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Driftless Dark Skies: Preserving the Night

October 1, 2018 by John Heasley

I am happy to be celebrating four years of writing for The Voice and encouraging folks to go outside at night, look up, and be awed by the view of our home in the Solar System, Milky Way, and Cosmos. Unfortunately, we are losing what we love. Our artificial lights are creating a sky glow that is making it more and more challenging to see the starry skies. The stars are going to be just fine, but we humans and other members of the ecosystem might not be. We are squandering money and are making the landscape less safe. More and more research is emerging showing how artificial light is disrupting our sleep, destroying our health, degrading our environment, interfering with pollinators, and confusing migrators. We are losing our heritage of a night sky that has inspired so much science, art, music, and literature.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

This loss is not an invitation to despair. There are simple steps we can take to bring back the night. Use only the light we need when and where we need it. Use lower lumen bulbs with timers and motion sensors. Shield the lights and direct them down to reduce trespass and glare. Choose bulbs with warmer amber light rather than cooler blue light. Educate yourself and neighbors and friends with the wonderful resources at the International Dark Sky Association website. Tell your town, village, or city that you would like them to use lights that have the IDA Dark Sky Fixture Seal of Approval. As we transition to LED lighting and its greater efficiency, there is a wonderful opportunity to have lights that are friendlier to humans and other living things. Work with county and state parks to create dark sky sites. Just as state natural areas preserve unique local ecosystems, dark sky sites preserve our access to the cosmic ecosystem where galaxies are making the stars that make the elements that make life and stargazers possible. Together we can pass on to the next generations their birthright of dark skies.

You are invited to learn even more about dark skies this month. On October 7, John Rummel will be the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of Iowa County Astronomers at Dodgeville Public Library 7pm. John is a skilled photographer and amateur astronomer sharing the story of his journey around the Driftless and at National Parks in search of the darkest skies. On October 12, I will be sharing a session with Lynda Schweikert at the Riverway Symposium in Sauk City. We’ll show you how to preserve and enjoy the amazing dark skies of the Driftless. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not”—The Lorax.

Starsplitters of Wyalusing a public program (8:30pm) at Wyalusing State Park on 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 a “star party” on October 6 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: 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: Northern Lights

December 7, 2017 by John Heasley

By 7:30pm on November 7, I was already a pretty happy stargazer. I had been out for an hour and a half with a good astrobuddy touring the clusters, galaxies, and nebulas of the autumn sky at a dark site near Governor Dodge State Park. Our hands and feet were getting cold, and we were pondering what final stellar sights to see before calling it a night and putting the telescope away. Then I saw an unexpected glow low in the northern sky and luminous spikes flaring up through the Big Dipper. The northern lights had returned! I hadn’t seen an aurora since St. Patrick’s Day 2015. I quickly called an astronomy friend who spread the word by phone, email, and Facebook and put my phone away. For the next half hour, I was awed by the pulsating pillars and the ebbing and flowing of the ethereal lights. The finale was the rising of the Waning Gibbous Moon around 8:15 washing out the aurora.

Northern lights are rare and challenging to predict, but here’s how you can see them. You need five things to line up. Solar activity. We see auroras when charged particles from our Sun light up Earth’s upper atmosphere. The University of Alaska Geophysical Institute has a clear map showing where auroras may be visible. NOAA NWS Space Weather Prediction Center can let you know how active the solar wind has been and how likely northern lights are for the next day or two. Spaceweather.com has great information on solar activity and you can subscribe to alerts. Great Lakes Aurora Hunters send out Facebook alerts. We are now in a period of less solar activity. Night. We often miss great auroral displays because they arrive during the day when our part of the planet is facing the Sun. Nothing to be done except be happy for our friends in Scandinavia where it’s already dark. There are not more northern lights in the winter, but we are more likely to see them because nights are longer. In June, there’s only four hours of darkness between dusk and dawn. In December that triples to twelve hours. Dark Skies. We have those in abundance in the Driftless Area. It helps even more to get away from village lights. Have a spot in mind that is nearby with clear and dark views to the north. Our many ridgetops are great.  So are areas with Amish communities.  No Moon. Only the brightest auroras are visible with moonlight, so times around the Last Quarter or New Moon are best. Clear Skies. We’ve missed some great displays because it was overcast. Just enjoy the photos folks are posting from less cloudy areas. When everything aligns, it’s awesome and all the more awesome because auroras are so ephemeral.

It helps to dark adapt. The longer we are in darkness, the more sensitive our eyes become. Avoid car lights and flashlights and cell phones. The last one is tough because smartphone cameras are excellent at recording more color and detail than our eyes experience. Maybe take photos when you first go out or after you’ve gazed for a while. Join your fellow stargazers in Iowa County Astronomers or Starsplitters of Wyalusing or follow Driftless Stargazing on Facebook. We tend to be outside looking up when auroras arrive and love to share the joy.

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.

 

Driftless Dark Skies: Autumnal Dawn

September 8, 2017 by John Heasley

We think of evening as the ideal time for stargazing. The sun sets, the sky darkens, and one by one the stars and planets emerge. If you look to the east just after sunset, you can see Earth’s shadow just above the horizon. Darkness does not fall—it rises! We spend the night in the shadow of the Earth. You can watch the Crescent Moon as it waxes and passes near Jupiter low in the west on September 21 and 22 and just above Saturn in the southwest on September 26. 

Evening is only part of the show. The days around the autumnal equinox on September 22 are perfect for stargazing at dawn. The sky begins to brighten around 5:15, and the Sun rises around 6:45. Those 90 minutes are the best time. One by one, the stars and planets begin to fade and disappear, just as one by one the birds begin their songs. Morning planets often appear highest above the eastern horizon around the equinox, and you can watch three of them dance as they approach and pass one another. 

Mercury is often challenging to see. It’s the innermost planet and stays pretty close to the Sun, but you can spot it low in the east near the bright star Regulus on September 9 and 10. Mercury is the brighter of the two. Mars, dimmer and redder, is below and to the left of the pair. Your binoculars will help as you scan the sky right above the horizon. Mercury will be its highest above the horizon on September 12. Watch as Mercury moves closer to Mars until they are almost inseparable on September 16. Arcing above them in a line, you will see bluish Regulus, dazzling Venus, and the waning Crescent Moon. On September 17, the Crescent Moon is slimmer and has moved closer to Venus. By September 18, the Moon has waned even more and shines between Venus and Regulus above it and Mars and Mercury below it.  See if you can spot Earthshine on the dark part of the Moon. That’s sunshine reflected from Earth and brightening the night side of the Moon. 

Autumn also means that the Universe in the Park programs come to a close. We have one more opportunity at Governor Dodge State Park on September 23 and two more at Wildcat Mountain State Park on September 2 and 30. UW grad students give a talk in the Amphitheater and then set up telescopes for guests to have a look. Starsplitters of Wyalusing offer public programs on September 16 and 23. If skies are clear, we should be able to see the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and the craters of the Moon. Hope you enjoy the skies at dawn and dusk! 

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 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: Home in the Milky Way

September 2, 2016 by John Heasley

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

Henry David Thoreau, Walden 

Photo by Josh Thompson of Driftless Hills Photography

Photo by Josh Thompson of Driftless Hills Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer Triangle

July 6, 2016 by John Heasley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer Stargazing

May 3, 2016 by John Heasley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driftless Wisconsin Winter Fun

January 5, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driftless Dark Skies: Summer Stargazing

May 10, 2015 by John Heasley

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

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

A telescope. Someone in every town

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

In Littleton it may as well be me.”

Robert Frost “The Star-Splitter”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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