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Driftless Dark Skies: Night Reading

November 30, 2018 by John Heasley

When clouds get in the way of enjoying the starry skies of the Driftless, there are plenty of great astronomy books. Here are some of my favorites.

The Stars: A New Way to See Them and Find the Constellations by H.A. Rey. These were written in the 1950s and were my guides to stargazing in the 1960s. They have been revised and remain the best intro to astronomy. They are often shelved in the children’s section which means they explain things clearly. You may remember Rey as the creator of Curious George.

The Total Skywatcher’s Manual by Linda Shore, David Prosper, & Vivian White. Astronomical Society of the Pacific is the best at astronomy education, and their guide takes you through the steps of seeing the universe with your eyes, binoculars, and telescope. Besides the 275+ skills and tricks, the book is dew resistant and glows in the dark.

NightWatch by Terence Dickinson. This is the book that educated me when I rediscovered my love of stargazing in the 1990s. I admire his explanation of the universe in eleven steps, guide to choosing equipment, star charts, tips for seeing better, and discussion of clusters, nebulas, galaxies, and more.

Turn Left at Orion by Guy Consolmagno and Dan Davis. This is the guide I use when I am selecting what to view each season. Instead of awesome photos from Hubble, you get more realistic sketches from the author showing what you will actually see through a small telescope as well as easy directions on locating an object and a clear description of what you are seeing. Guy Consolmagno, S.J. is Director of the Vatican Observatory.

Stars Above, Earth Below by Tyler Nordgren. Ten years ago, Tyler Nordgren started a project of working with rangers and visitors in National Parks to promote the idea that “Half the Park is after Dark”. Each chapter focuses on a different park and connects the astronomy above with the geology below. It’s an inspiration to me as I share dark skies at Governor Dodge State Park, Kickapoo Valley Reserve, and Lower Wisconsin Riverway. His 1930s WPA-style travel posters promoting parks as astronomy destinations are awesome.

There Once Was a Sky Full of Stars by Bob Crelin and Amie Ziner. I love sharing this story with kids and adults as I promote dark skies. Excellent introduction to why dark skies matter, how we are losing the starry skies to light pollution, and the simple steps we can take to bring back the night. Wonderful combination of words and pictures.

You can find these at your local independent booksellers and libraries.  Start browsing that Dewey Decimal 520 shelf.

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: Planets Arcing across the Sky

August 31, 2018 by John Heasley

Unless Betelgeuse goes supernova in the next four months, I think I will be remembering 2018 as the year the planets were so amazing in the evening sky. And there will be a dramatic finale in the skies over the Driftless Area this month. All you need is a clear view to the west and south. You can enjoy everything with just your eyes, though binoculars will help to spot things and a small telescope lets you see more details.

The show starts September 11 when you may be able to catch a very thin Crescent Moon low in the west between sunset around 7:20 and moonset around 8:45. To the left of the Moon in the southwest is Venus, brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon. By the next night, the Moon has waxed a little fuller and can be seen above Venus. A small telescope shows Venus growing larger as it moves closer to Earth and its crescent phase waning as it moves closer to the Sun this month. On September 13, the Crescent Moon is near Jupiter, the third brightest object in the night sky. That’s Zubenelgenubi below the Moon and Zubeneschamali above the Moon. A small telescope reveals four of Jupiter’s moon and its cloud bands.

The view on 9/16 with the First Quarter Moon

The Moon continues to wax and is above the red supergiant Antares on September 15. The First Quarter Moon is to the right of Saturn on September 16 and to its left on September 17 in the southern sky. Its rings are awesome in a small telescope. On September 19, the Waxing Gibbous Moon is above Mars in the southeast. Mars has dimmed some since its close approach back in July, but is still the fourth brightest object in the night sky. You can see its polar caps and surface feature through a small telescope. And any evening in September, you can be awed by the sight of four worlds gracefully arcing across the sky from southeast to southwest.

We can be wowed by such sights because the Driftless Area enjoys such starry skies. Even though the ridges and valleys can make it challenging to find the horizon, we are away from much of the sky glow of urban areas. And that makes it easier to connect with our homes in the Solar System, Milky Way, and Cosmos! You can learn more about dark skies at a special presentation by John Rummel at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on September 26 at 8 pm. John Rummel is an amateur astronomer and photographer and will be sharing stories of his search for the darkest skies. His talk is part of the Ralph Nuzum Driftless Dialogue Lecture series and is free. If skies are clear, we will be doing some star and planet gazing afterwards. Enjoy all the starry sights of our dark driftless skies as we wend our way from summer to fall with the autumnal equinox on Sept 22.

Iowa County Astronomers have their monthly meeting on September 7 in Dodgeville. Pat Ladwig will be sharing some of her favorite astro photos. Indoor presentation at QLF Agronomy Research starting at 7pm, and then we head over to Bethel Horizons to view the skies with a wonderful 17-inch Dobsonian telescope donated by Mike Wolkomir. Everyone is always welcome. Universe in the Park will be at Governor Dodge (September 15), Wildcat Mountain (September 29), and Yellowstone Lake (September 1). UW-Madison astronomy students visit state parks to give talks, answer questions, and share telescope viewing. Programs begin around sunset. Starsplitters of Wyalusing has a public programs (8:30pm) at Wyalusing State Park on September 1. The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then continues outdoors to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes. They also offer a “star party” on September 8 when you can join them for observing and to learn more about telescopes.

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: Fire in the Sky

August 9, 2018 by John Heasley

In the summer of his 27th year, John Denver was camping above the tree line outside Aspen CO when he was awed by the sight of Perseid meteors streaking across the sky. The experience inspired him to write “Rocky Mountain High”: “I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky/The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullabye”. You, too, can be awed by the Perseids when they return this month to the dark skies of the Driftless.

You can see meteors all through the first part of August, but the Perseids peak will be the night of Sunday August 12/13. 2018 is an especially good year because there will be no moonlight dimming the spectacle. What we are seeing are small grains left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle.  As our planet passes through the stream of comet dust, they enter our atmosphere at 100,000 mph and the streaks light up our skies.

We’ll see the most meteors after midnight (when our part of the planet starts facing the dust stream) and before 4am (when our skies begin to brighten). You can also enjoy the Perseids in the evening. Sunset is a little after 8 and the sky is fully dark by 10. There are fewer meteors during this time, but the ones you see can be impressive. They are called “Earthgrazers” and they move more slowly and leave longer trails across the sky.

