*During the early 2000’s, Linda Adams, a former resident of TGO, wrote a series of articles for the TGO Nature Center titled “a Page From Nature”.  This article was a part of that series and was published in February 2001.    Enjoy!

Astronomy is the study of the universe and the celestial bodies, gas, and dust within it. Astronomy includes observations and theories about the solar system, the stars, the galaxies, and the general structure of space. Astronomy also includes cosmology, the study of the universe and its past and future.

Astronomy is the oldest science, dating back thousands of years to when primitive people noticed objects in the sky overhead and watched the way the objects moved. Astronomy has a long tradition of practical results, such as our current understanding of the stars, day and night, the seasons, and the phases of the Moon. Much of today’s research in astronomy does not address immediate practical problems. Instead, it involves basic research to satisfy our curiosity about the universe and the objects in it. One day such knowledge may well be of practical use to humans.

Amateur astronomers observe the sky as a hobby. A wide range of astronomical objects is accessible to amateur astronomers. Many solar system objects — such as planets, moons, and comets — are bright enough to be visible through binoculars and small telescopes.

Florida’s southerly location enables stargazers to see notable celestial objects, such as the Southern Cross, not visible north of Florida. The air can be calm and steady, which is favorable for telescope viewing, allowing such details as Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s cloud bands to stand out. Haze, humidity, and lights in heavily populated areas often brighten the night sky, making it more difficult to see stars and planets.

Full moon — The full moon rises at sunset and sets at dawn. It is highest in the sky in December, when it may pass directly overhead in central and southern Florida (in summer, it rises only about 40 degrees). Some lunar features show up best when the moon is full; the dark “seas” (hardened lava flows) and the “rays” of bright material splattered from craters. Craters and mountain ranges are best seen before and after full moon, when the angle of sunlight throws them into relief. Since the moon is locked in earth’s gravitational grip, the same side of the moon always faces us.

Venus — Cloud-shrouded Venus alternates between being our “morning star” and “evening star” depending on where it is in its orbit. This brilliant planet usually outshines everything in the sky except for the sun and moon. As it circles the sun, Venus displays phases, which can be viewed through a small telescope or high-power binoculars.

Mars — Every 25-1/2 months, when earth is aligned between Mars and the sun, Mars is closest to us and at its brightest and most colorful, appearing orange-red to the naked eye. At this time, called opposition (opposite in the sky from the sun), Mars rises at sunset and remains in the sky all night. Bright, white polar caps and dusky surface markings may be glimpsed through a small telescope at opposition. Mars rivals Jupiter in brightness at opposition, but fades somewhat at other times.

Jupiter — visible in our morning sky for about five months at a stretch and in our evening sky for five months, Jupiter appears brighter than any star in the night sky at all times. The largest planet in our solar system, it has a diameter of 88,850 miles, 11.2 times that of earth. Jupiter’s four largest moons can often be spotted with binoculars.

Saturn — Visible most of the year, Saturn appears to the naked eye as a slightly yellowish, moderately bright star. A small telescope reveals its rings, composed mainly of rocky chunks of ice and the two largest of its more than 20 known moons.

Florida is an ideal location to observe the subtle glow of zodiacal light, a dim, cone-shaped band of light caused by the reflection of sunlight off billions of minute dust particles orbiting the sun in the same plane as the planets. Also known as “false dusk” or “false dawn”, the light is best seen from a dark-sky location just after dusk, and is brightest where the sun went down.

Spring: Southern Cross — By looking due south on a clear night, sky-watchers south of Fort Myers/Palm Beach may see the constellation Crux, the Southern Cross. The best time to see it is from April] (at midnight/1 a.m. DST) to May 1 (11 p.m. DST). The bright stars alpha Centauri (at 4.3 light years away, the nearest bright star to our solar system) and beta Centauri can be seen in the same area of sky just above the horizon.

(Information Source: National Audubon Society Field Guide to Florida and Encarta Encyclopedia) (Column prepared by Linda Adams)


TGO Nature Center – “Living in Harmony with Nature

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