “opposite” color. White lights, of course, produced black shadows, but if the overhead lights were an intense red, your hand held over a white page of music would produce a dark green shadow.

Image from

The opposite applied as well. If the overhead lights were green, a faint but still noticeable red shadow would appear on a white surface. Strong purple lights would yield a faint yellow shadow, and an orange light left a shadow that was distinctly blue. And an orange light left a shadow that was distinctly blue.

Actually, blue shadows are something that residents of the Front Range can see for themselves these wintry days, if you know where to look and when.

We think of our sun as just that – the “Sun,” but it’s also a star. Different stars shine at different frequencies of visible color, as well as producing frequencies of color invisible to the human eye, like the ultraviolet that can give you sunburn and fade paint.

If you look up into a clear night sky during the winter, you’ll see stars which, at first, all appear to be the same shade of white. But, if you keep looking for a few minutes you’ll notice that the stars are many different colors: some silvery white, some almost brick red, and some a mix of orange-and-yellow.

Star field photographed by the Hubble telescope, courtesy of the Space Telescope Science Institute

Our sun is one of the latter stars: not so young and hot that it shines brilliant white, but not so old and cool that it shines with a reddish color. No, “Sol” (as it’s known to astronomers) shines a yellowish-white color, and the shadows it gives are an intriguing shade of blue-purple.

This time of year is the best to see the blue shadows because there’s snow on the ground. If you look carefully on a day when the sun is shining, you’ll see that shadows cast onto snow will look just s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y blue. If the same shadow falls onto something not white, like the grey of a street, you’ll see a distinct difference in the shadow’s color.

Image courtesy of Gary Czerwinski

The best time to see this subtle phenomenon is when the sun is low and casting long shadows. Early morning or in the late afternoon before sunset when the skies are clear is best. For example, if you’re driving along a side road, try this: first be sure that it’s safe to briefly glance away from the road. Then, look at the fields on either side of the road. Snow tends to collect along slopes and in hollows, and if there’s fence between the sun and the snow, you’ll see a bluish shadow cast by the fence. Or, if you’re outside shoveling snow on a sunny day, you can see for yourself that your own shadow isn’t black.

Many stars — indeed, more than you might first expect — are “double stars”; that is two stars orbiting around a central point, and they make double shadows. If our yellow-white Sol was half of a double star, say with another star that was red, everything outside would have two shadows: the bluish shadow that Sol produces, and a green shadow from the red star.

Compared to certain more impressive astronomical events, things like eclipses and meteor showers, a colored shadow might seem insignificant. However, there’s the idea in astronomy of how “everything is its own opposite.” When the moon is full, its position relative to the earth is the opposite from where it was when it was new. The full moon is in the part of the sky where the sun will be in six months (and twelve hours!). And, the “color” that makes up a sun-cast shadow is the opposite color of the light given by the sun.

It’s a small and subtle thing, but treat yourself to the blue shadows against the snow. Once you recognize them, you’ll find that you see them more often, and it’s very likely that you’ll find that you enjoy the sight!

Speaking of shadows, the planet Venus sometimes can produce a shadow, although conditions have to be exactly right for this to happen. Venus has to be high and bright, the sun must either have set or not yet risen, the skies must be close to perfectly clear, and a white background (like snow) is essential. Some people have seen a Venus-produced shadow. I haven’t, but when Venus re-appears in the evening skies this winter and spring, and if there’s snow on the ground in April, we might just see it.

As always, “Good seeing.”

The Leonid meteor shower

by Jeff Bowell, guest blogger

Weather and other circumstances permitting, people living in the Front Range might see a remarkable sight in the night sky this week.


Leonid Meteor Shower

The Leonid (“LAY-oh-nid”) meteor shower happens each year at about this time in November, but it’s always a toss-up as to how many meteors, or “shooting stars,” will be visible.  Weather, of course, is a factor – if it’s overcast, we’re out of luck.  However, the forecast for Tuesday night, the best time to see the Leonids, is looking good.

Some meteor showers happen at what most people would consider convenient viewing hours.  The Persied shower, for example, can be seen around August 10th – 12th, and provided you’ve wearing mosquito repellant and have a comfortable chair to sit in while viewing the northeast sky, the show – while always unpredictable – can be quite enjoyable…plus, you don’t have to stay up too late if you don’t want to.