It’s easy to enjoy the Perseids. Find a dark spot away from town lights. You don’t need any special equipment such as binoculars, just your eyes. Keep the flashlights off and let your eyes dark adapt so you can see more. It’s best to be comfortable and looking up, so bring a reclining chair or blanket or inflatable mattress. Remember to dress warmly. Temperatures can drop even in the summer, and you won’t be moving around much. Don’t forget snacks. The direction you face really doesn’t matter since meteors can appear in any part of the sky. I like facing the northeast, so I can keep an eye on Perseus just below the “W” of Cassiopeia. If you face away from Perseus, you should see meteors with longer trails. Bring friends to see all the meteors you miss. You can expect to see a meteor every couple of minutes and maybe more often.

As you’re watching pieces of another world fall to Earth, be sure to enjoy the sight of four worlds overhead. Venus is brilliant low in the west until it sets around 9:45pm. Jupiter is almost as bright in the southwest until it sets around 11:30pm. Saturn is golden in the southern sky.  Mars is glowing like an ember in the southeast and is bright all night long. Enjoy the fire in the sky and the planets all month!

Iowa County Astronomers has their monthly meeting on August 10 in Dodgeville. There’s an indoor presentation at QLF Agronomy Research starting at 7:30pm, and then we head over to Bethel Horizons to view the skies with a wonderful 17-inch Dobsonian telescope donated by Mike Wolkomir. Everyone is always welcome. ICA will be sharing a public program at Governor Dodge on August 25 (Twin Valley Picnic Site 7pm). Universe in the Park will be at Governor Dodge (August 11) and Blue Mounds (August 4). UW-Madison astronomy students visit state parks to give talks, answer questions, and share telescope viewing. Programs begin around sunset. Northwest Suburban Astronomers will be at Wildcat Mountain sharing a talk and stargazing on August 11 (8-11pm) and safe solar viewing August 12 (1-3pm). 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. Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and a Perseids Party on August 12. Starsplitters of Wyalusing has a public program (8:30pm) at Wyalusing State Park on August 18. The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then continues outdoors to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes. They also offer a “star party” on August 11 when you can join them for observing and to learn more about telescopes.

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: Mars Returns

July 4, 2018 by John Heasley

Mars will be awesome in the dark skies of the Driftless this month. It has not been this bright since the Great Perihelic Opposition of August 2003 and won’t be this bright again until September 2035.  Mars takes almost two years to orbit the Sun, so Earth “laps” it every 25-27 months when the distance between the two worlds narrows. Every day in July, Spaceship Earth brings us almost 200,000 miles closer to Mars. Because Mars’ orbit is elliptical, it is especially close to Earth every 15-17 years.

Image from APOD

You can greet Mars at the start of the month. On the night of June 30/July 1, Mars rises with the Waning Gibbous Moon around 10:40pm and they travel together across the southern sky. Mars is twice the diameter of the Moon but appears much smaller because it is much further away. The brightest objects in the night sky this month are all planets. Venus is the brightest and is setting in the west as Mars is rising in the southeast.  Jupiter is about as bright as Mars and can be seen in the southwest after sunset. Saturn is dimmer and creamier and can be seen in the south in the evenings.

Mars is fun to enjoy with our unaided eyes, but binoculars really bring out the color. It gets called The Red Planet in all those great science fiction movies, but what color does it look like to you? Break out you pantones or swatches or spices. Cinnamon? Turmeric? Ginger? Paprika? Coriander? Fans of Dune may be happy to know that Frank Herbert was thinking of setting his story on Mars before he moved it to the desert spice world of Arrakis. If you have a small telescope, you won’t see spice worms, but you will be able to see lighter areas covered by pale dust and darker areas where the basalt is exposed. Mars’ southern polar gap will be prominent this month. You can join Opportunity and Curiosity in roving the planet.

Earth passes between the Sun and Mars the night of July 26/27. Mars is rising earlier now at 8:55 and syzygy occurs at 12:07am. Mars travels across the southern sky below and to the left of the Full Moon.  Our friends in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia will be wowed by a total by a total lunar eclipse as the Moon passes through the shadow of the Earth and darkens to a rusty color like Mars. Sadly this eclipse will not be visible in North America. Mars leads the Full Moon across the sky the following night of July 27/28. The finale is the night of July 30/31 when Mars and Earth are at their closest at 2:07am. Mars will be glowing all night long, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise. Human have long been intrigued by the intense color of Mars, its wandering movement through the constellations, and its almost hundredfold change in brightness.  Be awed by Mars this month!

Iowa County Astronomers meets on July 6 in Dodgeville. There’s an indoor presentation at QLF Agronomy Research starting at 7:30pm and then we head over to Bethel Horizons to view the skies with a wonderful 17-inch Dobsonian telescope donated by Mike Wolkomir. Everyone is always welcome. Universe in the Park will be at Governor Dodge on July 21 and Yellowstone Lake on July 7. UW-Madison astronomy students visit state parks to give talks, answer questions, and share telescope viewing. Programs begin around sunset. Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and Planetary Stargazing (8-10 pm) on July 28. Starsplitters of Wyalusing has a public program (8:30pm) on July 7. The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then continues outdoors to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes. They also offer a “star party” on July 14 when you can join them for observing and to learn more about telescopes.

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: Evening Planets

June 1, 2018 by John Heasley

Our neighboring worlds of the Solar System will be spectacular this summer. There are five planets visible to our unaided eyes, and you will be able to see Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in the evening skies of our Driftless Area. Three easy ways to tell a planet from a star: 1) planets wander through the fixed stars of the constellations, 2) planets don’t twinkle as stars do, 3) planets pass through the southern sky as they rise in the east and set in the west.

Venus is hard to miss in the western sky. Start looking for it around 9pm after sunset. It will be especially bright and beautiful near the Waxing Crescent Moon on June 15 and 16 and visible until around 11pm. A small telescope reveals that Venus is in a waning gibbous phase and is about 75% illuminated. Binoculars will help to bring out the Earthshine on the Moon. This is sunlight being reflected on the dark side of the Moon by the clouds and oceans of Earth. Mercury can be challenging, but look for it close to the western horizon both nights. Check back with Venus on June 19 when it passes in front of the shining stars of the Beehive open cluster. Venus spends June moving through Gemini the Twins, Cancer the Crab, and Leo the Lion.

Mars continues to brighten and rise earlier throughout the summer as it makes its closest approach to Earth later in July. Watch for Mars and the Waning Gibbous Moon rising together on June 2 just before midnight and on June 30 around 10:30pm. In a small telescope, you can start to make out Mars’ polar cap and some of its surface features. Keep watching as Mars grows bigger and brighter this summer. Mars with its ruddy color spends the month in Capricorn the Seagoat.

