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Driftless Dark Skies: Two Full Moons in a Month

January 4, 2018 by John Heasley

January opens with the Full Wolf Moon and ends with a Total Lunar Eclipse. It is unusual to enjoy two Full Moons in the same month, but it can happen because the time between Full Moons is 29 ½ days. That means no Full Moons for February but two for March. There is no official definition, but folks sometimes like to call the second Full Moon of the month a Blue Moon. But January’s second Full Moon will be more orange or red than blue.

Watch for the Full Moon rising on January 1 in the ENE around 4:35pm in the Driftless. The Ho-Chunk Nation, who lave long called this area home, call this Hųjwičonįną or First Bear Moon. A fun way to predict where it will rise is to turn your back to the Sun before it sets in the WSW at 4:36pm and just follow your shadow. Full Moon is a moment of syzygy when Sun, Earth, and Moon are aligned. The Moon is 100% full at 8:25pm, and you can see it surrounded by the bright stars of the Winter Hexagon with Orion to the right. This Moon is sometimes called a Supermoon. The Moon is a little closer to Earth and appears 7% larger than normal. The size difference is not always noticeable, but the Full Moon rising is awesome.

On January 31 (29 ½ days later), the Full Snow Moon will be darkened as it passes through the shadow of the Earth. You will need to get up early and find a spot with a clear view of the western horizon. Just choose one of our many ridgetops. The eclipse begins at 5:48am as the upper left part of the Moon begins to darken. Binoculars will help you enjoy more of the details and watch the shadow of the Earth move across the plains and mountains and craters of the Moon. While you have them out, slew just to the right of the Moon to be awed by the Pleiades star cluster. The Moon is completely in Earth’s shadow at 6:51am and reaches maximum eclipse at 7:13am. By then it appear orange or red. The Moon sets around7:20am in the WNW just after the Sun rises at 7:18am. Watch again as your shadow from the rising Sun points toward the setting Moon. You should be able to see both at once and find yourself balanced between Sun and Moon on Earth. Pour yourself a warm beverage to celebrate being syzygied and look forward to the next Total Lunar Eclipses visible over the Driftless on January 20, 2019 and a tetrad of four in 2021 and 2022!

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: Becoming a Stargazer

February 1, 2016 by John Heasley

Astronomy is an awesome way to discover your home in the cosmos.  And it’s easy.  Go outside.  Look up.  You’re a stargazer! 

stargazerEven in cities, you can find stars and planets and the moon, but it’s more fun if you can get away from the light pollution.  We have fine dark skies in the Driftless Area.  I especially enjoy Kickapoo Valley Reserve and Wyalusing State Park.  Come to KVR on Feb 19 for Winter Trails by the Light of the Snow Moon for moongazing and trekking. 

Our eyes are pretty good at seeing in the dark, but you have to allow time for your pupils to dilate and the cones in your retina to become more sensitive.  It might take 20-30 minutes for your eyes to get dark adapted, so the longer you’re out, the more you will see.  Flashlights, headlights, and digital devices can quickly ruin your night vision, so avoid those.  Red light helps to preserve night vision.  A red LED headlamp keeps your hands free.  You can even cover your flashlight with a red filter or even nail polish. 

You’ll stay out longer if you are warm and comfortable.  We get lots of practice with cold weather in the Driftless Area.  Wear layers and keep dry.  You won’t be moving around much, so dress for 20 degrees colder than what the thermometer says.  Your hunting and fishing and birding friends are a great source of advice.  It’s easier if you are lying down.  A blanket or air mattress or reclining chair is great, and you can insulate with blankets or sleeping bag.  Don’t forget snacks and warm beverage. 