The Leonids, on the other hand, aren’t known for convenience.  The shower occurs when the earth passes through the remnants (left-over debris) of the Comet Tempel – Tuttle.  The comet orbits the sun (as the earth does), but with a much differently shaped orbit.  The earth’s orbit around the sun is almost completely circular, while a comet’s orbit usually looks like a very s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d oval.

Leonid 10

Orbit of Comet Tempel-Tuttle

Comets, a.k.a. “Dirty snowballs”, as astronomer Fred Whipple once described them, leave a trail of cometary debris in their wake along their orbit, and the earth passes through this debris trail twice yearly.  There’s a part of the sky where the meteors appear to emerge from – astronomers call this the radiant.  For the Leonids, the radiant is within the constellation Leo, the Lion, an easily recognized constellation, once you get to know it.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that if you want to see the Leonids at their best, you’ve got to be up during the “wee small hours” of the night.  I’ll get back to that later.

For now, it’d be a good idea for potential meteor shower viewers to get familiar with the constellation Leo.  Many people know the Big Dipper, of course, and some recognize Orion in the winter skies over Colorado.  Both are distinctive constellations.  Leo might well be new to most people, but it, too, has properties that make it easily recognized.


Constellation Leo


Constellation Leo

If you do a search online along the lines of “Constellation Leo”, you’ll find several examples (as I just did) of how the constellation appears in the night sky.  The most distinctive part of it is that portion representing the Lion’s head.  This “asterism” (not a constellation in itself) is to the right (west) of the constellation and resembles a “backwards question-mark” or “sickle.”  It’s easy to spot.  Other online sources (check for “Leonid meteor shower”) will give suggestions as for times you can see the shower, but no matter what happens, if you want to see it you’re either going to have to get up early  or stay up late.

As a long-time stargazer, I’ve got myself up in the middle of the night to see the Leonids.  Only once was it a spectacular display.  However, there have been some amazing displays recorded.  One Leonid shower in the early 1800s that was seen from New York State, was described by a viewer this way:

“…The stars fell like snowflakes in a blizzard.”


Leonid Meteor Shower

That’s probably not what’s going to happen this time, but astronomers believe that this year’s Leonids may be better than past ones.  North America isn’t the best location to see the meteors at their anticipated peak performance this year, but if you’re both patient and lucky, you might see some falling stars and the occasional “fireball” every few minutes.

No worries about these meteors destroying the earth, though.  The dusty debris left in Temple-Tuttle’s trail is tiny, fluffy stuff; usually no bigger than a grain of sand.  However, if one of these grains gets pulled into the earth’s atmosphere, its brilliant destruction is what we call a “falling” star or a “shooting” star.  They travel around 45 miles per second (or 60+ kilometres per second, if you prefer), slam into the earth’s atmosphere, and burn up many miles above the earth’s surface.  Some hunks of space rock do reach the earth, usually splashing into the oceans and being lost forever, but the Leonids aren’t robust enough to do this.

If you’re interested in seeing what you can see of this year’s Leonids, here’s what to do.

1.)  Try, if possible, to find a place with dark skies.  If you’re looking at Leo from in or around Ft. Collins, you’ll be looking high up in the southern sky…and that means that the lights from Denver south of town will wash out much of the darkness.  Even so, Leo is easy to spot from Ft. Collins.

2.)  Dress warmly.  Stargazing is the coldest pastime going, even colder than ice fishing.

3.)  Bring a chair, preferably one that reclines.  You won’t need equipment like telescopes, binoculars, or anything of that sort for meteor watching, though equipment like a thermos bottle of coffee or cocoa might be welcome.

4.)  Find Leo, position your chair (as time passes, you might want sometimes to shift your chair’s position as the earth rotates), get comfortable, and pick out a region of the sky just slightly to the back (east) of the aforementioned “Sickle.”

5.)  Enjoy – I hope!

Images: Isle of Sky Astronomy, Night Sky Hunter, European Space Agency, Armagh Observatory, Lowell Observatory

Celebrate Colorado Astronomy Day this Saturday!

