Driftless Dark Skies: State of the Milky Way

February 1st, 2018 by John Heasley

It is good to know and love our home. We live in the Driftless Area of North America on Earth. Our planet is just one of many worlds circling that one star we call the Sun. Our Solar System, full of planets, moons, asteroids and comets, is one of hundreds of billions in the Milky Way. Our galaxy, full of stars, clusters, nebulas and dark matter, is one hundreds of billions in our cosmos. And we get to see our many homes in the dark skies above the Driftless. They are all part of an amazing ecosystem where galaxies give birth to the stars which fuse the elements which make worlds and life and stargazing possible.

It can be challenging at first to see the Milky Way because we live in the midst of it. Every star we see at night is part of our home galaxy. It is shaped like a dvd with us about halfway from the center, so we see many more stars when we look along the thick part of the disk than when we look through the thin part of it. On summer nights, the night side of Earth faces our galactic center and we see many more stars. On winter nights, we look away from the center of our galaxy and we see fewer stars.  But we can still catch sight of our Milky Way on the moonless evenings of February 3-17. You can trace a cloudy band rising in the south, arcing high overhead above the head of Orion, and then falling through the “W” of Cassiopeia in the north.

You are invited to explore the past, present, and future of our home galaxy with guest speaker Professor Bob Benjamin at the February 16 meeting of Iowa County Astronomers (7 pm at QLF Agronomy Research Center 3625 State Hwy 23 north of Dodgeville). The event is free and open to the public. Dr. Benjamin is a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and a visiting professor at UW-Madison. For the last decade, he has been part of a team using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to study the structure and star formation of the Milky Way.  He is happy to report that “the state of the Galaxy is strong!” He will start with a review of the history of Galactic structure: what do we know and why do we know it? Then, he will discuss some of the major advances in the last few years including some mysteries about the Milky Way that he’s currently trying to resolve. Come and see our home for yourself!

You can enjoy stargazing and at Wyalusing State Park on Saturday, February 17 (6-9pm) for a winter candlelight event. Depending on the amount of snow there will be hiking, cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, and astronomy viewing with the StarSplitters. Enjoy the torch-lit trail as it follows Whitetail Meadows Trail through prairie and woods. Enjoy stargazing in the crisp cool winter air. Telescopes and astronomy information will be presented by the StarSplitters. There will be bonfires and refreshments available to warm you up. All activities will start at the Larry Huser Astronomy Building. A park sticker is required and can be purchased at the park office.

There will be more stargazing and snowtrekking at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on Saturday, February 24 (5-7pm) for Winter Trails by Light of the First Quarter Snow Moon.  We will gather at sunset at the Visitor Center and hike down to the Old 131 Trail.  KVR astronomy educators will have a telescope and binoculars for you to enjoy the craters, mountains, maria, and highlands of the Moon.  We will also take a look at star clusters and constellations as we enjoy the sight, sounds, and smells of the moonlit world.  This will involve some moderate hiking in the dark on uneven and possibly slippery surfaces.  Participants have the option of remaining at the Visitor Center.  Event is free but please register so that you get weather updates.

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.