I haven’t mentioned anything about buying a telescope.  It’s better to learn the sky before you start spending money.  One of the best and least expensive accessories I have is a planisphere.  It’s a simple wheel that you can set for any day or time, and it will identify the stars and constellations in any direction.  There are also plenty of great apps for your smart phone.  I use astronomy software when I am inside, but when I’m under the stars, I like a low-tech approach. My favorite planisphere is The Night Sky by David Chandler (10 inch/40°-50°).  Some nights I appreciate the larger size (16 inch) and print of David Levy’s Guide to the Stars.  Both are easy to read with a red light.  Your local independent bookstore will have one or can order one for you. 

Keep a simple astronomy bag: hat, gloves, scarf, snack, red light, and planisphere.  When the skies are clear, you’re ready to stargaze!

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: Stargazing at Kickapoo Valley Reserve with red light and planisphere.

Driftless Dark Skies: Living in Space

December 1, 2015 by John Heasley

Wash: That sounds like something out of science fiction.

Zoë:  You live in a spaceship, dear.

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We have been living in space for over 15 years now.  Since November 2000, over 220 people from 17 countries have continuously crewed the International Space Station.  The ISS is something that we’ve done together as humans with major partners being the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and European Space Agency.

The ISS is easy to see in the dark skies of the Driftless Area.  Because it orbits 250 miles above our planet, it is often in sunlight while we are in darkness.  Its solar panels are as large as a soccer field and reflect the sunlight to those below often making it brighter than any star.  It makes over 15 orbits every day letting its crew enjoy 15 sunrises and 15 sunsets.

There are many websites and apps to tell you when and where to look, but my favorite is heavens-above.com.  After you enter your location (by name or 43º N and 90º W), you’ll get a chart giving times and location.  When it first rises above the horizon, the ISS appears dimmer and slower.  As it climbs higher in the sky, it gains brightness and speed.  As it passes into Earth’s shadow or sets below the horizon, it again appears to lose speed and brightness.  A typical pass takes about five minutes, so you have plenty of time to enjoy and share the sight.

December is a great time to see the ISS.  Because of its orbit, the ISS can be found at dusk for about three weeks before moving to dawn for three weeks.  The ISS will be in the evening sky December 3-25.  Check Heavens-Above for specific times and remember that its orbit sometimes changes.

You’re watching a spaceship over an acre in size traveling at over 17,000 mph (almost 5 miles every second).  In the five minutes that it’s visible, it will have passed over 1500 miles or halfway across the United States.  It circles the Earth every 93 minutes, so sometimes it’s possible to watch it twice in the same evening.  It is crewed by six astronauts who typically live on the ISS for six months.  At the beginning of December, that’s Scott, Mikhail, Sergey, Kjell, Oleg, and Kimiya.  In mid-December, Kjell, Oleg, and Kimiya are due to return to Earth and be replaced by Yuri, Tim, and Tim.   Give them a wave from our home in the Driftless Area as they pass overhead in their home in the ISS.

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: Harvest Moon Eclipse in the Driftless area

September 21, 2015 by John Heasley

photo by Lynda Schweikert, Iowa County Astronomers

photo by Lynda Schweikert, Iowa County Astronomers

On September 27, the Full Moon will darken as it passes through the shadow of the Earth.  This lunar eclipse is the fourth and final in a series (tetrad) we have been enjoying every six months since April 2014.   The next lunar eclipse visible in the Driftless Area will not be until Jan 2019.  This one coincides with the Harvest Moon, the name we give to the Full Moon that is closest to the Autumnal Equinox (September 23).

Unlike the previous three eclipses that had us staying up really late or rising really early in the morning, this eclipse happens conveniently in the evening.  Watch for the Harvest Moon rising in the east at 6:45 just as the Sun is setting in the west.  You may notice a golden color to the Moon when it is close to the horizon.  You’ll start to see the Moon entering Earth’s shadow at 8:07 when it looks like something is taking a bite out of the Moon.  The Moon is totally eclipsed from 9:11 until 10:23.  The Moon slowly leaves Earth’s shadow and will fully emerge at 11:27.