Jupiter was at its closest to Earth last month but remains almost as bright. Look for it on June 23 near the Waxing Gibbous Moon as the sky begins to darken. A view through a telescope lets you spot some its cloud bands and its four largest moons. Jupiter can be found in Libra the Scales near its bright stars with the fun names of Zubeneschamali and Zubenelgenubi.

Photo by NASA

Earth passes between the Sun and Saturn on June 27. Saturn rises with the Full Strawberry Moon around 8:20 that evening. If you can, try to view through a telescope and be wowed. Saturn is at its closest to Earth and its rings are at about their widest. Saturn with its creamy color abides in Sagittarius the Archer.

Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and Solstice Stargazing on June 16 (8-10pm). Starsplitters of Wyalusing has a public program (8:30pm) at Wyalusing State Park on June 2. The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then continues outdoors to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes. They also offer a “star party” on June 9 when you can join them for observing and to learn more about telescopes. Enjoy the easy travel to other planets this summer as five worlds drift through the dark skies of the Driftless.

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 1, 2018 by John Heasley

The warm nights ahead are a great time to explore our dark skies. Planets will be spectacular this summer. Venus is brilliant and beautiful on the western sky after sunset, Jupiter is closest to Earth on May 9, Saturn on June 27, and Mars on July 31. There are plenty of opportunities this summer in the Lower Wisconsin Valley and beyond to have a look through a telescope.

Photo by Pat Ladwig

Iowa County Astronomers have monthly meetings on May 11, June 8, July 6, August 10, September 7, and October 5 in Dodgeville. There’s usually an indoor presentation at QLF Agronomy Research starting at 7:30pm (May-Aug) and 7pm (Sept.-Nov.), and then we head over to Bethel Horizons to view the skies with a wonderful 17-inch Dobsonian telescope donated by Mike Wolkomir. Everyone is always welcome. See icastro.org for monthly updates.  ICA also shares public programs at Governor Dodge State Park.

Universe in the Park will be at Governor Dodge (June 23, July 21, August 11, and September 15), Blue Mounds (May 26 and August 4), Wildcat Mountain (June 30 and September 29), and Yellowstone Lake (July 7 and September 1). UW-Madison astronomy students visit state parks to give talks, answer questions, and share telescope viewing. Programs begin around sunset. See www.astro.wisc.edu/the-public/universe-in-the-park/ for other parks and complete schedule.

Northwest Suburban Astronomers will be at Wildcat Mountain sharing a talk and stargazing on August 11 (8-11pm) and safe solar viewing August 12 (1-3pm). 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.

Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and three astronomy programs this summer (8-10pm). There is Solstice Stargazing on June 16, Planetary Stargazing on July 28, and a Perseids Party on August 12. See kvr.state.wi.us/.

Starsplitters of Wyalusing has public programs (8:30pm) at Wyalusing State Park on May 26, June 2, July 7, August 18, September 1, and October 13. The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then continues outdoors to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes. They also offer “star parties” on June 9, July 14, August 11, September 8, and October 6 when you can join them for observing and to learn more about telescopes.  See starsplitters.org for more details.

Don’t miss the astronomy highlights of May. The Moon is near Saturn on May 4 and 31 (late night), near Mars on May 6 (before sunrise), near Venus on May 17 (after sunset), and near Jupiter on May 27 (all night). If you have been meaning to explore our starry skies, this is your summer.

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 by Pat Ladwig.

Driftless Dark Skies: Roaming Mars

April 3, 2018 by John Heasley

Mars has long sparked my imagination. I think it was that map of the Solar System I had as a kid showing canals and vegetation. Only when I learned Roman numerals did I discover that the map was out of date. But I was left with a favorite planet.

Now Mars is returning. Every 26 months, the orbits of Mars and Earth bring them close to one another. On July 31, Mars will be at its closest since August 2003 and until October 2035. This summer will be an excellent time for Marsgazing. It’s up all night rising as the sky darkens in the evening. It will be easy to find since it will be brighter than any star and any planet except for Venus. Mars is the only planet whose surface we can view with a small telescope. When the skies are steady, you can catch sight of surface features including the icy polar caps. The dark skies of the Driftless Area should give us a spectacular view.

You can start preparing for the return of Mars this spring. On April 1, Mars rises in the east around 1:30am. In the predawn sky, it’s fairly high in the south. You’ll see two bright stars close together above the “teapot” of Sagittarius. The lower, ruddier, and slightly brighter one is Mars.  The higher, creamier, and slightly dimmer one is Saturn. Watch the next two nights as they draw closer and Mars passes by Saturn. They will be at their closest on April 2.  On April 7, the Waning Crescent Moon joins the two. By the end of April, Mars is rising an hour earlier and has moved far from Saturn. As spring becomes summer, Mars will rise earlier and earlier and grow in brightness.

Mars is the only planet inhabited entirely by robots. Odyssey, MRO, MAVEN, MOM, Mars Express, and ExoMars are orbiting the planet. Opportunity and Curiosity are roving the surface. And InSight is launching next month and is scheduled to land in November. You can learn more about Mars at the April 13 meeting of Iowa County Astronomers at Dodgeville Public Library 7 pm with guest speaker Dr. Rebecca Williams. She is a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and part of the golden age of Mars exploration. You’ll hear from a science team member on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity about the rover’s payload and results since landing in Gale crater on August 5, 2012 and learn how Dr. Williams formulates Curiosity’s daily activities from her home and office in Waunakee. Explore Martian vistas and hear about where humans may someday land on the Red Planet. Event is free and open to the public.

On Saturday, April 28 you can stargaze at Kickapoo Valley Reserve as part of their Spring Fling celebration. KVR astroeducators will have a telescope and binoculars set up for you to enjoy views of the almost Full Moon as well as Venus and other highlights of the spring sky. You can also join Starsplitters of Wyalusing for their meeting and stargazing on Thursday, April 12 starting at 6:30.

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: Evenings with Venus

March 1, 2018 by John Heasley

NakedEyePlanets.com

Venus will be bright and beautiful after sunset in the western skies of the River Valley this spring and summer. Venus outshines all the other planets and stars. On March 1, Venus is fairly low to the horizon and sets around 6:50 about an hour after the Sun. If you have binoculars, look for Mercury below and to the right of Venus. You should be able to see both in the same eyepiece this evening and for the next three weeks. Wait until the Sun sets so you don’t injure your eyes! By March 3, Venus and Mercury will be side by side. Venus shines one hundred times brighter than Mercury, but Mercury is still brighter than any star in the sky. The innermost planet can be challenging to see because it never strays too far from the Sun, but with sharp eyes and a clear cloudless horizon you could see elusive Mercury without binoculars. It will appear at its furthest on March 15 before it begins moving closer to the Sun.

