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Astronomy

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How to Look Up

The beauty of astronomy is that anybody can do it. From the tiniest baby to the
most advanced astrophysicist, there is something for anyone who wants to enjoy
astronomy. In fact, it is a science that is so accessible that virtually
anybody can do it virtually anywhere they are. All they have to know how to do
is to look up.

It really is amazing when you think about it that just by looking up on any
given night, you could see virtually hundreds of thousands of stars, star
systems, planets, moons, asteroids, comets and maybe a even an occasional space
shuttle might wander by. It is even more breathtaking when you realize that the
sky you are looking up at is for all intents and purposes the exact same sky
that our ancestors hundreds and thousands of years ago enjoyed when they just
looked up.

There is something timeless about the cosmos. The fact that the planets and the
moon and the stars beyond them have been there for ages does something to our
sense of our place in the universe. In fact, many of the stars we "see" with
our naked eye are actually light that came from that star hundreds of thousands
of years ago. That light is just now reaching the earth. So in a very real way,
looking up is like time travel.

Everybody knows how to look up. Children first discover the amazing light show
on display for free every clear night by just looking up. You can probably
remember that very first time you noticed that explosion of stars above you
when you were a child. Now it is time to foster that same love of astronomy in
your own children. You have to teach them how to look up.

While anyone can look up and fall in love with the stars at any time, the fun
of astronomy is learning how to become more and more skilled and equipped in
star gazing that you see and understand more and more each time you look up.
Here are some steps you can take to make the moments you can devote to your
hobby of astronomy much more enjoyable.

*  Get out of town. The furtherest you can get from the lights of the city, the
more you will see in the night sky.

*  Know what you are looking at. It is great fun to start learning the
constellations, how to navigate the night sky and find the planets and the
famous stars. There are web sites and books galore to guide you.

*  Get some history. Learning the background to the great discoveries in
astronomy will make your moments star gazing more meaningful. It is one of the
oldest sciences on earth so find out the greats of history who have looked at
these stars before you.

*  Get a geek. Astronomy clubs are lively places full of knowledgeable amateurs
who love to share their knowledge with you. For the price of a coke and snacks,
they will go star gazing with you and overwhelm you with trivia and great
knowledge.

*  Know when to look. Not only knowing the weather will make sure your star
gazing is rewarding but if you learn when the big meteor showers and other big
astronomy events will happen will make the excitement of astronomy come alive
for you.

And when all is said and done, get equipped. Your quest for newer and better
telescopes will be a lifelong one. Let yourself get addicted to astronomy and
the experience will enrich every aspect of life. It will be an addiction you
never want to break.

Bonding with the Universe.

As parents, we often worry about what our children are getting excited about.
We hope we can guide them to "bond" with healthy things like a love of
learning, of family and of healthy social activities. But we also worry they
will bond with the wrong people like internet stalkers or the wrong crowd at
school. Wouldn't it be great if we could harness that tremendous energy and
desire to latch onto something and bond with it and help our children "bond"
with the universe through a love of astronomy?

Kids love to get excited about what you are excited about. So there lots of
ways you can "spring" the fun of astronomy on them that will jump start them on
a long and happy exploration of the hobby of astronomy. Here are a few to get
your imagination going.

*  Work it into an evening in the backyard. If you know the night sky will be
particularly exciting the night of a big family barbecue, plan to have some
blankets out there. Then as everybody else is playing Frisbee, just lay out a
blanket, lay flat on your back and start staring up into the sky with a
binoculars. Like the old prank of staring at a far away spot to get people's
interest, your kids will see what you are doing and what to know what is going
on. As you let them take a peek, their curiosity will take off like a wild fire
and they are hooked.

*  A surprise visit to the country. Sometimes it is hard to see the vast display
of stars from within the city. So if you announce that you are going to show
them a surprise one night and have them pile into the car, their curiosity will
be going wild as you leave the city. When you find that quiet park, field or
lake side spot, all you have to do is point up and say "just look" and the
magnificence of the night sky will do the rest.

*  A special Christmas gift. You can buy your children an affordable and durable
beginner's telescope along with some easy star maps written just for kids.
Imagine when they open this exciting gift and want to know how to use it. Don't
be surprised if you are setting up the new telescope in the snow to show them
the great things they will see in the cosmos with the gift that Santa wanted
them to have. The gift of astronomy.

*  Unleash the power of a meteor shower on them. You can keep your eye on the
events that are predicted for the sky watchers in your area. When the next big
meteor shower is about to explode over your area, watch the weather for a clear
night and get your kids excited about what they are about to see. As the lights
begin to go off over head and you create fun and interesting narration to this
dramatic display, the children will be addicts for life for the great
experiences that can be had as students of astronomy.

*  Plan a surprise event in with something you are already doing. For example,
on vacation, you can plan your route on a cross country trip to bring you
within visiting distance of one of the great multimillion dollar telescopes in
this country. By contacting them ahead of time, you can be sure they are
conducting a tour that coincides with your visit. Just imagine if they can look
up at a telescope that is bigger than their house and maybe look through the
eyepiece as some amazing cosmic sight, it will be the hit of the vacation.

Astronomy is a great activity to introduce on a family camping trip. As the
family sits around the fire after a fun night of camping, all you have to do is
just look up and go "Wow, look at that!" When those little heads look up, they
will look back down changed children, children in love with the stars.

Astronomy is a healthy passion for your kids and one they can grow with their
entire lives. And there is probably no better gift you can give them than the
love of the stars, of science and of nature that is all wrapped up together
when your kids bond with the universe through astronomy.

Beyond the Naked Eye

It's hard to say when in our lives each of us become aware of this thing called
"astronomy". But it is safe to say that at some point on our lives, each and
every one of us has that moment when we are suddenly stunned when we come face
to face with the enormity of the universe that we see in the night sky. For
many of us who are city dwellers, we don't really notice that sky up there on a
routine basis. The lights of the city do a good job of disguising the amazing
display that is above all of our heads all of the time.

So it might be that once a year vacation to a camping spot or a trip to a
relative's house out in the country that we find ourselves outside when the
spender of the night sky suddenly decides to put on it's spectacular show. If
you have had that kind of moment when you were literally struck breathless by
the spender the night sky can show to us, you can probably remember that exact
moment when you could say little else but "wow" at what you saw.

That "Wow" moment is what astrology is all about. For some, that wow moment
becomes a passion that leads to a career studying the stars. For a lucky few,
that wow moment because an all consuming obsession that leads to them traveling
to the stars in the space shuttle or on one of our early space missions. But for
most of us astrology may become a pastime or a regular hobby. But we carry that
wow moment with us for the rest of our lives and begin looking for ways to look
deeper and learn more about the spectacular universe we see in the millions of
stars above us each night.

To get started in learning how to observe the stars much better, there are some
basic things we might need to look deeper, beyond just what we can see with the
naked eye and begin to study the stars as well as enjoy them. The first thing
you need isn't equipment at all but literature. A good star map will show you
the major constellations, the location of the key stars we use to navigate the
sky and the planets that will appear larger than stars. And if you add to that
map some well done introductory materials into the hobby of astronomy, you are
well on your way.

