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: 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.