There is an awesome pairing of Venus and the Waxing Crescent Moon on March 18. By now Venus is setting 80 minutes after the Sun. Look for a very thin sliver Moon below and to the left of Venus in the west. Mercury is now above and to the right of Venus. You can be wowed by other pairings of Venus and Crescent Moon on April 17, May 17, June 15 and 16, July 15, August 13 and 14, and September 12. Don’t miss seeing Earthshine on the Crescent Moon when the dark side of the Moon is illuminated by sunlight reflected from Earth. As you continue to watch Venus all spring, you’ll notice that it appears higher in the sky after sunset and sets later than the Sun. As we move into summer, Venus starts getting lower to the horizon and setting closer to sunset. By late fall, Venus will be visible in the eastern sky before sunrise.

The second planet of our Solar System alternates between being “Evening Star” for seven months and then “Morning Star” for seven month with a few months in between when it is too close to the Sun to see. There is a cool resonance between Earth and Venus with an eight-year cycle that was well-known to ancient stargazers. Venus makes thirteen trips around the Sun for every eight that Earth makes. From Earth’s perspective, Venus appears to pass between us and the Sun five times and then behind the Sun five more times. This appearance of Venus is the same as the one we saw in March 2010 and the one we will see in March 2026. Discover for yourself the rhythms of Venus that were so familiar to our ancestors.

On Saturday March 31st 7-9pm, you can enjoy Spring Trails by Light of the Moon at Kickapoo Valley Reserve. 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 Full 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 twilight on uneven and possibly slippery surfaces. Participants have the option of remaining at the Visitor Center. Event is free but please register by calling 608-625-2960 so that we can send you updates.

You can also join Starsplitters of Wyalusing for their meeting and stargazing on Thursday, March 15 starting at 6:30.

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: State of the Milky Way

February 1, 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.

 

Driftless Dark Skies: Occultation and Conjunction

November 3, 2017 by John Heasley

Two special events this month let us experience the Moon and planets moving across the sky.  We are familiar with the daily motion of Sun and Moon and stars and planets rising in the east and setting in the west as our planet rotates about its axis. But we can also see the motion of the Moon as it orbits the Earth and the motion of the planets as they orbit the Sun.

As the spinning of the Earth makes the Moon move from left to right across the sky, its own orbit makes it move from right to left across the stars at 1/30 the speed. This motion is why the Moon rises about 50 minutes later every night. Earth has to rotate a little extra to catch up with the Moon. It takes about an hour for the Moon to move its own width. The movement is so slow that we seldom notice it. But we will on the evening of November 5 when the Moon covers up (occults) the bright star Aldebaran.

Watch for the waning gibbous Moon rising in the ENE around 6:24. Remember that this is the first day of standard time.  Just to the left of the Moon, you will see a bright orange star. That’s Aldebaran. Binoculars may help you to spot it. As Earth’s rotation carries the Moon and Aldebaran higher and to the west, the Moon’s orbit takes it more slowly lower and to the east.  Watch as the Moon gets closer and closer to Aldebaran. Around 7:05 Aldebaran is occulted by the Moon and disappears behind it. Enjoy the sights of the autumn sky, but slew your binoculars back to the Moon by 7:57 to watch Aldebaran emerging from the right side of the Moon around the 2 o’clock position. You’ll notice that the Moon is about 95% full with the right side a bit in shadow. It took the Moon just about an hour to move its own width across the starry sky!

Early risers can see the planets orbiting the Sun as Jupiter and Venus put on their best show of the year. Early in November, look to the ESE around 6am. You’ll spot two bright objects low to the horizon. The brighter and higher of the two is Venus with Jupiter lower and to the left.  Watch as their orbits around the Sun bring them closer together. By November 13, they are side by side in an event called a conjunction. You can easily cover both with just your pinkie. Continue to enjoy the show the rest of the month as Venus’ orbit takes it closer to the Sun and Jupiter’s orbit takes it further away. Don’t miss November 16 when the Moon’s orbit brings it just above the two planets. If you happen to be stargazing on November 22, 2065, you can see an even cooler event when Venus passes directly in front of Jupiter and a conjunction becomes an occultation!

You can join Starsplitters on November 18 at Wyalusing State Park for their club meeting.  Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers Trails by Light of the Frosty Moon on November 4.

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.

 

Fall Arrives

October 5, 2017 by Eric Frydenlund

The fall season arrived officially on September 22, but fall colors arrive on their own time.  I am out on the Kickapoo River to survey for a deadfall removal project.  I am in the front of the canoe, mapping and fidgeting with my GPS locator.  Then I look up and realize I’m smack in the middle of paradise.  The leaves are just beginning to change on the bluffs, spread like dust from the fairy’s wand.  Sunlight sets them aflame.

The Kickapoo River Bluffs

Descending into the Kickapoo Valley from the ridge road, you feel as though you are entering a lost world. Another world, where herons take flight from the river’s edge and eagles float on air currents swirling above the valley. The river itself seems lost, wandering from one bluff to the other, as if looking for a way out.  Finding none, the river turns sharply and cuts a path through tranquil pastureland.

The Kickapoo Valley tucks into the hills of Driftless Wisconsin like the secret hiding place we had as children.  Amish children still walk barefoot along Driftless Wisconsin roads, their calloused feet impervious to stones or other cares. Their wide smiles betray an innocence where simple pleasures rule the day. They recall my own childhood, when a day spent exploring the Mississippi River bluffs left all my cares at the front door.

Walking is still the best way to experience Driftless Wisconsin. My dog and I hike La Riviere Park near Prairie du Chien.  Fargo finds sticks to carry around like prized steak bones. I find the scenery more to my liking. The trail explores the park and its topography in ways that photos can only approximate. You feel the Driftless landscape rise and fall below your feet. You look down into bottomless ravines; too steep to walk and too deep to ignore. The spectacle pulls you in like gravity. You wonder how such a mountainous slope arrived here in Southwest Wisconsin.

Whether by canoe or by foot, you can explore the enchanted world of Driftless Wisconsin. It’s not too late to schedule that canoe or kayak trip on the Kickapoo.  Outfitters in Ontario are open through the end of October, providing you transportation and the essentials to make your day on the river memorable. Best to call ahead for reservations. The lower Kickapoo River is now more accessible if you have your own canoe or kayak. New landings await your arrival at County B above Gays Mills, and County S, just off Highway 131 on the way to Steuben.