The next thing we naturally want to get is a good telescope. You may have seen
a hobbyist who is well along in their study setting up those really cool
looking telescopes on a hill somewhere. That excites the amateur astronomer in
you because that must be the logical next step in the growth of your hobby. But
how to buy a good telescope can be downright confusing and intimidating.

Before you go to that big expense, it might be a better next step from the
naked eye to invest in a good set of binoculars. There are even binoculars that
are suited for star gazing that will do just as good a job at giving you that
extra vision you want to see just a little better the wonders of the universe.
A well designed set of binoculars also gives you much more mobility and ability
to keep your "enhanced vision" at your fingertips when that amazing view just
presents itself to you.

None of this precludes you from moving forward with your plans to put together
an awesome telescope system. Just be sure you get quality advice and training
on how to configure your telescope to meet your needs. Using these guidelines,
you will enjoy hours of enjoyment stargazing at the phenomenal sights in the
night sky that are beyond the naked eye.

The Night Sky

No matter how far along you are in your sophistication as an amateur
astronomer, there is always one fundamental moment that we all go back to. That
is that very first moment that we went out where you could really see the cosmos
well and you took in the night sky. For city dwellers, this is a revelation as
profound as if we discovered aliens living among us. Most of us have no idea
the vast panorama of lights that dot a clear night sky when there are no city
lights to interfere with the view.

Sure we all love the enhanced experience of studying the sky using binoculars
and various sizes and powers of telescopes. But I bet you can remember as a
child that very first time you saw the fully displayed clear night sky with all
the amazing constellations, meters and comets moving about and an exposure of
dots of light far to numerous to ever count.

The best way to recapture the wonder of that moment is to go out in the country
with a child of your own or one who has never had this experience and be there
at that moment when they gaze up and say that very powerful word that is the
only one that can summarize the feelings they are having viewing that
magnificent sky. That word is -- "Wow".

Probably the most phenomenal fact about what that child is looking at that is
also the thing that is most difficult for them to grasp is the sheer enormity
of what is above them and what it represents. The very fact that almost
certainly, virtually every dot up there in the sky is another star or celestial
body that is vastly larger that Earth itself, not by twice or ten times but by
factors of hundreds and thousands, can be a mind blowing idea to kids. Children
have enough trouble imagining the size of earth itself, much less something on
such a grand scope as outer space.

But when it comes to astronomy, we do better when we fall into deeper and
deeper levels of awe at what we see up there in the night sky. Some amazing
facts about what the children are looking at can add to the goose bumps they
are already having as they gaze eyes skyward. Facts like:

*  Our sun is part of a huge galaxy called the Milky Way that consists of one
hundred billion stars just like it or larger. Show them that one hundred
billion is 100,000,000,000 and you will se some jaws drop for sure.

*  The milky was is just one of tens of billions of galaxies each of which has
billions of stars in them as well. In fact, the Milky Way is one of the small
galaxies.

*  If you wanted to drive across the Milky Way, it would take you 100,000 years.
But you can't get there driving the speed limit. You have to drive five
trillion, eight hundred million miles per year to get all the way across that
fast.

*  Scientists calculate that the Milky Way is 14 billion years old.

These little fun facts should get a pretty spirited discussion going about the
origins of the universe and about the possibility of space travel or if there
are life on other planets. You can challenge the kids to calculate that if
every star in the Milky Way supported nine planets and if only one of them was
habitable like earth is, what are the odds that life would exist on one of
them? I think you will see some genuine excitement when they try to run those
numbers.

Such discussion can be fun, exciting, and full of questions. Don't be too hasty
to shut down their imaginations as this is the birth of a lifelong love of
astronomy that they are experiencing. And if you were there that first moment
when they saw that night sky, you will re-experience your own great moment when
you was a child. And it might set off a whole new excitement about astronomy in
you all over again.

Pictures in the Sky

One of the earliest activities we engaged in when we first got into astronomy
is the same one we like to show our children just as soon as their excitement
about the night sky begins to surface. That is the fun of finding
constellations. But finding constellations and using them to navigate the sky
is a discipline that goes back virtually to the dawn of man. In fact, we have
cave pictures to show that the more primitive of human societies could "see
pictures" in the sky and ascribe to them significance.

Constellations also have been important in culture and navigation long before
we had sophisticated systems of navigation. Early explorers, particularly by
sea, relied exclusively on the night sky to help them find their way to their
destination. In fact, when "Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492" and
"discovered" America, he could not have done it without astronomy and the help
of navigation of the cosmos, much of which is made possible because of the
important constellations.

When learning to find the great constellations in the sky, we use the "find
one, you found them all" system. That is because the easiest constellation to
find will guide us to the rest of them. That constellation is The Big Dipper.
Look to the northern sky on a clear night and widen your field of vision from
just focusing on one star and it will pretty much jump out at you. In will look
like a big kitchen pot or ladle, right side up in the fall, upside down in the
spring.

When you have the big dipper under control, you can pretty easily find the
North Star. This is the star that those ancient sailors depended on the most to
find their way to land. Start with the far edge of the bowl of the Big Dipper,
the side that is opposite the handle. There are two stars that make up that
side of the bowl. So start at the bottom of the pot and mentally draw a line to
the top star of the bowl. These two stars are "pointing" to the North Star. Just
keep following that line, curving a bit with the sky and the bright star that
you come to is the North Star. You can impress your friends or family if you
know the scientific name for this star is Polaris.

The North Star can then take you to The Little Dipper. The key here is that
Polaris is the tip of the handle of The Little Dipper and the bowl hangs down
from the handle like it was hanging up in the kitchen. Be patient with this one
as the stars that make up The Little Dipper are dimmer than The Big Dipper. But
it pretty cool once you find it.

These are the obvious starting places but from The Little Dipper you can find
the constellation known as "The Swan" or Cygnus. Just use the same system you
used to find The North Star but continue drawing that line that started in
those pointer stars in the bowl of The Big Dipper. Go about half as far as you
went to find Polaris and you are there. You will see a trapezoid of stars about
as big as The Big Dipper. This trapezoid forms the tail of The Swan.

That line that we are drawing from the pointer stars is our roadmap to another
well known constellation which is Cassiopeia. If you use that line and imagine
you are directly under the two pointer stars, you will se a big "W" just off to
the left of the line. This is the constellation Cassiopeia, the wife of the king
of Egypt, Cepheus, in Greek mythology. There are so many more wonderful
constellations to find and a good star map can continue your quest.

Like Cassiopeia, all of the constellations have wonderful stories and myths
related to Greek culture. It is just as fun to find the star clusters
themselves as it is to enjoy the rich culture related to that constellation.
For all of the signs of the zodiac, for example, there is a related
constellation in the sky. So whether you are serious about astrology or not,
its fun to find the constellation that relates to your "sign" (or that of your
children) and be able to see how the ancients related to these pictures in the
sky.

Our Neighbors in Space

We have a special feeling toward the other planets that circle our sun. Maybe
it's all the science fiction stories about visiting the moon, Mars and other
planets. But we love to think about those planets that make up what we call
"the solar system." that do what our planet does but do it very differently
indeed.