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

The other evening, my 3-year-old daughter announced that she wanted to stay awake to watch the sun come up. She would be “patient” (her word) and sit, waiting for the sunrise. I suggested she take a nap to help pass the time because the sun wouldn’t rise again for at least 10 hours. Ultimately, she was making a bid to delay bedtime. She asked me lots of questions: “Where is the sun right now?” “What is a planet?”  “Where did the moon go?” I discovered that while explaining astronomy to a toddler has certain challenges, I’m thrilled that she is interested in space and I want to do everything I can to encourage her curiosity.


On Saturday, we’ll celebrate Colorado Astronomy Day here at the Museum. Some people wonder how we can explore astronomy during the day, but it’s quite easy. In fact, the closest star to our own planet can only be seen during the day! If you’re baffled by that statement, then you must have forgotten that our Sun is a star. Members of the Northern Colorado Astronomy Society will be here Saturday, one of whom has a sun scope – we can actually view the sun up-close by peering through this special instrument! The photosphere (visible surface of the sun) is covered with interesting structures, including sunspots and granules, which can be seen with the naked eye.

Planetariums are the other way to study astronomy during the day and lucky us, we have one! We can project the night sky in our domed StarLab theater to help visitors learn the locations of constellations while listening to the both the mythology stories behind the constellations and the science of the stars that form them. See our website calendar to get all the information about this Saturday’s events.

So, whatever happened to Pluto, anyway?

by Jason Wolvington, Associate Director, Discovery Science Center

I’m still bitter.

OK, so maybe “bitter” isn’t the right word. Heartbroken? Disappointed? It’s probably more that I’ve always known Pluto as a planet, and so that’s how it always will be in my mind. That’s legit, right?

Actually, no … it’s not.

Back in August 2006, at a meeting of the International Astronomical Union, astronomers made a final decision about the definition of a planet. For an object to be considered a “planet,” it needs to meet these three requirements:

  • It must orbit around the Sun.
  • It must have enough mass and gravity to pull itself into a nearly-round shape, called hydrostatic equilibrium.
  • It needs to have “cleared out” its orbit, meaning it has to have joined with or consumed all smaller objects in its orbit.

From this, Pluto meets only 2 of the 3 requirements – it has not “cleared out” the neighborhood of its orbit. Simply put, Pluto is just one object within the Kuiper Belt, a large collection of celestial bodies similar to an asteroid belt. And wiithin the Kuiper Belt, there are several objects, some of which are even larger than Pluto. So Pluto is not a classified as a planet anymore, just another object in the Kuiper Belt. Make sense?

So what does this mean? In a nutshell, it means that science is doing its job.

Science is a way of seeking to understand our natural world, through observation, experiments, and analysis. Science relies on examining evidence and interpreting its findings through logic; it is tested, repeated, and verified. A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation for a set of phenomena that has been tested and verified.

And that’s the key: while scientific theories may be well-supported by evidence, they can be modified or replaced as new evidence appears. Science changes – and it should! – as new discoveries are made.

A perfect example: for thousands of years, people believed the Earth was stationary – and flat! – located at the center of the universe. It wasn’t until scientists such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton – using a combination of advances in mathematics and developments in telescope optics – developed a new understanding of astronomy and physics that led to new discoveries. You know, things like correctly recognizing that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and that all other planets are ruled by the same physical laws as the Earth.

And that’s what happened to our now non-planet Pluto. As scientific discoveries were made, science adapted … and the Solar System now has 8 planets. It’s not so much that Pluto was demoted, but rather scientific thought refined the classification of what constitutes a planet. And unfortunately, Pluto no longer meets the requirements.

Pluto is now considered a dwarf planet, along with Ceres, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake,  all found in the Kuiper Belt. Will it someday regain its planetary status? Perhaps. But with dwarf planet Eris being larger than Pluto, we may have to adjust from the current 8 planets to 10.

And that would just be crazy, right?!

Postscript: It’s only appropriate that we pay homage to Venetia Phair, who, as an astronomy-loving 11-year old in 1930, proposed the name “Pluto” for the newly-discovered “Planet X.” She passed away on April 30th, at the age of 90.

March 2023

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