College students share telescope views

BY Carol Lutsinger is a NASA/JPL Solar System educator and ambassador Texas Space Grant Consortium collaborator and American Astronomical Society resource agent Newspaper in Education

It is good to know that astronomy is being taught in classrooms across the Valley. This past week students in Los Fresnos ISD’s Liberty Memorial MS enjoyed learning more from UTRGV Physics and Astronomy students who shared telescope views of the waxing gibbous moon and other celestial objects. The science teachers organized a fun evening of a variety of activities related to the subject; former students even returned to assist in the presentations. Perhaps one day we will again have an active astronomy club organized in the area.

The lineup of planets in the predawn sky has been intriguing early risers all month. By 8:00 PM Jupiter has risen so is in the predawn sky near the meridian in the south. Mars follows, having risen around midnight, then Saturn and Venus. The planets are in a gentle arc across the sky about an hour before dawn. If you rise early, walk out and enjoy the fresh air, the waking birds’ calls, and the quiet neighborhood. S-h-h-h, unless you want to wake up the dogs in the area.

Speaking of gentle arcs of planets, that arc marks the ecliptic, and imaginary plane line like the equator, along which the planets, the Sun, and the Moon appear. As we enter a new month a day later than usual for February, we can thank the Leap Year math catch-up day. Because Earth takes about 365.25 days to make a complete orbit around our star, we have to make the calendar year match the solar year, so we add a day in February every four years. It helps to remember that time is an arbitrary thing that is determined by the motion of the Sun seeming to move across the sky. Our planet is a sphere, so the apparent path is a circle, which measures 360°. As Earth rotates an average of 1000 mph on its axis, the Sun in that span of time the west-to-east rotation causes the Sun to rise 15° along the ecliptic each hour. How many hours in a day? How many degrees in a circle? Multiply hours by degrees. Did you get 360? Oh, no. She is talking math again. I thought this was a science based column.

Keeping on with the math theme, are you ready for the clock face locations of the planets? Mercury is 3:00; Venus 5:00; Earth almost 9:00; Mars 8:00; Ceres, one of the “dwarf planets recently included as part of our solar system members, is at about 3:30, Jupiter is far out and about 9:30; Saturn about 6:30, Uranus 2:00, Neptune 4:00, and let’s include Pluto at 5:00.

If you have a good telescope, a dark viewing site, and clear skies, this is a good time to observe Saturn because of its tilt the rings are at a great angle to see gaps between the ring system and the planet itself. I hope you have a friend to share the view with you if you don’t have your own telescope. It will knock your socks off.

It surprises me how many students have no knowledge of the International Space Station that is orbiting Earth with six astronauts from different nations conducting science experiments. If you haven’t shared this information with your children/students, this would be a good time to go online and access the ISS website. Real science is going on all the time. One of the astronauts on board, Scott Kelly, is a twin whose brother Mark has remained on earth. When the ISS brother returns all the information gathered about changes to his various body systems can be compared to his stay-at-home brother. The information from this science experiment will be extremely valuable for future long-duration space missions.

Until next week, KLU.