The planets of our solar system have taken on personalities and mythical appeal
in our literature and arts. It is easy to find artists who render their vision
of the planets that make up our society of planets near our sun. The names of
the planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune
are all from our cultural past being gods from Greek and Roman mythology. But
the solar system is not just made up of these planets. The solar system is a
very busy place indeed.

In 2006, there was quite a bit of controversy as scholars and astronomers
agreed to downgrade Pluto and remove its status as a planet. So you have to
wonder, what is it that makes something a planet and what happened to Pluto? It
didn't just go away so it must still be out there. A planet, by scientific
definition is any object in orbit around a sun, that has formed into some kind
of round object is a planet as long as it has cleared away any other orbiting
items around it. By cleared away, that doesn't mean it has destroyed all space
debris etc. For example, our planet has not "cleared away" the moon but it has
captured it into its own orbit so we classify as a planet. That's a relief huh?

There are many objects floating around in our solar system other than the
planets we know of. It's an interesting piece of trivia that in addition to the
planets there are 165 moons orbiting around those nine planets. Some of those
moons are so advanced that some scientists have suspected that they might have
supported life at some point.

In addition to the regular planets and moons, there are dwarf planets, asteroid
belts and routine visits by comets that create a lot of traffic in our cosmic
corner of the universe. The two known dwarf planets that exist on the outer rim
of our solar system are Eries and Ceres. So when Pluto's status was changed to
be removed from the list of planets, it simply joined those two bodies as dwarf
planets but still a solid citizen of the community of celestial bodies around
our sun.

In addition to these larger bodies, there is an asteroid belt that exists
between Mars and Jupiter that most of the asteroids that we see in our night
sky come from. There is another belt of large objects further out called the
Kuiper belt as well as a "bubble" in space called a heliopause and there is a
suspected additional belt outside the known solar system called the Oort belt
that we think is the origin of a lot of large asteroids and comets that
frequent our solar system and come to orbit our sun.

As fascinating as these many celestial bodies who are our neighbors in space is
the origin of our solar system. We have to break it down to simple terms to
understand the terms but we know that the early history of the solar system and
the universe was one of great bodies of gas and clouds of matter eventually
cooling and heating, exploding and spinning off stars and other massive space
giants that became more stars, galaxies and solar systems. It was from this
erratic activity that our sun separated from the gasses and carried with it the
material that became our solar system. The gravity of the sun captured
sufficient matter that it began to go through the process of forming, cooling,
exploding and separating. This is what happened as the planets all went through
he same process eventually establishing stable orbits and small objects falling
into orbit around them.

When you think of how powerful and out of control this process is, it's amazing
to step back and see the beauty of the organization of our solar system today.
The more detail you learn about the history of our solar system, the more you
will enjoy your explorations of the planets with your telescope. That that
discovery is part of the fun of astronomy.

Moon Gazing

For many of us, our very first experience of learning about the celestial
bodies begins when we saw our first full moon in the sky. It is truly a
magnificent view even to the naked eye. If the night is clear, you can see
amazing detail of the lunar surface just star gazing on in your back yard.

Naturally, as you grow in your love of astronomy, you will find many celestial
bodies fascinating. But the moon may always be our first love because is the
one far away space object that has the unique distinction of flying close to
the earth and upon which man has walked.

Your study of the moon, like anything else, can go from the simple to the very
complex. To gaze at the moon with the naked eye, making yourself familiar with
the lunar map will help you pick out the seas, craters and other geographic
phenomenon that others have already mapped to make your study more enjoyable.
Moon maps can be had from any astronomy shop or online and they are well worth
the investment.

The best time to view the moon, obviously, is at night when there are few
clouds and the weather is accommodating for a long and lasting study. The first
quarter yields the greatest detail of study. And don't be fooled but the
blotting out of part of the moon when it is not in full moon stage. The
phenomenon known as "earthshine" gives you the ability to see the darkened part
of the moon with some detail as well, even if the moon is only at quarter or
half display.

To kick it up a notch, a good pair of binoculars can do wonders for the detail
you will see on the lunar surface. For best results, get a good wide field in
the binocular settings so you can take in the lunar landscape in all its
beauty. And because it is almost impossible to hold the binoculars still for
the length of time you will want to gaze at this magnificent body in space, you
may want to add to your equipment arsenal a good tripod that you can affix the
binoculars to so you can study the moon in comfort and with a stable viewing
platform.

Of course, to take your moon worship to the ultimate, stepping your equipment
up to a good starter telescope will give you the most stunning detail of the
lunar surface. With each of these upgrades your knowledge and the depth and
scope of what you will be able to see will improve geometrically. For many
amateur astronomers, we sometimes cannot get enough of what we can see on this
our closest space object.

To take it to a natural next level, you may want to take advantage of
partnerships with other astronomers or by visiting one of the truly great
telescopes that have been set up by professionals who have invested in better
techniques for eliminating atmospheric interference to see the moon even
better. The internet can give you access to the Hubble and many of the huge
telescopes that are pointed at the moon all the time. Further, many astronomy
clubs are working on ways to combine multiple telescopes, carefully
synchronized with computers for the best view of the lunar landscape.

Becoming part of the society of devoted amateur astronomers will give you
access to these organized efforts to reach new levels in our ability to study
the Earth's moon. And it will give you peers and friends who share your passion
for astronomy and who can share their experience and areas of expertise as you
seek to find where you might look next in the huge night sky, at the moon and
beyond it in your quest for knowledge about the seemingly endless universe
above us.

Moon Fever

Of all of the celestial bodies that capture our attention and fascination as
astronomers, none has a greater influence on life on planet Earth than it's own
satellite, the moon. When you think about it, we regard the moon with such
powerful significance that unlike the moons of other planets which we give
names, we only refer to our one and only orbiting orb as THE moon. It is not a
moon. To us, it is the one and only moon.

The moon works its way into our way of thinking, our feelings about romance,
our poetry and literature and even how we feel about our day in day out lives
in many cases. It is not only primitive societies that ascribe mood swings,
changes in social conduct and changes in weather to the moon. Even today, a
full moon can have a powerful effect on these forces which we acknowledge even
if we cannot explain them scientifically.

The most obvious physical phenomenon that is directly affected by the gravity
of the moon are the tides of the ocean. The tides are an integral part of how
maritime life is regulated and the comings and goings of the fishing world in
coastal communities. But not very many people know that at certain times of the
year when the orbits of the earth bring the sun and moon into right alignment,
there can even be tidal effect on inland bodies of water and even on the solid
earth. Eons ago, when the moon's orbit was closer to the Earth, it was the
effect of the moon that caused massive changes in the topography of the land
and on continental drift as well. This reflects the powerful effect the moon
has had on both human history and on global geographical history as well.

You may sometimes wonder where the moon came from. Was it a planet that
traveled too close to Earth and was captured in our orbit? Actually, the
prevailing theory of modern science is that the moon was the result of a large
scale collision with the still developing Earth early in its development which
caused this large "chuck" to spin off into an orbiting body. This explains the
similarity in composition as has been confirmed by many of the moon exploratory
space missions that were conducted by NASA.

