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Driftless Dark Skies: Home in the Milky Way

September 2, 2016 by John Heasley

“Why should I feel lonely?  Is not our planet in the Milky Way?

Henry David Thoreau, Walden 

Photo by Josh Thompson of Driftless Hills Photography

Photo by Josh Thompson of Driftless Hills Photography

Look up into the September sky and you will see our Milky Way flowing across.  It starts in the northwest where you find Perseus the Hero, now safe from the gorgon and sea monster; passes through Cassiopeia the Queen, Perseus’s mother-in-law; flows high overhead where Cygnus the Swan and Aquila the Eagle are flying and Delphinus the Dolphin jumps out of the stream; and arches down to the southwest where Sagittarius, the centaur, still shoots his arrows.  It helps to see Sagittarius as a teapot with handle, lid, and spout.  Look just above where the tea is pouring and you will be looking into the center of our galaxy.  Look just to the right to find ruddy Mars and creamy Saturn, bright planets shining in the Milky Way just as Thoreau reminded us.

Perseus, Cassiopeia, Cygnus, Aquila, Delphinus, and Sagittarius are constellations, patterns of bright stars created by the people of the Fertile Crescent and Mediterranean.  Other people on our planet pictured “dark constellations” in the Great Rift of the Milky Way where the stars are hidden by dust clouds.  The Incas of South American saw llamas and serpents.  The Aborigines of Australia found an emu.  I am looking forward to learning more about these dark constellations at the November 4 meeting of Iowa County Astronomers in Dodgeville.  You can also see the Milky Way at two public programs this month: September 10 (8:30) with Starsplitters of Wyalusing and September 30 (7:00) with Kickapoo Valley Reserve.

For millennia, humans could only see thousands of stars, even under the darkest of skies.  The Milky Way appeared cloudy.   Then in 1610, Galileo turned his telescope to the Milky Way and discovered that the nebulosity was actually millions of stars never before imagined.  In Siderius Nuncius (Starry Messenger) he shares the awe and wonder that comes from resolving the nature of the Milky Way and discovering that “the galaxy is, in fact, nothing but congeries of innumerable stars.”

Now we know that there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy and that it is just one of the hundreds of billions of galaxies in our cosmos.  The beauty of the Scientific Revolution is that you don’t need to trust Galileo.  You can see it for yourself.  While most people now live in places where they cannot see our Milky Way because of light pollution, we still can in the Driftless Area.   Find a dark spot on a clear, moon-free night away from the lights of town.  Make yourself comfortable in a reclining chair or lying on a blanket.  Scan the Milky Way with binoculars and see the millions of stars.  Create your own constellations, find your own animals in the dark rifts, and make your myths.  Be at home in our Milky Way.

Every star we see in the night sky is part of our galaxy.  We are in the Milky Way, so we can never see it all at once, just as we can never see a forest for the trees.  Imagine the Milky Way as a Frisbee.  When we see it streaming across the sky, we are looking into the central disk where the stars are so numerous and distant that they flow together.  When we look in other directions, we are looking out of the disk and can more easily see the individual stars in our neighborhood.

One of my favorite places to enjoy the Milky Way is at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, 8569 acres of public property in Vernon County co-managed by a citizen board on behalf of the Ho-Chunk Nation and State of Wisconsin. Like many places in the Driftless Area, it has dark skies and limited light pollution.   Yet, I observe there with a sense of nostalgia. You can feel the homesickness and yearning to regain what has been lost. I visit the rock shelters and remember that this was home to the Ho-Chunk and others before they were displaced by European arrivals. I look at the names on the wall of the Visitor Center and remember the families who lost their homes to make way for a dam project in the 1960s. I see a little sky glow from La Farge and Ontario and remember that people in urban areas can no longer see our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

But with the nostalgia comes hope.  The Ho-Chunk Nation is now able to protect and share their home on the Reserve.  Many of the displaced farm families are now active in preserving and educating others about their former home.  KVR staff and educators are working to protect and let visitors enjoy the dark skies.  As we move into autumn, I think of it as a homecoming.  Welcome home to our Milky Way.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley. 

Photo of Milky Way streaming over the Wisconsin River at Lone Rock is courtesy of Driftless Hills Photography. Thanks, Josh! Give his page a like for more amazing photos.

 

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer Triangle

July 6, 2016 by John Heasley

As darkness falls this month, watch for three shining stars emerging in the east.   They are the brightest stars in three separate constellations, but together they form an asterism (a star pattern) known as the Summer Triangle.  They cover an area of sky larger than your outstretched hand. 