If you prefer walking to paddling, explore one of the many parks or natural areas that populate Driftless Wisconsin.  Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario overlooks the Kickapoo Valley.  Wyalusing State Park near Prairie du Chien oversees the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. And the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge explores 3600 acres of plants, birds, and animals of the Kickapoo Valley.  All have excellent hiking trails to explore the Driftless landscape.

Just remember to look up from the trail occasionally.  You’ll find yourself smack in the middle of paradise.

 

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer of Saturn

June 6, 2017 by John Heasley

There’s a little bit of showmanship in sharing stargazing. It helps to be mindful that other people might not be quite as wowed as you are by the sight of a faint fuzzy thing in the eyepiece of a telescope (even if it is the combined light of hundreds of billions of stars that has been traveling tens of millions of years before ending the journey on our retinas). So you select what you share with care and save the most awesome for last. This summer, that’s Saturn.

I love hearing the reactions of people when they see Saturn in a telescope: “wow”, “groovy”, “cool”, “boss”, “dope” or “sweet” depending on the generation. Some just curse reverentially while a few check the telescope to see if I snuck in a picture. Saturn is stunning surrounded by its moons and rings. This summer, those rings are at their widest when viewed from our planet. 

Saturn will be its closest to Earth the night of June 14-15. During this opposition, Earth is directly between the Sun and Saturn, so we get to say “Saturnian Syzygy” because all three are in a straight line. Even at its closest, Saturn is still almost a billion miles from Earth. The sunlight we see reflected off Saturn and its rings left 75 minutes before we see it.

Look for Saturn this month in the southeast after sunset, in the south around midnight, and in the southwest before sunrise. It will be the brightest object in its part of the sky except for Antares (to its right) which has an orange-red color and is not quite as bright as Saturn. The viewing gets better as we get further into June. On June 1st, Saturn rises in the southeast at 9:21pm, is highest in the south at 1:56am, and sets in the southwest at 6:35am. By June 30th, Saturn rises, transits, and sets two hours earlier.

Saturn is the slowest of the naked-eye planets. It takes almost 30 years to orbit the Sun and spends about 2 ½ years in each constellation as viewed from Earth. Saturn will be in Ophiuchus the Serpent-Bearer until November when it moves into Sagittarius the Archer. When you are stargazing in 2047, be sure to notice that Saturn has returned to Ophiuchus!

You can have a look at Saturn through a telescope at free public programs. Journey to Kickapoo Valley Reserve on June 8 for Spring Trails by Light of the Strawberry Moon (8-10 pm). Watch the Moon and Saturn rise together and catch a glimpse of Jupiter and its moons. Gather at the visitor center and hike down to Old 131 Trail. Starsplitters of Wyalusing State Park offer a Public Program on June 17 (8:30 pm) and a Star Party on June 24 (8:30 pm).

You won’t be able to see it, but the Cassini spacecraft is nearing the end of its mission. It has been exploring Saturn and its moons and rings since 2004 and is running low on fuel. For its finale, it will make multiple passes through the rings of Saturn to make its closest observations ever. On September 15, it will be deliberately plunged into the atmosphere of Saturn so that any surviving microbes do not contaminate the moons of Saturn where there may be life. Imagine it orbiting the ringed world and enjoy your summer of Saturn.

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: Summer Stargazing

May 5, 2017 by John Heasley

The warm nights ahead are a great time to get to explore our dark skies. There are plenty of opportunities this summer in the Driftless Area to have a look through a telescope. If you have been meaning to explore our starry skies, this is your summer. 

Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and three astronomy programs this summer. You can hike the trails and stargaze by light of the Strawberry Moon on June 8 and by light of the Thunder Moon on July 8. Be wowed by the Perseid Meteors on the moonless night of 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 27, June 17, July 15, August 12, September 16, and October 14. 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. They also offer “star parties” on June 24, July 22, and September 23 when you can join them for observing. 

Northwest Suburban Astronomers will be at Wildcat Mountain on July 22, 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 the solar eclipse crossing the United States on August 21. 

Iowa County Astronomers have monthly meetings on May 26, June 23, July 21, August 25, September 22, and October 20. 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 donated by Mike Wolkomir. Everyone is always welcome. It’s an excellent time to try out different telescopes and ask questions. ICA will also be sharing a public program at Governor Dodge on July 1. 

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 programs at Governor Dodge on June 17, July 15, August 12, and September 23. 

The most spectacular astronomy event this summer happens during the day rather than at night.  Or rather, when day turns into night!  In just three months on August 21, the New Moon will pass between the Sun and Earth blocking out sunlight during a total solar eclipse.  You can learn all about the Great American Eclipse and how to be awed by it when I share a presentation at Spring Green Community Library at 6:30 on May 16. 

Don’t miss the astronomy highlights of May. The Moon is near Jupiter on the 7th (all night), near Saturn on the 12th and 13th  (late night), and Venus on the 22nd  (before sunrise). 

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: Spring Planets

April 3, 2017 by John Heasley

You can see all five classical planets this month. A telescope lets you enjoy more of the details. Binoculars help you spot them. But you can see all five with your eyes alone. 

Mercury makes its best appearance of 2017 in the evening sky of early April. The innermost planet is a challenge because it never appears too far from the Sun. Find a place with a clear western horizon and scan for it with your binoculars. Best time is between 8:15 and 8:45 the first week of April. It will be the brightest object in that part of the sky. 

Mars is also low in the western sky after sunset though not as bright as Mercury. It’s far from Earth this spring, so you won’t see much detail. Binoculars will bring out its ruddy complexion.  Watch for Mars the third week of April when it passes by the Pleiades star cluster low in the WNW. You should be able to see them together in your binoculars. Best time to look is between 9:00 and 9:30. Check back on the evenings of April 27 and 28 to see the waxing crescent Moon pass close by Mars in the west after sunset. Best time to look is between 8:30 and 9:00. Don’t be confused by a slightly brighter orangey star to the left of Mars. That’s Aldebaran. Remember that stars twinkle. Planets don’t. 

Jupiter will be much easier to find. It’s in opposition this month which means that it’s at its closest to Earth and brightest in the sky. Sun, Earth, and Jupiter are in a straight line, so it rises in the east as the Sun is setting in the west, passes high in the south at midnight, and sets in the west as the Sun is rising in the east. With a small telescope, you can see its cloud bands and four largest moons. Watch for Jupiter on April 10 when it travels across the sky close to the Full Moon. 