But this background also highlights another important influence the moon has
had on Earth's development that is seldom recognized and that is the
stabilization of Earth's orbital pattern. Most know that Earth is not round but
more of an egg shaped orb. To be blunt, the Earth would wobble. Without the
moon's stabilizing influence, this shape would shift dramatically so the tilt
of the axis, that is the polar caps would shift dramatically with each seasonal
rotation producing climacteric, changes much more violent and drastic than we
are used to. It is possible that life as we know it could not have developed
here had the moon not been there to "keep the Earth in line" and continue to
stabilize the orbital position of the Earth so our climate could remain stable
and mild.

A third significant influence of the moon comes from that origin as coming from
a collision which "ripped" the body of the moon from the developing core of the
Earth. Because of this disruption in how the core of our planet developed, the
metals that are usually intact in the core of the planet are actually scattered
up and down the geography of the earth in diverse ways. Usually the metals of
the planet are all concentrated deep in the core. But because of the collision
which took the moon out to orbit, metals that have been crucial to the
development of our industrial and technological cultures are readily available
and easy for use to mine. This again, is something we can thank the presence of
that lovely moon in the sky for.

Comets -- Visitors From Beyond.

The one thing we love the most in the world of astronomy is a good mystery. And
if there was ever a mysterious and yet very powerful force of nature that we
witness in the night skies, it is the coming of the mighty comet.

The arrival of a comet within view of Earth is an event of international
importance. Witness the huge media attention that the Haley or Hale-Bopp have
had when they have come within view The sight of these amazing space objects is
simultaneously frightening and awe inspiring.

Above all, it is during these comet viewings that the astronomer comes out in
all of us. But what is a comet? Where did it come from? And how does it get
that magnificent tail?

We should never confuse comets with asteroids. Asteroids are small space rocks
that come from an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. While still quite
stunning to see, they pale in comparison to the arrival of a comet. Asteroids
also have received considerable study by the scientific community.

Not as much is known about comets. As a rule, comets are considerably larger
than asteroids. The composition of a comet is a mixture of nebulous, gasses,
ice, dust and space debris. One scientist called the composition of a comet as
similar to a "dirty snowball" because the composition is so diverse and
changeable. The center or nucleus of a comet is usually quiet solid but the
"snowball" materials often create a "cloud" around that nucleus that can become
quite large and that extends at great lengths behind the comet as it moves
through space. That trailing plume is what makes up the comet's magnificent
tail that makes it so exciting to watch when a comet comes within view of Earth.

The origins of comets is similarly mysterious. There are a number of theories
about where they come from but it is clear that they originate from outside our
solar system, somewhere in deep space. Some have speculated they are fragments
left over from the organization of planets that get loose from whatever
gravitational pull and are sent flying across space to eventually get caught up
in the gravity of our sun bringing them into our solar system.

Another theory is that they come from a gaseous cloud called the Oort cloud
which is cooling out there after the organization of the sun. As this space
debris cools, it gets organized into one body which then gathers sufficient
mass to be attracted into the gravity of our solar system turning into a fast
moving comet plummeting toward our sun. However, because of the strong
gravitational orbits of the many planets in our solar system, the comet does
not always immediately collide with the sun and often takes on an orbit of its
own.

The life expectancy of comets varies widely. Scientists refer to a comet that
is expected to burn out or impact the sun within two hundred years as a short
period comet whereas a long period comet has a life expectancy of over two
hundred years. That may seem long to us as earth dwellers but in terms of stars
and planets, this is a very short life as a space object indeed.

Scientists across the globe have put together some pretty impressive probes to
learn more about comets to aid our understanding of these visitors from beyond.
In 1985, for example, the United States put a probe into the path of the comet
Giacobini-Zinner which passed through the comets tail gathering tremendous
scientific knowledge about comets. Then in 1986, an international collation of
scientists were able to launch a probe that was able to fly close to Haley's
comet as it passed near Earth and continue the research.

While science fiction writers and tabloid newspapers like to alarm us with the
possibility of a comet impacting the earth, scientists who understand the
orbits of comets and what changes their paths tell us this is unlikely. That is
good because some comets reach sizes that are as big as a planet so that impact
would be devastating. For now, we can enjoy the fun of seeing comets make their
rare visits to our night sky and marvel at the spectacular shows that these
visitors from beyond put on when they are visible in the cosmos.

Shooting Stars

If you are a serious astronomy fanatic like a lot of us are, you can probably
remember that one event in childhood that started you along this exciting
hobby. It might have been that first time you looked through a telescope. But
for many of us, it was that first time we saw a rain of fire from the sky that
we eventually came to know as a meteoroid shower.

At the time when you see the first one, it's easy to remember the movie "war of
the worlds" or some other fantastic image of aliens entering our atmosphere in
droves to take over the planet. But with some guidance and explanation of what
was going on, we eventually learned that these showers were not at all
threatening or any kind of invasion. For the most part meteoroid showers are
harmless, part of nature and very fun to watch.

So what are these strange lights in the sky? Are they aliens invading from
Mars? Are the comets coming to start the next ice age? Or perhaps asteroids
burning up as they enter the earths atmosphere. The answer to the above
questions is no to the first and "yes and no" to the other two.

A meteoroid is actually a small piece of space rubble, usually dust or small
rocks that come from either a comet or the break up of an asteroid in space and
that eventually plummets toward the earth. We say "toward the earth" because the
lights you see are the friction of the atmosphere burning up those small space
tidbits and creating a spectacular show for all of us as they do so. A
particularly exciting moment to witness is when a meteoroid breaks up or
explodes on entry. A meteoroid that explodes is called bolides.

There are some interesting details about the life of a meteoroid that make the
viewing of shooting stars even more fun. To be seen, a meteoroid only needs to
weigh as little as a millionth of a gram. But the thing that makes them so
spectacular to see is the tremendous speeds they reach as they enter the
atmosphere. Before burning up, a meteoroid will reach between 11 and 74
kilometers per second which is 100 times faster than a speeding bullet.

We tend to think of seeing a shooting star as a freak event and we associate
it with superstition (hence, wish on a lucky star). But there are actually
thousands of them every year so it really isn't that rare to see one. In fact,
scientists tell us that over 200,000 tons of space matter enters the atmosphere
each year and burns up on entry.

Comets are a big source of meteoroids because of the nature of those long
tails. A large amount of dust, ice and other space debris gets caught up in a
comet's tail as it moves toward the sun. Then as the comet moves away from the
sun in its orbit, tons of this matter is thrown off into space to disperse. As
the Earth moves in its routine orbit around the sun, it often crosses through
clouds of this discarded matter which becomes one of those "meteor showers"
that are so popular for viewing.

These showers of shooting stars are pretty easy for astronomers to predict so
you can get into position to see the excitement at just the right time of night
and be looking at the right area of the night sky. Usually the astronomy
magazine or site will give you a general time and location to be ready to look
when the meteoroids start to fall.

Now keep in mind, this is a phenomenon of nature, so it may not observe the
time table exactly. Also note that there is a notation system for where the
meteoroid shower will occur based on what constellation is its backdrop. The
section of the sky to focus on for the show is called the "radiant" because
that is where the entering meteoroids begin to glow or radiate. The radiant is
named for the constellation it is nearest too. So if the meteor shower is going
to occur in the constellation of Leo, then its radiant will be called Leonid.
This will help you decipher the listing of asteroid showers in the publications.