Milkyway_Swan_PanoramaVega is the highest of the three and is the main star of the constellation Lyra the Lyre.  The light you see left Vega back in the spring of 1991.  Below and to the right of Vega is Altair in the constellation Aquila the Eagle.  It is closer to Earth, and its light has been journeying since the fall of 1999.  As the sky darkens, watch for our home galaxy, the Milky Way, passing between the two stars. 

There is a story of the two stars told in Japan, China, and Korea.  Altair, a poor herdsman, falls in love with Vega, a princess.  Vega’s father places them on opposite sides of the heavenly river, the Milky Way.  Once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month, the Emperor shows mercy and Altair is allowed to cross the river to visit with Vega. 

The third star of the Summer Triangle is Deneb.  Look for it between and to the left of Vega and Altair.  Deneb is the tail of Cygnus the Swan.  You can make out the outstretched wings of the Swan just to the right of Deneb reaching up and down.  Its long neck reaches almost as far as a line traced between Vega and Altair.  I imagine Cygnus as flying over the Milky Way.  Deneb is one of the farthest and most luminous stars you can see with your naked eyes.   It is over 200 times larger and 250,000 times brighter than our Sun.  The light you see left Deneb at least 1425 years ago. 

There are three planets to go along with the three stars.  Jupiter is bright in the southwest as night falls.  The Waxing Crescent Moon passes by Jupiter on July 8 and 9.  Mars and Saturn are glowing in the south just above Scorpius the Scorpion.  The Waxing Gibbous Moon passes by Mars on July 14 and by Saturn on July 15.  Just below Saturn, look for Antares whose name means “rival of Mars”. 

You will have a chance to see these stars and planets through a telescope when Starsplitters have a public program at Wyalusing State Park on July 9 (8:30pm) and Northwest Suburban Astronomers have a public program at Wildcat Mountain State Park on July 30 (8:00pm).  Or just enjoy the sight of the three stars and three planets coming out in the dark skies over the Driftless Area. 

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer Stargazing

May 3, 2016 by John Heasley

The warm nights ahead are a great time to get to know the night sky.  There are plenty of stargazers in the Lower Wisconsin Valley and beyond who keep telescopes and would be happy to share a look with you.  If you have been meaning to explore our starry skies, this is your summer. 

Iowa County Astronomers have monthly meetings on May 6, June 3, July 1, August 5, September 2, and October 7.  There’s usually an indoor presentation, and then we head over to Bethel Horizons to view the skies with a wonderful 17 inch Dobsonian telescope.  Everyone is always welcome.  It’s an excellent time to try out different telescopes and ask questions.  See icastro.org for monthly updates.  ICA will also be sharing a public program at Governor Dodge in August. 

Universe in the Park expands the Wisconsin Idea by making the boundaries of the university not just the boundaries of the state but the boundaries of the universe.  UW-Madison astronomy students visit state parks to give talks, answer questions, and share telescope viewing.  They will do several programs at Governor Dodge and Blue Mounds and at state parks across the state.  Full schedule is at their website. 

Northwest Suburban Astronomers will be at Wildcat Mountain on July 30, 8-10pm.  This friendly group escapes the light pollution of their homes outside Chicago to enjoy the dark skies of our Driftless Area.  For over a week, they create an astronomy village in the group campground where they welcome the public for a night of memorable stargazing through their amazing telescopes,  This year’s topic is solar eclipses, especially the solar eclipse visible in the United States in August 2017. 

Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and will be having a Solstice Stargaze on June 18 and a Perseid Meteor Shower Party on August 12.  Enjoy hiking or canoeing during the day and astronomy at night. 

Starsplitters of Wyalusing has public programs at Wyalusing State Park on May 28, June 4, July 9, August 6, September 10, and October 1.  The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then goes outdoors to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes.   

While you are looking ahead to summer stargazing, don’t miss the sky events of May.  There will be a meteor shower (Eta Aquarids) on May 5.  That’s close to the New Moon, so skies should be dark.  Mercury crosses the face of the Sun on May 9.  You can marvel at this transit with Iowa County Astronomers at Governor Dodge (Twin Valley Picnic Site) from sunrise to 2pm.  Look for Jupiter near the Waxing Gibbous Moon on May 14.  Mars and Earth will be at their closest (just 47 million miles on May 30) since 2005.  Mars rises with Scorpius just after dusk and is bright and beautiful all night long.  Mars, Saturn, and the Moon will all be clustered together the nights of May 21 and 22.  Enjoy the views! 