Three memories stay with me from previous eclipses.  First was the unexpectedly odd shape of the Moon, neither crescent nor gibbous.  I was awed by how the familiar was made strange.  Second was how Earth’s shadow was first black, but then took on a reddish hue as more of the Moon was engulfed.  Sometimes there’s even a hint of blue leading the dark area.  Third was how the stars emerged as the Moon was dimmed.  The light from the Full Moon usually chases away all but the brightest stars.  The darkening of the Moon is a second nightfall.  During the eclipse, it may be possible to see our Milky Way arching from the southwest to the northeast and the Great Square of Pegasus above the Moon.

The Harvest Moon Eclipse occurs the same night as the “Super Moon”.  I had never heard this term until a few years ago when different media began reporting on it.  The Moon’s orbit around the Earth is slightly elliptical, and its distance varies.  A “Super Moon” occurs when the Full Moon is closest to Earth.  The Moon will be 7% larger than average on September 27.  That’s the difference between a 14-inch and 15-inch pizza.  It’s nothing that is obviously noticeable, but it gives us all a fun chance to use the mighty phrase “perigee syzygy”.  That’s when Sun, Moon, and Earth all align with the Moon closest to Earth.

You are invited to enjoy the eclipse with your fellow moongazers at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve Visitor Center.   (8-11:30 pm).  Grab a chair, your favorite beverage, your binoculars, and enjoy the show on September 27.  It will take you out of the ordinary.

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 Area Dark Skies: Pluto

July 10, 2015 by John Heasley

We are going to Pluto.  On July 14th, NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft will fly by Pluto and send home the first detailed photos of this world.  And Pluto is a perfect match for our Driftless Area.  When UW Space Place constructed their Planet Trek scale model of the Solar System, they placed the Sun at Monona Terrace in Madison and the marker for Pluto 22 miles away in Mt. Horeb at the edge of the Driftless Area.

Pluto and the Driftless Area are both eccentric.  We’ve all had those conversations trying to explain to people where we are from.  We are off the map.  Rand McNally’s Universal Map of Outer Space from my childhood still hangs on my wall.  There’s Pluto, a weird shade of green, on the fringes, with a question mark.

Like the Driftless Area, Pluto has been difficult to classify.  Planet?  Dwarf Planet?  Minor Planet?  Plutino?  Plutoid?  Kuiper Belt Object?  Trans-Neptunian Object?  It’s like trying to decide when a brook becomes a creek and when a creek becomes a river.  I try to avoid the debate by saying it’s a world, one we are about to see for the first time.  Just as the Driftless Area preserves ancient landscapes and rare species, Pluto preserves some of the oldest material in the Solar System with ices billions of years old.

Thanks to low mass, a powerful booster, and a gravity assist from Jupiter, New Horizons is now cruising at over 30,000 mph.  That’s 8 1/2 miles every second.  At that speed, it could journey the Lower Wisconsin Riverway from Prairie du Sac to Prairie du Chien in 11 seconds, though I suspect the Riverway Board might have something to say about the wake it would leave.  Even at that speed, it has taken 9 ½ years since its January 2006 launch to reach Pluto.  Pluto, like the Driftless Area, teaches patience.

I love how the Driftless Area has attracted its share of amateurs and enthusiasts.  Madison and Milwaukee have their universities and museums, but we have the visions of Dr. Evermor’s Forevertron and Alex Jordan’s Infinity Room.  Pluto’s discovery in 1930 is a story of amateurs and enthusiasts.  Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff had no university affiliation, and Percival Lowell, who took on the quest for “Planet X”, had no formal astronomy education.  Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto, was a 24-year-old high school graduate and amateur astronomer from Streator IL and Burdett KS who was hired on the basis of some sketches he sent to Lowell Observatory.  He spent hundreds of hours guiding a telescope as it took long exposure photos, and even more hundreds of hours examining those plates for a point of light that moved from night to night.  His discovery earned him a scholarship to the University of Kansas to get his degrees in astronomy.  It’s fitting that some of his ashes are aboard New Horizons and making their way to Pluto for all of us.

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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