Asteroids

There is a lot of exciting stuff going on in the stars above us that make
astronomy so much fun. The truth is the universe is a constantly changing,
moving, some would say "living" thing because you just never know what you are
going to see on any given night of stargazing.

But of the many celestial phenomenons, there is probably none as exciting as
that time you see your first asteroid on the move in the heavens. To call
asteroids the "rock stars" of astronomy is simultaneously a bad joke but an
accurate depiction of how astronomy fans view them. Unlike suns, planets and
moons, asteroids are on the move, ever changing and, if they appear in the
night sky, exciting and dynamic.

Like rock stars, asteroids have been given their fair share of urban myth and
lore. Many have attributed the extinction of the dinosaurs to the impact of a
huge asteroid on the earth. This theory has some credibility and, if it is
true, it evokes some pretty startling images and foreboding fears in the
current reining species on earth, the human race.

The fact that asteroids are fast moving space debris only makes their movement
and activity more interesting and exciting. Unlike a moon, planet or star, the
odds that an asteroid could hit the earth are entirely reasonable and in fact,
there are many documented cases of small asteroids making it through our
atmosphere and leaving some pretty impressive craters in the earth's surface.

Popular culture has happily embraced the idea of an asteroid impact. The idea
has spawned many a science fiction story adding the idea that alien life forms
may ride asteroids to our world and start a "war of the worlds" situation. But
by far, the most talked about concept that has captured the imagination and the
fears of science fiction fans and the general public is of another asteroid
hitting the earth that could wipe out life as allegedly happened to the
dinosaurs. In fact, the movie "Armageddon" was based on this idea and the
concept that somehow mankind could avert that catastrophe with technology.

But probably the best way to calm our fears and replace science fiction with
science is with understanding and knowledge. The truth is, there has been a lot
of study of asteroid activity and the serious scientific community has gained
significant knowledge of these amazing celestial bodies. A number of probes to
asteroids have been conducted which have given us a wealth of information about
their composition and how we might predict their behavior.

We now know that the majority of asteroids we get to witness come from an
asteroid belt that exists between Mars and Jupiter. It is from this community
of asteroids that many of the notable asteroids emerged. Scientists have gained
significant knowledge about the composition of asteroids and separated them into
classes including class S which comes of the part of the belt that is closest to
Mars, classes C, D and V which are classified by composition and a class called
"Centaurs" whose flight patterns take them closer to Jupiter and Uranus.

Some of the probes NASA has conducted on near flying asteroids have performed
some pretty amazing studies of these eccentric celestial bodies. In 1994 the
Galileo probe got within 1000 miles of the asteroid Ida and discovered that Ida
actually had its own moon.

Other probes have fired impactors into asteroids and even landed on an asteroid
to produce some amazing scientific data for us. There is much to learn about
asteroids in our love of astronomy and that knowledge only makes our enjoyment
of seeing them in the cosmos even more exciting.




Space, The Final Frontier

While it was just a TV show, that little speech at the beginning of the
original Star Trek show really did do a good job of capturing our feelings
about space. It is those feelings that drive our love of astronomy and our
desire to learn more and more about it.

The thing that is most exciting about studying the universe is also the most
frustrating and that is that no matter how expert we get, we are always just
getting started. But if it's any consolation, some of the most advanced minds
in science and from history always felt that way about space. Even the greats
such as Copernicus and Einstein looked up into space and felt like they were
just a spec in the presence of such infinity.

Of course space is not infinite. It has to be finite which means somehow there
must be an end to it. But if there is, nobody on this tiny planet has figured
out where it is. The only thing that has brought us to "the end of the
universe" is our limited ability to see any deeper into space.

But conquering the final frontier of space means more than just seeing more
stars and planets and building the biggest telescope we can. There are some
mind blowing concepts about how space works that we have ahead of us to
conquer. The big bang and the expanding universe alone was enough to set your
mind to spinning. But then we have the coming of Einstein and the theory of
relativity to set the entire idea on its ear. All of a sudden space is not just
three dimensions but the dimension of time becomes exportable and the twisting
and maybe even travel through time seems almost possible.

The frontier of space is as much a journey of the mind as it is of distance.
When Steven Hawking showed us the mysteries of black holes, all of a sudden,
time and space could collapse and be twisted and changed in those intergalactic
pressure cookers. If not for the wonders of radio astronomy, these ideas would
remain just ideas but slowly science is catching up with theory.

But the brilliance of mathematicians and genius minds like Hawking and Einstein
continue to stretch our concepts of space. Now we have the string theory that
could revolutionize everything we know about space, time and how the universe
relates to itself. We can't just say, no, we have discovered enough. It's the
final frontier. The Starship Enterprise would not stop exploring so neither can
we. Because there is a hurdle still ahead that has a name but no real answer to
it yet. It's called the Unified Field Theory and those that know tell us that
when the Einsteins and Hawkings of our day crack that theory, every other
theory will fall into place.

These exciting concepts seem some tools to put the enormity of space in
context. That may also be the value of science fiction. Not only are science
fiction writers often the visionaries of what comes to be in the future but
they give us the idea that space is knowable, that despite how big it is and
how small we are, we can conquer this frontier like we have conquered others
before us.

For mankind, that is often enough. If we can get the vision that we can conquer
something, even if it is something so massive, so impossibly huge, it seems that
we are capable of anything. And the love of astronomy, maybe unlike any other
force on earth, has brought together mankind toward that common goal of
conquering the universe. The quest to establish an international space station
and to cooperate on spreading our reach off of this planet seems to find
commonality between nations that otherwise cannot get along on the surface of
the earth.

That alone may be a reason that we must continue to support astronomy locally
and the space program nationally. It is something that seems to bring peace
rather than war and make us a better people. But more than that it is as though
this is what we were created to do. To reach out to the stars may be our
destiny. If so then our love of astronomy is more than a hobby, it's a calling.

The Basics of Buying a Telescope

There is a moment in the life of any aspiring astronomer that it is time to buy
that first telescope. It's exciting to think about setting up your own viewing
station whether that is on the deck of your home or having a powerful but
mobile telescope set up to take to the remove countryside to really get a good
shot at some breath taking star gazing.

The last thing we would want to do is to take away any of the "fun" of your
hobby of astronomy because the joy of what we do as star gazers is a big part
of the appeal. But unlike many other hobbies, ours is a passion of science, of
learning and of discovery. And don't kid yourself, even a hobbyist with a
limited telescopic set up can see some amazing things in the stars. So let's be
sure you invest in a solid piece of equipment that you can continue to grow with
as your knowledge and ability as an astronomer grows. But how do we do that?

Meet the Geeks.

Now we use the term "telescope geeks" lovingly because any of us who are
devoted to our love of astronomy eventually become telescope geeks. And these
are the type of people who will know exactly how to evaluate your needs in
terms of where you are right now and where you want to go as your hobby grows
with you. So if you have not yet associated with a local astronomy club, now is
the time to do it.

Start rubbing elbows with people who live and breathe telescopes. Their input
is a hundred times more reliable than what a sales brochure or that salesman
might have to say because the "telescope geeks" have been where you are, made
the mistakes and are eager to help you avoid those same mistakes.