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

Driftless Wisconsin Winter Fun

January 5, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

After a momentary lapse in memory as to what season comes next, Mother Nature has finally given us winter.  While sunny skies and 50 degree weather in December energized the spirit, it confused the brain, which expects to see snow outside the window this time of year.

Problem solved.  Tree limbs are draped with snow.  Landscapes are framed in white.  A layer of ice creeps across the Mississippi River. Eagles perch in barren treetops eyeing open water for their daily meal. And my barren head is feeling a bit drafty.

Our one-year-old dog Fargo and my son’s new puppy Uecker find another gear in snow, racing and sliding around like kids in a splash pool. They may not have the wherewithal to build a snowman, but they have the right idea: winter is fun.

A Driftless Wisconsin winter is fun. With its towering hills and deep valleys, winter becomes a three-dimensional playground for winter outdoor recreation.

Let’s start with the parks.  My wife and I have been taking Fargo up to Wyalusing Park, near Prairie du Chien, for hikes along Mississippi Ridge Trail.  It follows the bluff top overlooking the Mississippi River, and affords quite a view.  Turkey Hollow Trail is another favorite, routing through a tall stand of pine trees for a nice change of scenery during the winter.

The Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge has a wide variety of trails for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or hiking to those remote locations ideal for spotting and photographing winter wildlife. A designated trial is also available for snowmobile enthusiasts, which is groomed from December 15 to March 31. 

Winter events are another way to experience Driftless Wisconsin.  The Kickapoo Valley Reserve will hold its annual Winter Festival on Saturday, January 9. The family event features skating, sledding, skiing, snow sculpture, ice cave hikes, horse-drawn bobsleds, sled dog races, and, well, just about every conceivable way to enjoy winter!  The Reserve will also hold its popular Dam Phunski cross-country ski event on Saturday, January 23.  Registration is required and has competition for all age groups.

ski jumperThe annual Snowflake Ski Jumping Tournament near Westby will be held on February 5th and 6th.  The competition attracts jumpers from around the world to the 118 meter hill.  Watch as world-class jumpers take off into the air over Timber Coulee Valley at speeds of over 50 mile per hour.  Don’t worry, participation is not required.

The scenery. The parks. The activities.  The events. They all conspire to make a memorable winter getaway to Driftless Wisconsin.  Winter has finally arrived and it’s time to have fun. 

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer Stargazing

May 10, 2015 by John Heasley

“The best thing that we’re put here for’s to see;

The strongest thing that’s given us to see with’s

A telescope. Someone in every town

Seems to me owes it to the town to keep one.

In Littleton it may as well be me.”

Robert Frost “The Star-Splitter”

There are plenty of stargazers in the Driftless Area who keep telescopes and would be happy to share a look with you. If you have been meaning to explore our starry skies, this is your summer.

Starsplitters of Wyalusing has public programs at Wyalusing State Park on May 23, June 13 and 27, July 11 and 25, August 15 and 29, September 12, and October 10. The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then goes outdoor to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes. They take their name from the Robert Frost poem, though no houses were burned down to get the insurance money to acquire their telescopes.

Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and will be having a Solstice Stargaze on June 20 and a Perseid Meteor Shower Party on August 12. Enjoy hiking or canoeing during the day and astronomy at night.

Northwest Suburban Astronomers will be at Wildcat Mountain State Park on August 8. This friendly group escapes the light pollution of their homes outside Chicago to enjoy the dark skies of our Driftless Area. For over a week, they create an astronomy village in the group campground where they welcome the public for a night of memorable stargazing through their amazing telescopes.

Universe in the Park expands the Wisconsin Idea by making the boundaries of the university not just the boundaries of the state but the boundaries of the universe. UW-Madison astronomy students visit state parks to give talks, answer questions, and share telescope viewing. They will be at Governor Dodge on May 23, July 4, September 5, and October 13 and at Blue Mounds on June 13 and August 1.

Iowa County Astronomers have monthly meetings on May 15, June 12, July 10, August 7, September 11, and October 9. There’s usually an indoor presentation, and then we head over to Bethel Horizons to view the skies with a wonderful 17 inch Dobsonian telescope. Everyone is always welcome. It’s a great time to try out different telescopes and ask questions.  ICA will also be sharing a public program at Governor Dodge on August 22.

Don’t miss Mercury making an appearance in the western sky the first two weeks of May and Venus close to the waxing crescent moon on May 21.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.

“Driftless Dark Skies” appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

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