Saturn rises after midnight and can be seen in the south around 5am. It will be the brightest object in that part of the sky. On the morning of April 16, look for the waning gibbous Moon just to the right of Saturn. The next morning, the moon will be just to the left of Saturn. A small telescope will give you a memorable view of its rings. 

Venus was bright and brilliant all fall and winter in the southwestern sky. This spring, you can find Venus low in the eastern sky before sunrise. On April 23, Venus and the waning crescent moon make a stunning pair between 5:00 and 5:30. 

There will be stargazing with telescope and binoculars at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on April 29 as part of Spring Fling.   

Enjoy your spring tour of our solar system! 

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: Creating Constellations

March 2, 2017 by John Heasley

Years ago I went with the Cub Scouts to visit the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.  I definitely enjoyed being a blood cell and circulating through the Giant Heart there, but what really wowed me was the Fels Planetarium.  The lights went down, the stars came out, and I was hooked.  I loved the way the presenter not only named the stars but connected them with lines and created people and animals and things and told the tales that went with them. 

There is something very comforting about the constellations.  As long as you don’t travel too far north or south, you see the same constellations at night wherever you go.  They follow a reassuring pattern with Orion and Taurus and Gemini in the winter, Leo and Corvus and Virgo in the spring, Scorpius and Hercules and Cygnus in the summer, and Pegasus and Andromeda and Perseus in the fall.  They become familiar friends.  We can trace out their shapes, give them names, and retell their stories.  They take us back to an earlier time when we were protected by a two-dimensional sheltering sky. 

In 1928, the International Astronomical Union divided up the sky into 88 official constellations.  This made it easier for stargazers to talk with one another, but we also lost a lot of variety.  Different cultures see different constellations.  Not all of us see a hunter when we look at the stars of Orion.  The Egyptians saw Osiris, the Ojibwe see a paddler (Biboonkeonini the Wintermaker), the Lakota see the hand of a chief, and the Mayan see the Turtle of Creation.  Those seven brightest stars that we call Orion are not as tightly grouped as they appear, but vary in distance from 240 to 1360 light years.  We are not even seeing them at the same time because their starlight left years apart over the span of a millennium.  What we like to think of as a dome is three dimensional space with vast distances between stars. 

Once we learn to “see” a constellation, it is challenging to “unsee” it.  Our familiarity with constellations inhibits us from seeing the stars in other ways.   But it’s rewarding to try.  Here’s how.  Go out on any clear night.  Choose a dozen or so of the brighter stars.  Connect the dots and make a pattern that is pleasing to you.  It could be a person or animal or object.  Give it a name, and it’s yours.   Spin a tale to go with your pattern, and you have created a constellation.  It’s not officially recognized, but it’s no more or less real than those of the IAU.  Best of all, you have seen the starry sky anew! 

Hiking by Light of the Snow Moon at KVR in February

You can discover some traditional constellations or create your own at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on March 11 (6-8pm) when we walk by Light of the Full Crust Moon.  Attendees will gather at the Visitor Center and hike down to Old 131 Trail. KVR astronomy educators will have binoculars and a telescope for you to see the maria, craters, and rays of the Full Moon.  We will also look at planets and constellations while enjoying the other sights, sounds, and smells of the moonlit world.  Involves moderate hiking in the dark on uneven and possibly slippery surfaces. Participants have the option of remaining at the Visitor Center for stargazing. Please register (608-625-2960) to receive weather updates. Annual or day trail pass required.  

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: The Great American Eclipse of 2017

February 7, 2017 by John Heasley

On August 21, the sky will darken and the planets and stars will be visible in the middle of the day as our moon covers our sun.  This is a relatively rare event.  The last time a total solar eclipse was visible in the continental United States was 1979.  You won’t see another in the United States until 2024.  I have watched a handful of partial eclipses, but like most us, I have never experienced the awesome sight of the sun disappearing with only its corona visible.  From the stories I’ve heard, we don’t want to miss it. 

This one is all about alignment.  The moon’s path takes it near the sun every month, but it’s usually a little high or a little low to eclipse the sun.  This August, sun and moon and Earth are all aligned.  There’s also the wonderful coincidence of the moon and sun appearing the same size when viewed from Earth.  The moon is 400 hundred times smaller than the sun, but it is also 400 times closer—just the perfect size.  On average, there’s a solar eclipse somewhere on the planet every 18 months, but they are often over remote locations.  This one is just a day’s drive away. 

I love how astronomical events are a wonderful mix of the random and the predictable.  We can never know precisely when auroras or meteors might appear.  We do know that on the third Monday of August 2017, the moon’s shadow will cross the United States in just 93 minutes starting on the Pacific coast of Oregon at 10:16 am (PDT) and ending on the Atlantic coast of South Carolina at 2:49 pm (EDT).  The last time an eclipse crossed the United States from coast to coast was 1918.  Anyone along the 60-mile-wide path will be awed by the moon blotting out the sun and two minutes of totality. 

You need to be aligned with that path to experience totality.  If you stay in the Driftless Area, you will experience a 90% partial eclipse but not 90% of the awesomeness of a total eclipse.  Totality is as close as southern Illinois or Missouri.  If you wait for a total solar eclipse to come to Wisconsin, you will be waiting until 2099.  Many motels and campgrounds along the path are already booked, but there are still places available in easy range near the path.  It’s hard to predict how much excitement or traffic there will be as tens of millions of Americans travel to see the sight.  Stay flexible as the weather forecasts become clearer and be willing to relocate.  So plan ahead and don’t miss it. More in future blogs on what you’ll see and how to enjoy it safely. 

While you are waiting for the New Moon to eclipse the Sun, you can enjoy the Full Moon being dimmed a bit by Earth’s shadow during a penumbral lunar eclipse.  Join us at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on Friday February 10 (5-7pm) when we walk by Light of the Full Snow Moon.  Attendees will gather at the Visitor Center and hike down to Old 131 Trail. KVR astronomy educators will have binoculars and a telescope for you to see the maria, craters, and rays of the Full Moon.  We will also look at planets and constellations while enjoying the other sights, sounds, and smells of the moonlit world. Involves moderate hiking in the dark on uneven and possibly slippery surfaces. Participants have the option of remaining at the Visitor Center for stargazing. Please register to receive weather updates. Annual or day trail pass required. Call the KVR Visitor Center to register 608-625-2960. 

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.