Size Matters

In the world of telescopes, the sales people see, to try to baffle us with all
the bells and whistles of their hottest selling model. One of the big check
points that is often pushed is the amplification level of the telescope lens.
While that is a factor that is worth noting, when it comes to a telescope lens,
the old phrase "size matters" is a good guideline.

Just remember that your telescope lens works best when it takes in the most
light it can from the object you are viewing. So the wider the diameter of the
lens, the better a view you are going to get. So don't fall for the
amplification level only. Carefully evaluate the lens size so you have the
right fit for what you want to do.

It Has to Stand on Its Own Feet.

If you are going to set up a permanent telescope station, then you can bolt the
unit down so it is well supported. But many of us have to take our telescopes
out into the country for optimum use. So the stand has to be strong and
flexible so we can set up the telescope on uneven turf but still feel secure
that this important and expensive piece of equipment is going to stand on its
own without fear of it falling during our observation time.

We already mentioned strong and flexible as evaluation guides for the telescope
stand but add in ease of use as well. You have to be able to set your telescope
up and break it down quickly and easily when you are on a remote viewing. You
may even find yourself setting up or taking down your telescope in the dark or
by lantern or flashlight if you are taking advantage of the great star displays
in the late night sky that make this hobby so exciting.

These are the basics of what to look for in your new telescope. Finally, make
sure the telescope can be enhanced and expanded without having to throw the
first unit away and buy something completely new. You want your telescope to
grow as your knowledge and skills grow. If your first telescope meets all of
these requirements, you are off on the right foot on a long and enjoyable
career as an amateur astronomer.

Telescopes 101

Buying the right telescope to take your love of astronomy to the next level is
a big next step in the development of your passion for the stars. In many ways,
it is a big step from someone who is just fooling around with astronomy to a
serious student of the science. But you and I both know that there is still
another big step after buying a telescope before you really know how to use it.

So it is critically important that you get just the right telescope for where
you are and what your star gazing preferences are. To start with, let's discuss
the three major kinds of telescopes and then lay down some "Telescope 101"
concepts to increase your chances that you will buy the right thing.

The three primary types of telescopes that the amateur astronomer might buy are
the Refractor, the Reflector and the Schmidt Cassegrain telescope. The first two
are named for the kind of lens that is used. It is pretty easy to see that the
lens is the heart of the telescope so the kind that you will use will determine
the success of your use of that telescope.

The refractor lens is the simplest because it uses a convex lens to focus the
light on the eyepiece. So the lens bends outwards for this purpose. The
refractor telescope's strength is in viewing planets. The reflector's strength
is in seeing more distant objects and the lens is concave or bends in. It uses
mirrors to focus the image that you eventually see. The final type, the Schmidt
Cassegrain telescope is the most complex and accomplishes the goals of both but
it uses an involved system of mirrors to capture the image you want to see.

So to select just the right kind of telescope, your objectives in using the
telescope are important. To really understand the strengths and weaknesses not
only of the lenses and telescope design but also in how the telescope performs
in various star gazing situations, it is best to do some homework up front and
get exposure to the different kinds. So before you make your first purchase:

*  Above all, establish a relationship with a reputable telescope shop that
employs people who know their stuff. If you buy your telescope at a Wal-Mart or
department store, the odds you will get the right thing are remote.

*  Pick the brains of the experts. If you are not already active in an astronomy
society or club, the sales people at the telescope store will be able to guide
you to the active societies in your area. Once you have connections with people
who have bought telescopes, you can get advice about what works and what to
avoid that is more valid than anything you will get from a web article or a
salesperson at Wal-Mart.

*  Try before you buy. This is another advantage of going on some field trips
with the astronomy club. You can set aside some quality hours with people who
know telescopes and have their rigs set up to examine their equipment, learn
the key technical aspects, and try them out before you sink money in your own
set up.

There are other considerations to factor into your final purchase decision. How
mobile must your telescope be? The tripod or other accessory decisions will
change significantly with a telescope that will live on your deck versus one
that you plan to take to many remote locations. Along those lines, how
difficult is the set up and break down? How complex is the telescope and will
you have trouble with maintenance? Network to get the answers to these and
other questions. If you do your homework like this, you will find just the
right telescope for this next big step in the evolution of your passion for
astronomy.

The Amazing Hubble

In the history of modern astronomy, there is probably no one greater leap
forward than the building and launch of the space telescope known as the
Hubble. While NASA has had many ups and downs, the launch and continued
operation of the Hubble space telescope probably ranks next to the moon
landings and the development of the Space Shuttle as one of the greatest space
exploration accomplishments of the last hundred years.

An amazing piece of astronomy trivia that few people know is that in truth,
only about ten percent of the universe is visible using conventional methods of
observation. For that reason, the Hubble really was a huge leap forward. That is
for the very simple reason that the Hubble can operate outside of the atmosphere
of Earth. Trying to make significant space exploration via telescopes from the
terrestrial surface of planet Earth is very difficult. That very thing that
keeps us alive, our own Earth's atmosphere presents a serious distraction from
being able to see deeper and further into space.

The Hubble space telescope was named after the great scientist and visionary
Edward Hubble who discovered that the universe was expanding which was
explained by what is now known in science as Hubble's Law. To truly get a feel
for the amazing accomplishment that was achieved with the launch of the Hubble
telescope, spend some time on Nasa's web site dedicated to the project at
http://hubble.nasa.gov. There are also a number of sites where you can enjoy
some stunning pictures from the Hubble including http://heritage.stsci.edu/ and
http://www.stsci.edu/ftp/science/hdf/hdf.html.

It's hard to believe how long the Hubble has been orbiting earth and sending
back amazing video and pictures of what it is discovering in space. But the
Hubble was actually initially launched on April 25th 1990. It was the
culmination of literally decades of research and construction which began in
1977. Expectations were high as the orbiting telescope was put in place and
actually began to function as it was designed to do.

All was not always perfect with the telescope and the early pictures were
disappointing. After some study NASA discovered that the reason for the early
failures was the curvatures of one of the main lenses of the orbiting telescope.

We probably could never have kept this intricate piece of equipment operational
as well as we have had we not had the Space Shuttle program to give us a tool to
implement repairs and improvements to the Hubble. In 1993 a new lens was
installed on the Hubble which corrected the problem of picture resolution that
was noted in the early operation of the telescope.

Two other repair and upgrade mission have been made to the Hubble since it
launched, both of them in 1997 to upgrade older equipment and to retrofit the
telescope to extend its useful life through 2010. It's pretty amazing to think
that this scientific and mechanical marvel has been operating now for ten years
without maintenance. We can be assured that plans are in the works for NASA to
upgrade or replace parts on the Hubble to extend its useful life even further
as that 2010 time frame draws closer.

It is hard to imagine the science of astronomy or the natural quest for greater
knowledge of our universe without the Hubble. While many times those who would
not fund space exploration have tried to cut funding for the Hubble, the
operation of this telescope is just too important to astronomers and to the
scientific well being of mankind and our planet not to continue to use the
Hubble, or its next natural successor. We will always need to have a set of
eyes in the sky to watch the universe and discover more of its mysteries.

What if They Let YOU Run the Hubble?

