High hopes for Durango’s rocket teams

Monday, May 7, 2018 10:29 PM

Greetings, Stargazers.

Someone looking up in the Four Corners skies recently might have seen rockets. Yes, this is usually a column about astronomy, but I grew up a few minutes from the Johnson Space Center in Houston and associate astronomy with everything else space related. So rockets count and deserve at least a few lines once in a while.

I want to wish the best of luck to the Team America Rocketry Challenge competitors from Animas High School at the national contest in Washington, D.C. That contest is today (May 12). I got to watch many of their launches this year and appreciate their enthusiasm.

And while I am writing this, the Fort Lewis College students who are participating in the First Nations Launch competition are completing their final post-launch assessment report. This competition is part of the NASA Space Grant program, and I was lucky enough to be the team’s adviser this year. Final results will be known June 1.

Later this summer, some of my Space Grant students are building a payload that will fly on a high-altitude balloon. But they are also configuring the payload to fly on one of the high-powered rockets similar to those used in the recent competition.

With these rocket and balloon discussions, I am definitely left hanging in the air as to the best way to transition into a more astronomical topic. I will likely crash and burn in my attempt.

Last month, I talked about a few things to see in Leo. Following Leo in the zodiac is Virgo. I find that Virgo is much harder to identify as a virgin (or maiden) than Leo is a lion. Who knows what the ancients were thinking about when they discussed this pattern of stars.

At least Virgo’s brightest star, Spica, is easy to find and identify. And the mnemonic I use will help you find another bright star to note. I start with the big dipper, since most people can find that asterism. The handle of the big dipper makes an arc to the south. You just need to remember that the handle “arcs to Arcturus, then speeds on to Spica.” Arcturus with a magnitude of -0.07 will be the brightest star in the sky after Sirius sets in the west about 10 p.m. Spica’s magnitude is 0.96, so it’s about two and a half times dimmer than Arcturus, but still one of the brightest stars in the sky.

This monthVenus, the evening star, is bright enough now to see in broad daylight. At magnitude -3.9, it is the brightest thing in the sky after the sun and the moon. It is following the path of the sun about 30 degrees to the east of the sun, but will be much easier to spot once the sun sets. Venus will set a bit after 9 p.m.

Jupiter is a few days past opposition. Opposition is when Jupiter is the closest it gets to Earth, so it is due south along the ecliptic at midnight. At magnitude -2.4 Jupiter is the next brightest thing in the sky after Venus.

The summer Milky Way is rising just after 11 p.m. If you get the opportunity to go to a dark site during the next week, the new moon provides a fun time to watch the Milky Way rise. Get your eyes dark-adapted by going outside without any lights soon after 10 p.m. Once the Milky Way crosses the horizon, you can be surprised at how truly bright it appears. It can be so bright as to affect your dark-adapted eyes so that you can no longer see some of the faintest stars overhead that you could pick out only a few minutes before.

Finally, this is the time of year to see the brightest globular cluster in the sky. Omega Centauri only ever gets 5 degrees above the southern horizon, and this time of year it reaches that highest point just after 11 p.m.

Charles Hakes teaches in the Physics and Engineering Department at Fort Lewis College and is the director of the Fort Lewis Observatory. Reach him at

Useful links

Animas High School TARC team:
Omega Centauri:
Virgo cluster of galaxies:
Astronomy picture of the day:
An Astronomer’s forecast for Durango:
Old Fort Lewis Observatory:
Four Corners Stargazers: