Saturday, February 03, 2007

Orion and Astronomy memories

A beautiful image containing the constellation Orion.

Orion is my favorite constellation, and, I suspect, he is the favorite of many others too - and he is visible in both the northern and southern hemispheres, unlike many constellations. I think he is probably a favorite because he is bright and beautiful with very noticeable form.

I'd like to know, do you have a favorite constellation? If so, what is it and why (if you have a reason)?

I think the best books ever written about constellations are actually by the author of the Curious George books, H.A. Rey. He wrote two:
The Stars: A New Way to See Them.
Find the Constellations.

His work was revolutionary because he was able to draw the constellations so that they actually looked like what they were named after - which, for some reason, others before him had not succeeded in doing. His drawings make them much easier for people to understand and find.

When I was in fifth grade, there was actually a Young Astronauts club at my school for a little while and we went to this stargazing party out away from the city lights one night with a powerful telescope. It was really cool. That was the year the Challenger exploded with Christa McAuliffe aboard - I remember finding out about it while I was in my English class.

My dad had a telescope, too, for several years when we were young. I can remember him out there with a flashlight covered in red and his Astronomy magazine and his telescope. It was hours of setting up and not a lot of viewing so as a kid I wasn't patient enough for the telescope.

I enjoyed the telescope, however, when I took astronomy in college for fun. It was an easy class needed for my teaching license - way easier than my physics. But we had a lab and we would go up on the rough and we viewed mainly planets. I remember being able to see the phases of Venus. It was cool to find out Venus had phases like the moon has phases because of its position. And seeing Jupiter and some of its moons around it, and seeing Saturn with its rings. But I haven't tried to do that since, however, it seems to me to be one of things everyone ought to see at least once in their life. They say you can see Saturn's rings through good binoculars. Honestly I think it would be hard unless you used a tripod, because your hands shake even just with your heartbeat and the slightest movement could be enough to lose what you're looking for. I remember through those telescopes you could literally see the planet slowly move across your field of view and if you didn't readjust your telescope every few seconds, what you were looking for was no longer in the field of view. I think if you spend the really really big bucks you can get telescopes that will automatically track an object, but I'm not sure.

But my most fond memories of viewing celestial objects did not involve the telescope. For a brief time (a few years), my parents had 30 acres of land down near the Spanish Peaks, just west of Walsenburg. It was a hill against BLM land that flattened out a bit on top. I loved that place - it had petrified wood on it, and I was convinced the BLM land was haunted because I always heard strange sounds on the wind there. My parents' dogs loved it - one of them, Crystal, would catch birds and mice and was so proud of herself she would come back prancing with her catch. She was a really dainty dog for a Samoyed and she would toss her catch in the air with glee. I remember that we went there to cut down Christmas trees one year, too. My parents ended up selling the land because they had left a small camper on it with some basic supplies and it was broken into and robbed. My dad didn't want the land after that so they sold it. But the night skies from the top of that hill were fantastic - more stars than you thought possible - the Milky Way standing out clear as day. And soooo many satellites - I love seeing satellites or the space station in the sky and watching them move across. So there are two things else I think everyone should experience in their lifetime - seeing the Milky Way, and seeing the satellites.

I took astronomy in high school just for fun also and we made these spheres with all the constellations on them. We also did these projects where we tracked the sunset for a month - we picked a spot, drew a horizon, and went there every few days for a while and watched the sunset and recorded the time and location. It was awesome to actually see how the sunset occurs at a different spot each night and track the movement according to the season and understand it as how it related to the tilt of the Earth's axis. When I taught a unit of Astronomy to sixth graders one year, I had them do almost the exact same project.

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