Spring arrives as a state of mind in Driftless Wisconsin

February 2, 2017 by Eric Frydenlund

If you’re like me, spring arrives first as a state of mind rather than a season. With two months still to go on the calendar, my mind wandered into the boating season with a trip to Cabela’s in Prairie du Chien to look at depth finders for my boat.  Ice on the Mississippi River presents no obstacle to my imagination. And Cabela’s will most certainly get you thinking about spring.

Along those lines, you can hasten the arrival of spring and summer through film and presentations at our State and National Parks. Just across the Mississippi River at Effigy Mounds National Monument, you can stir your imagination at their 54th annual film festival held each weekend from January through March. My wife and I launched our idea to visit the National Parks out west after watching a film on the National Parks.

Likewise, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge hosts the Ralph Nuzum Lecture Series that bring the natural world into focus. “The Turkey Vulture: Profit of our Time,” will be the topic on February 15.  Mike Mossman, Retired DNR Ecologist; and Lisa Hartman: Wildlife Educator, will talk about “This tough species that enjoys the largest breeding range of any bird in the New World, thanks to fascinating adaptations that allow it to thrive in almost every habitat from forest to coast, farmland, desert and city.”

For the more adventuresome, Driftless Wisconsin offers plenty of activities for both spectators and participants alike without waiting for spring. On February 3 and 4, the Snowflake Ski Club near Westby will hold its annual Ski Jump Tournament featuring international competition. This event, thankfully, is of the spectator variety.  No need for you to jump off the scaffold at speeds exceeding 50 mph to appreciate the courage and grace of some of the world’s best jumpers as they leap into the crisp air of Timber Coulee.

On February 18 and 25, experience the beauty of Driftless Wisconsin winters yourself at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve on an Ice Cave Hike. “Visit several spectacular ice caves and frozen waterfalls. Participants will also have the chance to try traditional and modern snowshoes. There will be lots of outdoor discoveries.”

Whatever state of mind that February finds you in, Driftless Wisconsin will satisfy your curiosity and sense of adventure. Just need to change your state of mind and begin planning your trip. You can start here for lodging, dining, and shopping options.

Driftless Dark Skies: Walk When the Moon is Full

October 8, 2016 by John Heasley

This fall is a marvelous time for a moonwalk.  The next three months, our calendar and lunar months align.  The new moon falls near the beginning of the month.  First quarter moon is a week later.  Full moon is mid-month.  Last quarter moon is the third week.  And then the cycle repeats.  It has been a real challenge for calendar creators to get the solar and lunar cycles to line up.  Our solar year is just under 365¼ days.  A lunation, time between new moons, is just over 29½ days.  So you get twelve moons in a year with 11 days left over.  Our Gregorian calendar is solar and ignores the lunar cycle.  Even though “month” comes from “moonth”, we have random months of 28-31 days.  The Islamic calendar is more lunar.  The month begins when the crescent moon is first sighted, and the year is 354 days long.  The Jewish calendar is a compromise.  The months are the length of a lunation, but an extra month is added about every other year to keep the lunar and solar cycles in sync.

moonrisefrankshillIt’s easy to spot the full moon rising.  Be outside when the sun is setting.  Turn your back to the sun, and watch the direction of your really long shadow.  That’s where the moon will rise.  It can be anywhere between northeast to southeast.  This fall, the moon rises between east and southeast.  Full moon happens when the Earth is between the moon and sun, so watch for moonrise about the same time as sunset.  It’s a time of balance.  While you’re facing east, you’ll see a pinkish glow called the “Belt of Venus” just above the horizon and the darker shadow of Earth below the pink.   There’s only one moment when the moon is 100% full, but the moon will appear almost as full the day before and after.  That gives us some slack for when it’s cloudy.

Stargazers often avoid the full moon because it dims so many stars.  Others fear the dark.  But the moonlight eases the transition from day to night, and there’s a wonder there worth seeing.  My favorite places for moonwalking in the Driftless Area are Wyalusing State Park, Wildcat Mountain State Park, and Kickapoo Valley Reserve.  KVR continues their popular program from last winter and offers four evenings this fall and winter to “Walk When the Moon is Full”.  We will gather at sunset/moonrise at the Visitor Center and hike down to Old 131 Trail.  KVR astronomy educators will have binoculars and telescopes set up for you to enjoy the highlands, maria, craters, and rays of the full moon.  We will also take a look at the planets and constellations while we enjoy the other sights, 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 for stargazing.  Event is free, but please register so that we can send you weather updates.  Dates are October 15 (Hunter’s Moon), November 12 (Frosty Moon), February 10 (Snow Moon), and March 11 (Crust Moon)

I took my title from the children’s book by Wisconsin ornithologist and naturalist Frances Hamerstrom.  She tells the true story of taking her two children to walk every month when the moon is full.  Depending on the season, they meet up with deer, rabbits, possums, woodcocks, owls, fireflies, frogs, foxes, weasels and the other crepuscular creatures that live in the twilight time between day and night. 

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. 

Thanks to Barbara Duerksen for sharing Frances Hamerstrom’s book with me.

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 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.

Spring has arrived in Driftless Wisconsin

April 7, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

Spring has arrived in Driftless Wisconsin.  Yes, the calendar has turned to April, but nature shows little obligation to schedules. We have seen winter sneak into April before. So we look for signs.

Out for my walk up the hill, I found sufficient evidence of spring’s arrival for optimism. While oak, elm, and basswood are still budding; the leafing of multi-flora rose and blackberry – those thorny bushes that snag your clothing on hikes – covers the ground with a fine, greenish mist. Spring launches from the ground up, with grasses, then bushes, then tree tops filling the valley with color.

Nestled among their roots, I find a golf ball planted there by an errant shot from a backyard golfer at the top of the hill.  The spike-shoed golfer often makes its seasonal appearance in Driftless Wisconsin before the orange-breasted robin.

photo by Betty Frydenlund

photo by Betty Frydenlund

Speaking of birds, a cardinal has taken up residence in our yard, its bright red feathers accenting the still muted valley.  Between knocking on our front door window – apparent attempts to ward off the handsome fellow he sees in its reflection – he sits on a nearby branch and announces the new season with a chirp.

Along with spring’s arrival, comes a variety of events and activities to coax us out of hibernation. As does the cardinal in our yard, the season marks the return of birds to their native habitat.  Traveling highway 35 along the Great River Road is a great venue for observing the spring migration.  According to the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge website, “April and May are some of the best times to see songbird migration.”  Red-winged blackbirds have returned to the refuge, along with great blue herons; a majestic sign of spring.

