Greetings stargazers. The Herald has asked me to write this monthly column that Lewis McCool did so well for so long. Since this is my first try, please be easy on the critiques.
First, let me introduce myself, so you know who is writing. I have lived in Durango for 15 years now, and teach in the physics and engineering department at Fort Lewis College. I am Fort Lewiss affiliate director of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, and the director of the Fort Lewis Observatory. You can see some of the things we do at the observatory on the website: www.fortlewis.edu/observatory.
Although my background is not observational astronomy, I previously worked for one of the many contractors at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and space has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
The Four Corners is one of the best places in the country to see the night sky, so if you are lucky enough to live here, I encourage you to get outside and enjoy the view. Early spring is not the time of year when you typically want to be outside at night for long periods, but if you dress warmly enough (i.e. lots of layers!) then your experience wont be one of just wanting to go back inside.
Here are a couple of hints to make skywatching in cold weather more pleasant. If you will be sitting down, a cushion will help insulate from the cold. Another place for a cushion is your feet. Putting your feet on a small piece of Styrofoam insulates them from losing heat to the ground through conduction. It takes at least 15 minutes for your eyes to really get adjusted to the dark, but much less time for your feet to get cold.
Each month I will try to pick out something in the sky in the early evening that might be interesting to find with either binoculars or a small (4- to 6-inch diameter) telescope. An 8-inch or larger telescope, as many amateur astronomers have, make viewing these objects even easier.
Because online star charts and smartphone apps are so readily available, I wont try to give detailed directions, but will try to suggest a few things that might be interesting to take a look at.
However, no matter how good your telescope, most of these interesting objects will appear as faint smudges, or wont quite come to focus. Only with very large telescopes, or very long exposure photographs, will you get views commonly found online.
Mars, Venus, Jupiter and the Moon are great markers for the ecliptic, the path the sun takes through the sky. If you get out binoculars to look at the moon, see if you can also see the moons of Jupiter. The four Galilean moons are certainly bright enough to see with an unaided eye, but Jupiter is so bright that only a few people can resolve them within the glare of Jupiter. Take a look maybe you are one of the lucky ones with such exceptional eyesight.
Charles Hakes is an assistant professor in the physics and engineering department at Fort Lewis College and is director of the Fort Lewis Observatory.