Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
The Colorado Mountain College SKY Club will host a free public astronomy program at 7:30 p.m. April 25 in the CMC Library on the third floor of Bristol Hall. Astronomy professor Jimmy Westlake will present a special program titled “Two Eclipses and a Transit, Too!” Learn about the three extraordinary celestial events coming our way in late May and early June. Telescopic observing will follow the indoor event, weather permitting. For more information, call Westlake at 970-870-4537.
April not only brings snow and rain showers to the mountains of Northwest Colorado, it also brings the annual Lyrid meteor shower. A shower of meteors, or shooting stars, happens whenever the Earth crosses the trail of an old comet that has filled with tiny dust particles. These dust grains hit the Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of up to 30 miles per second, causing them to get so hot they burn up in a streak of light about 60 miles over our heads.
On any given night of the year, a single observer can expect to see five or six meteors per hour of sky watching, but on the night of a meteor shower, that number can rise considerably. This month, on the night of April 21, the Earth will pass through the dusty river left by Comet Thatcher, creating as many as 20 beautiful shooting stars per hour. You can see them in any part of the sky, but you’ll have your best view facing the northeastern sky at about midnight. The meteors will seem to fan out from a point near the bright star Vega in the constellation of Lyra, so they are called Lyrid meteors.
Remember, more meteors are seen after midnight than before midnight, so roll out that warm sleeping bag, kick back in a lounge chair or in the back of a truck, and watch the celestial fireworks April 21.
While you’re outside watching meteors, check out the planet Saturn. On April 15, the ringed planet Saturn reached opposition, its closest point to the Earth for the year at 811 million miles. Oppositions of Saturn happen about every 12 1/2 months as the faster moving Earth gains a lap on Saturn and catches up to it from behind.
You can spot Saturn, without any optical aid, rising in the eastern sky shortly after sunset this month. It appears as a bright, yellowish star that doesn’t twinkle like a regular star, but gleams with a steady light. This year, Saturn is moving across the constellation of Virgo, very close to the bright blue star Spica. Saturn stays within about 5 degrees of Spica all spring and summer this year.
If you own a telescope — even a small one — try aiming it at Saturn. Saturn offers the biggest “wow” factor of any other object visible through a small telescope. You can see for yourself Saturn’s magnificent icy rings and its largest moon, Titan. Titan will look like a little orange “star” just beyond the edge of the rings. You might spy several other smaller moons hanging around the rings, as well.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. Check out Westlake’s astrophotography website at www.jwestlake.com.