The rivers and streams coursing through the Driftless region will be the topic of “Crossing the Driftless.”  On April 13, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve will host author Lynne Diebel as part of their Ralph Nuzem Lecture Series.  Diebel will talk about exploring 359 river miles of the Driftless by canoe; a trip with her husband from Faribault, Minnesota to their home in Stoughton, Wisconsin.

Driftless Wisconsin parks offer a fresh perspective of nature’s seasonal pageant.  Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario and Wyalusing State Park near Prairie du Chien offer hiking trails into the very heart of spring.  High on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi, Wisconsin, and Kickapoo Rivers that flow at their feet, the parks provide an overview of spring returning to the land.

And for those spike-shoed golfers, several golf courses have opened their doors, including the Viroqua Hills Golf Course; the Snowflake Ski Club, near Westby; the Prairie du Chien Country Club; and the Barnyard 9, north of Prairie du Chien.

Spring also brings the opening of area attractions, many of which show the march of human history through Driftless Wisconsin.  The Villa Louis Historic Site in Prairie du Chien will open its doors on April 15 – 16 for its “Villa Louis Behind the Scenes,” offering visitors an intimate glimpse of life during the 1890s in a Victorian home.  On that Saturday, the Villa will present “Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen,” a hands-on cooking workshop.

As hats, gloves, and boots go back in the closet; hiking shoes, birding binoculars, and golf clubs make their appearance.  The only thing missing from spring’s arrival in Driftless Wisconsin is you.  Join us, with or without your golf shoes.

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 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. 

Getting ready for winter and the holidays in Driftless Wisconsin

November 4, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

“Hey John, how ya doing?” I asked a friend we met along the hiking trail out at the park. “I just bought my LP gas for 60 cents cheaper than last year,” he offered. In these parts, “how you doing?” means how are things stacking up for the winter. As in firewood, LP gas, milk house heaters, road salt, wool socks, and other tools of winter survival.

I have my own to-do list of getting ready for winter. It starts with pulling my pontoon out of the river, a job I relish about as much as getting out the snow shovels. But October and early November days have been kind with temperatures in the 60s, making any day on the Mississippi River – even to retrieve the boat – a good one.

I also took my last canoe ride on the Kickapoo River – with less grace than I’d hoped. Entering the canoe from the river bank, I fell forward towards the opposite gunwale, twisting at the last second and landing in the bottom of the canoe like a sack of potatoes. “Nice recovery,” said my canoeing partner. I’ll take “nice recovery” over “clumsy oaf” any day.

geese-in-v-formation bYet end of season does not mean you shut the door and curl up in front of the fire for the rest of the winter. There’s sights and sounds reserved for this time of year alone. The sight of the Driftless Wisconsin landscape, absent its cloak of summer foliage, which takes on a beauty all its own. The sound of geese migrating south; a hypnotic, seasonal sound that marks time like a clock chiming midnight.

And yes, still lots of things to do. Speaking of migration, Ferryville will celebrate its annual Fall Migration Day on Saturday, November 7. Birding experts from the Audubon Society will help visitors find migrating geese, pelicans, white swans, and ducks of many breeds through spotting scopes. Then on Tuesday, November 10, Ferryville will host a commemoration of the Armistice Day Storm of 1940, when many duck hunters were caught on the river as temperatures plummeted 40 degrees in a matter of hours.

The Driftless Folks School, a regional center for the preservation, promotion and training of traditional crafts; has many classes available during November and the holiday season. Learn spoon carving, storytelling, Grain-free holiday baking, home cheese making, and many more crafts that will reconnect you with your own creativity.

On Saturday, December 5, La Farge will hold its annual Small Town Christmas Celebration. The community will celebrate the traditional side of Christmas with a craft fair, “cookie walk” at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, and soup luncheon. La Farge is near the Reserve and will serve as base camp for that walk in the woods to enjoy the late fall landscape.

So how is your winter stacking up? Getting ready for winter and the holidays needn’t be a chore if you mix in the sights and sounds and holiday festivities in Driftless Wisconsin.

Driftless Dark Skies: Planets at Dawn

October 1, 2015 by John Heasley

Early risers in the Driftless Area will be able to see three worlds slowly shifting in the eastern sky before dawn this month: Venus, Mars, and Jupiter.  Look for them an hour or so before sunrise, which is 7:00 at the start of the month and 7:35 at the end of the month.

Venus is the easiest to find.  On October 1, it rises 2 ½ hours before the sun and is the brightest light in the sky.  Look for it high in the east.  Jupiter is the second-brightest object and is 17 degrees below and a little to the left of Venus.  That’s about the distance between your pointer and pinkie when held at arm’s length.  Mars is much dimmer and ruddier and halfway between the two.  There’s a bright star halfway between Mars and Venus.  That’s Regulus.  It’s a nice reference point as you watch the wanderings of the three planets.

Venus, Moon at dawn; photo by Jean Napp, Starsplitters of Wyalusing

Venus, Moon at dawn; photo by Jean Napp, Starsplitters of Wyalusing

A week later, the waning crescent moon joins the show.  Look for it just above Venus on October 8, just to the right of Jupiter and Mars on October 9, and below Jupiter on October 10.  If you want a challenge, you may be able to see a fourth planet, Mercury, on October 11 when it is just above the moon.  You’ll need a clear horizon to the east and maybe binoculars to see the innermost planet.  Best time to look is between 6 and 6:30.  Look for Earthshine on the dark side of the moon.  That’s sunlight being reflected by day side of Earth onto the night side of the moon.

The planets get even closer together in the second half of October.  On October 17, Mars and Jupiter pass by one another less than half a degree apart.  That’s the width of a full moon.  You could cover both with just your little finger.  Venus and Jupiter are closest together on October 25 and 26 when they are just one degree apart.  On October 27 and 28, all three planets are grouped within five degrees and can be enjoyed all at once in your binoculars.  On November 2 and 3, Venus and Mars will be less than one degree apart.

If you are not an early riser, don’t feel left out.  You can see Saturn in the southwestern sky after sunset.  October 15 and 16 are good dates when the moon is just to the right and then the left of Saturn.  You can have a look at Saturn through a telescope at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve Dam Challenge Stargaze on Friday, October 2nd 7-9 pm.  Be sure to enjoy the Friends of KVR Pasta Dinner from 5-8 pm.

In only five weeks this fall, you will have seen these three worlds dance in the dawn shifting position from Venus/Mars/Jupiter to Jupiter/Mars/Venus and maybe even caught a glimpse of a  fourth world, Mercury, all while enjoying the autumnal world of our 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.

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