FirstLight Astronomy Club

33°29.6'N / 117°06.8'W / 1190 ft.

Resolutions for 2010!

It is the end of another year, and if you have been a regular reader here I can assume that you have a least a passing interest in this fascinating discipline of astronomy. But have you done anything this year which took you beyond an occasional read? Have you put your faith into practice, so to speak? Resolve this year to do something!

Here are some suggestions I have been making for New Year's resolutions over the years now, but which are just as valid today.

Reading is a good place to start something new. There are a host of great books out there, most of which feature a trove of beautiful pictures. Check out amazon.com and search for astronomy books, or inquire at your local bookstore. Pick a book, buy it, and read it this year.

Can you afford to read only a few minutes a day? Then check out daily online sites like Astronomy Picture of the Day which not only has the obvious daily "picture," but also a whole mini-lesson of what the picture is all about. It's a great way for a person to learn a little bit at a time, and keep up-to-date. One way or another, can you commit to reading something astronomical this year?

How about observing? Maybe this year you can devote yourself to seeing that meteor shower you have been avoiding all your life. There are a half dozen good showers a year. Make one of them your own! Google "meteor shower calendar 2010" to see when they occur.

Another observing option would be to commit to memory a season's constellations. Winter has a beautiful set of stars, like Orion and Taurus, but so do all the other seasons, especially summer when it may be a little more comfortable to go out anyway.

You could also keep an eye on all the planets this year, to get to know how they wander the skies throughout the year. Another challenge would be to observe the Moon through an entire month, watching how it goes through an entire set of phases.

Observing would also, of course, include buying or borrowing a telescope. Get to know the basics of that great astronomical tool and then fall in love with the skies layers deeper than what you can see naked-eye.

In the mood for a day trip? You and your family or friends might consider this year a trip to Palomar Mountain for a visit to one of the world's premiere telescopes. Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles is a great place for astronomy lovers to visit, even if it has lost its night skies to the city of blinding lights.

Resolve this year to take more than just a passing interest in this grand pillar of the sciences. It will be so worth the effort. Have a great new year!

Tilted to a T

Well, it's finally here. No, I don't mean the end of the year, or the profoundly significant holiday season, or even the annual ritual of crass commercialism. What I mean is we are at the time of the year - in this next week - when that sun finally stops getting lower in the sky. The winter solstice is here; there is no need to worry that the sun might continue to sweep the sky ever lower in a slow, daily, downward descent into the horizon, never to rise again, plunging our land into everlasting darkness.

It is a gift we get every December holiday season, this stopping of the sun, or in its Latinized form, the "solstice." And most readers of this column will recall that it is the tilt our planet has with respect to the sun that allows these solstices to occur. At the moment we in the Northern Hemisphere are tilted far over and away from the sun so that the days are shortened and it is colder.

What about other planets? Does tilt play any important role there with their surface conditions? Not like it does here.
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Mercury is barely tilted at all. But it is so close to the sun that it has more important things to worry about, like days that are 800 degrees Fahrenheit and nights that plunge to -280.

Venus is slightly tilted with respect to the sun, but rotates so slowly and has such a inconceivably thick atmosphere, that tilt plays almost no role there, either.

Let's skip out to the giant planets. There, distance and spin rate and ultra thick atmospheres play such an overwhelmingly huge role that the tilts of those planets don't make much of a difference. And the Pluto-like bodies way, way out there get such a small amount of solar energy that, tilt or not, they are not comfortable places to live.

The only place outside of Earth where tilt might play a role worth considering is Mars, which is tilted much like Earth and experiences seasons like we do. The problem? There is no Moon to stabilize the planet, and over long periods of time Mars wobbles around like a flailing, failing top.

That leaves us. Our ideal tilt, along with our distance from the sun, our wobble-stabilizing Moon, our optimal atmosphere, our perfect combination of continents and oceans, and many other factors, allow us to enjoy these dark days of winter knowing we could really ask for nothing better. This list of design features allows us to experience the greatest amount of living space on a rocky body in the middle of space.

Observe for yourself the return of the sun in the next month or so as we slowly tilt back over. And remember, despite the cold and darkness now, spring is on its way.
Temecula Valley High School / Temecula, CA · Some images © Gemini Observatory/AURA Contact Me