It is probably the dream of any amateur astronomer to be able to be the boss of
one of the great multi million dollar telescopes even if it was just for one
hour or for a few shots. Sure, we can have a lot of fun with our binoculars.
And as we improve our personal equipment set, we get better and better at
pinpointing what we want to see in the sky.

But there is only so far we can go within the constraints of a family budget in
building the perfect telescopic operation. Probably the next level then is to
work together with others in your astronomy club. By pooling our resources, we
can make more progress both in acquiring much more sophisticated equipment and
in synchronizing our telescopic operations.

All of this is good and its fun to tweak it and play with it always finding
improvements. But when we are sitting back and dreaming, it's those big
institutional size telescopes that really grab our interest. Maybe you have had
a chance to visit one at Kitt Peak, Arizona, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, Palomar
Mountain, California or Mt. Locke, Texas to name just a few and as you walked
around jaw dropped to your shoes, you thought, maybe if I could just run it for
an hour, how awesome would that be?

The good news is that while these huge observatories are not going to let you
come in and turn the gears of the mightiest telescopes yourself, many of them
will perform specific observations for you and allow you to "see through their
eyes" via the internet for that short observation. This is a powerful option
for an amateur astronomer and one you want to prepare for carefully. Here is
what you do:

1.  Begin compiling a list of the great telescopes of the world, their locations
and how to contact them. Google will help you with finding lists of these
observatories to contact by pointing you to specific directory sites like
http://astro.nineplanets.org/bigeyes.html

2.  You can start by submitting your request to a specific observatory. Now here
is where you have to do your homework. If you have a specific celestial event
you wish to observe, there will be particular telescopes around the globe that
will be in the best position to get those shots for you. So study up and find
just the right telescope and when the perfect moment for that observation would
occur. Get out ahead of this homework as you need to submit your request in
plenty of time for it to go through approval and for them to get back to you
and to interact with you to nail down what you are going to have them look at.

3.  There are two ways you can direct the operators of the telescopes. You can
give them specific coordinates to focus on and a specific time frame to perform
the observation. The other way is to give them a star, a planet or a particular
star system to observe and let them figure out the coordinates. That might be
easier because you know what you want to see.

4.  Now you sit back and wait for the email that the observation is done. You
will not be able to watch them do the observation dynamically. That would be
nice but it just isn't possible yet. These are telescopes, not web cams. But
they will post the pictures from your observation on a particular web location
and email the results to you for study.

It's pretty cool, free and customized to what you requested. And you can brag
to your friends as you make color copies of your shots that you had Kitt Peak
do these up for you personally. And you would not be lying.

The Glossary of Telescopes

When you enter into any new area of science, you almost always find yourself
with a baffling new language of technical terms to learn before you can
converse with the experts. This is certainly true in astronomy both in terms of
terms that refer to the cosmos and terms that describe the tools of the trade,
the most prevalent being the telescope. So to get us off of first base, let's
define some of the key terms that pertain to telescopes to help you be able to
talk to them more intelligently.

The first area of specialization in telescopes has to do with the types of
telescopes people use. The three designs of telescopes that most people use are
the Refractor, the Reflector and the Schmidt Cassegrain telescope.

*  The refractor telescope uses a convex lens to focus the light on the
eyepiece.

*  The reflector telescope has a concave lens which means it bends in. It uses
mirrors to focus the image that you eventually see.

*  The Schmidt Cassegrain telescope uses an involved system of mirrors to
capture the image you want to see.

*  A binocular telescope uses a set of telescopes mounted and synchronized so
your view of the sky is 3-D.

Beyond the basic types, other terms refer to parts of the telescope or to the
science behind how telescopes work.

*  Collimation is a term for how well tuned the telescope is to give you a good
clear image of what you are looking at. You want your telescope to have good
collimation so you are not getting a false image of the celestial body.

*  Aperture is a fancy word for how big the lens of your telescope is. But it's
an important word because the aperture of the lens is the key to how powerful
your telescope is. Magnification has nothing to do with it, its all in the
aperture.

*  Focuser is the housing that keeps the eyepiece of the telescope, or what you
will look through, in place. The focuser has to be stable and in good repair
for you to have an image you can rely on.

*  Mount and Wedge. Both of these terms refer to the tripod your telescope sits
on. The mount is the actual tripod and the wedge is the device that lets you
attach the telescope to the mount. The mount and the wedge are there to assist
you with a superior viewing session and to keep your expensive telescope safe
from a fall.

*  An Altazimuth Mount refers to the tripod of the telescope that holds the
device in place and makes it useful during a star gazing session. The
altazimuth mouth allows the telescope to move both horizontally (which is the
azimuth) and vertically. In this way you have full range to look at things
close to the horizon or directly overhead.

*  Coma has a different meaning than the one we are used to, and that's a good
thing. The coma is the blurry area on the outer rims of your view through the
telescope. How big the coma is and to what extent it interferes with your
viewing will have is important to the effectiveness of your telesscope.

*  Planisphere. A fancy word for a star chart. It is nothing less or more than a
detailed map of where everything is in the cosmos and how to find the star you
wish to study by keying off of known stars.

*  Barlow. This refers to a specialized type of lens that you can buy to enhance
the magnification of your telescope.

These are just a few of the basic concepts of telescope operation. We
deliberately picked the ones you have to know to discuss telescopes
intelligently. But your education into the more complex aspects of astronomy
and telescope design and operation will go on for as long as you are a lover of
astronomy, which we hope is for the rest of your life.

Radio Astronomy

For most of us, the idea of astronomy is something we directly connect to
"stargazing", telescopes and seeing magnificent displays in the heavens. And to
be sure, that is the exciting area of astronomy that accounts for it's huge
popularity. So to the uninitiated, the idea of "radio astronomy" seems strange.
There are two reasons for that. First is that humans are far more visual than
audio oriented. And the second is that radio astronomy doesn't really involve
"listening" to the cosmos except to the extent that scientists who use this
sophisticated form of "stargazing" do not rely on visual study to conduct their
work.

To appreciate what is really exciting about radio astronomy, first we have to
shift how we view astronomy. That is because to professional astronomers,
studying the universe is more about frequencies than it is about visual
documentation of phenomenon. This takes us back to Physics 101.

Light, obviously, is the physical phenomenon that empowers our ability to use
our visual confirmation system, e.g. our eyes to appreciate something, in this
case the stars. So when we look up at the heavens, we can see the light
emitting from a star or reflecting from a planet or moon. In many cases, if we
see a far away star, we are actually seeing it hundreds or thousands of years
ago because that is how long it takes for that light to cross the universe and
be visible in our sky. That alone is a pretty mind blowing idea.

Now light itself is a pretty strange substance. But to our astronomy
scientists, light is just another energy that exists in a certain frequency.
Now, we tend to think of frequencies when we talk about sound waves. In
scientific terms light, energy and sound are just a few forms of the same
thing, frequencies of energy that are emulating from a source.

Now we get to why radio astronomy is so necessary. The range of frequency that
light occupies in the big spectrum of frequencies is really pretty small. To
put that more bluntly, we can only "see" a tiny part of the universe that is
actually there. Now when you look up in the night sky and it is so
overwhelming, when you then that we are seeing just a tiny amount of what is
actually going on up there, again, our minds can get pretty overwhelmed.

Radio astronomy uses sophisticated sensor equipment to study ALL of the
frequencies of energy coming to us from the cosmos. In that way, these
scientists can "see" everything that is going on out there and so get a precise
idea of how the stars look, behave now and will behave in the future.

For some of us who have heard about radio astronomy, we think of it in terms of
"listening" for signs of life in the universe. And yes, SETI, or "the Search for
Extra Terrestrial Intelligence" is a part of radio astronomy, albeit a tiny
part. But of much greater importance is how radio astronomy has empowered
serious astronomers (that is those who get paid to do it) to study stars many
light years away, to study black holes which we could never see with our
telescopes and to gather research and data about the whole of the universe that
otherwise would be impossible to know and understand.

This is important work that is constantly ongoing in the world of astronomy. It
is worth keeping up with and learning more about as we have barely scratched the
surface in our brief discussion today. But understanding how important radio
astronomy is will only deepen and make more meaningful your love and grasp of
this big field of knowledge known as astronomy.

Astronomy or Astrology?

Have you ever finally just gave in to the temptation and read your horoscope in
the newspaper on Sunday morning? Sure, we all have. For most of us, it's a
curiosity, an amusement to see what they say our day will be like based on the
sign of the zodiac that we were born under. Sometimes we forget that this
little diversion is actually part of an ancient science called astrology that
has had a powerful effect on many cultures dating back to centuries before
Christ.

That is not to say that astrology is a dead art today. It is easy to find
astrology advocates in every town, advertising in the newspaper and on
television trying to convince us that they can tell our fortune, our future and
help cure our ills by exploring the mysteries of astrology.

When you are a lover of astronomy, the confusion between astronomy and
astrology by those who don't really understand the differences can get pretty
aggravating. And in early civilizations, the two disciplines were not separate.
Astrology was just the religious side of the science of astronomy. So what
changed?

The most significant shift that set in motion the separation of the two lines
of thought began in the first century when Ptolemy wrote the very first book on
astronomy called the Tetrabiblos. In it, he began to suggest that astronomy
should be considered a separate science from astrology. It was quite a
revolutionary book because it also was the first scientific document to suggest
that the earth was not the center of the universe and that astronomy should be
focused strictly on the observation and recording of events in the cosmos.

Over the next 2000 years, we have come a long way. Not only has science and
religion completely gone their separate ways since Ptolemy but the science of
astronomy makes tremendous strides every year that are so phenomenal, Ptolemy
would be truly astounded.

Probably the biggest point of diversion between a student of astrology and
astronomy is the belief that the position of the stars has meaning over the
events on our lives. Of course, we do know that the weather and tides and other
important aspects of our lives are affected by the stars, planets and heavenly
bodies, particularly the moon. But these things are happening because of
completely explainable scientific laws in motion, not because of mystical
forces at work.

What can we, as devotees of astronomy conclude about the close relationship
between astrology and astronomy? Well, for sure we want to be able to explain
to anyone who is confused by the similarity in the words what the differences
are. We do not want to see the two approaches to the stars and planets to
become confused again. But we should do all we can do keep that distinction
clear without becoming skeptical or demeaning towards those who may still hold
to the teachings of astrology.

It is important to remember that what is part of a person's religious life has
a level of sacred belief to the one holding it. And it is not respectful to
scoff at such things. If for no other reason than out of respect for the
ancient origins of astronomy, we should give courtesy who still are exploring
whether astrology has any validity for them.

If we can treat each discipline with respect but maintain the separation that
must exist between astrology and astronomy, there is no reason both approaches
to our admiration of the galaxies cannot coexist in peace and harmony. And for
our purposes as astronomers, that harmony will allow us plenty of freedom to
enjoy our quest for knowledge for many more centuries to come. And who knows,
you might still like to read the horoscope on Sunday morning every so often.

The History of Astronomy

If you have a passion for star gazing, telescopes, the Hubble and the universe
and this thing we call "astronomy", you are far from alone. Of course, we know
that astronomy is a highly respected science that has produced some of the most
amazing accomplishments of the twentieth century. On top of that, it is a
thriving area of fascination and one of the most exciting hobby areas going
with thousands of astronomy clubs and tens of thousands of amateur astronomers
watching the stars every night just like we do.

But did you know that astronomy is one of the oldest and most respected
sciences of them all? As far back as before the times of Christ, the wise and
thinking people of societies of the time were looking at the stars and finding
ways to track and chart them. We who love the hobby of astronomy can chart a
proud history of astronomers that tracks across millennia and through virtually
every culture in civilization. So for the sake of having some really good trivia
to toss around at astronomy club next week, let's highlight some of the big
moments in the history of astronomy.

For many centuries the science of astronomy was not distinct from the practice
of astrology. For clarity, astronomy is the study of the stars, planets, and
the universe with a clearly scientific approach. Astrology is the study of the
zodiac signs and how they influence our growth, our personalities and our daily
lives. In modern times, we as people of science discount the astrological side
and focus on the astronomy of the heavens. But they were one study for
millennia before the age of science made them separate.

There is historical evidence that astronomy was a recognized science as far
back as the Babylonian civilization hundreds of years before Christ. But the
study of the stars was not limited to one country. There were similar movements
going on in China, India, and Ancient Egypt and all over the Arabian Peninsula.
The integration of astronomy and religion is so prevalent that we see it in the
Christmas story in which the Magi, Zoroastrian priesthood probably from the
equivalent of ancient Syria, followed a star to the Christ child. These
astronomers were also astrologers and it was that mixture that lead them to be
part of this historic event.

The first book on astronomy was written by Ptolemy during the Greek empire.
Since that historic publication, the who's who list of great astronomers charts
a path right through the center of modern science including Copernicus, Galileo,
Kepler, Sir Issac Newton, Jung, Michelangelo, Benjamin Franklin and more
recently even Einstein and Stephen Hawkings would join that noble list. It
seemed that from the renaissance on to this day, virtually any man or woman of
intellect dabbled in astronomy at least somewhat and it has always been
considered a sign of the learned to know about the universe and things
astronomical.

Astronomy has had an impact on so many areas of our lives that we really don't
recognize. Many words in our language had their roots in astronomy such as:

*  Influenza which comes from the Latin root word for influence. This reflects
an early belief that the position of the moon and stars may influence health
and cause or cure disease.

*  Disaster which comes from the Latin for "bad star".

*  Lunatic which has the root word "Luna" in it which is the Latin word for
moon. This highlights the long held belief that is even prevalent today that
irrational behavior and even wild and dangerous things happen during a full
moon.

Astronomy and its interrelationship with astrology has also influenced culture,
education and religion to a very large extent over the centuries. In the English
language, the first two days or our week, Sunday and Monday are a reference to
astronomy as their literal interpretations would be "The Day of the Sun" and
"The Day of the Moon."

So if you have found astronomy becoming a consuming passion in your thoughts
and what fascinates you about the world we live in, you are in great company as
this area of study has been a major part of culture and thought virtually since
the dawn of civilization. And it will continue to fascinate mankind for as long
as those beautiful stars shine over our heads.





Peace
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