Astronomy Corner


Perhaps it is our proximity to Palomar Mountain and our protection from city lights, but Hidden Meadows has a large number of amateur astronomers, many of whom have their own small observatories to study the heavens. These hobbyists are following in the footsteps of centuries of curious observers before them. The mystery of the heavens has intrigued mankind since the beginning of time and every civilization has its own early history of attempts to explain the movement of the stars and planets.
Three centuries before Christ, using simple geometry, the Greeks determined the diameters of the earth, the moon and the sun as well as the distances from the earth to the moon and from the earth to the sun to a degree of precision within 10% of our modern measurements. The names of most of the constellations in the sky derive from Greek mythology and were passed down by word of mouth over the centuries. Most of the stars have Arabic names because the early Arabic astronomers did a better job of recording their study of the heavens. Centuries later when European astronomers started to catch up, they just adopted the Arabic names given to all of the major stars.
Over five hundred years ago, Galileo was the first person to use a telescope to view the planets and the stars. Using a primitive instrument that today would cost less than $50, he discovered the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. Seeing that the phases of Venus were similar to the phases of the moon convinced Galileo that all of the planets rotate around the sun. This overturned centuries of belief that everything rotated around the earth and caused him to be excommunicated by the Catholic Church, but it wasn’t the only time that new observations completely changed the science of Astronomy.
Charles Messier, a French astronomer, was so inspired by viewing the comet of 1744 that he spent the rest of his life searching for new comets. At first glance comets look like faint fuzzy snow balls, but by tracking their movement over the course of many days against the fixed background of stars, astronomers can be certain that they are looking at a moving comet and not just some diffuse fixed object in the sky. To help his fellow astronomers focus only on potential comets, Messier started a catalog of objects that never moved and therefore could not be comets. Little did he realize that his list of 110 objects to avoid contained things that modern astronomers now find among the most fascinating to examine. Many of them are star clusters containing millions of stars each, and others are the cloudy remnants of stars that exploded millions of years ago.
The 200 inch telescope at Mount Palomar was the most powerful telescope in the world when it was built in 1947 – a record it kept for 38 years. Today it is still the second largest single piece mirror in the world and it continues to be used every night of the year when visual conditions allow. Instead of massive slabs of glass for mirrors, modern telescopes have started using multiple smaller mirrors which can be adjusted thousands of times per second, compensating for atmospheric changes that make stars appear to twinkle as you look at them. But the real cutting edge of telescopes are the orbiting Hubble telescope and the even bigger Webb telescope, which is soon to be launched. Both allow humans to see further into space than ever before because they do not have to fight through atmospheric disturbances. Using the modern telescopes along with radio and x-ray telescopes, astronomers are making new discoveries every single week, in some cases overturning theories that have prevailed for years. For example the estimated number of galaxies in the universe was just increased by a factor of 10 based on new observations.
Astronomy Magazine and Sky and Telescope Magazine are two of the most popular sources to keep up to date on the latest discoveries in this amazing field. They both have websites and send out weekly updates to highlight what has been recently discovered. Whether it is watching for the next new comet, warning against the next asteroid that might hit the earth, or searching for other earth-like planets, astronomers of today are changing our knowledge of the universe around us almost every night.
Amateur astronomers are inspired by the ever changing science of astronomy, and those of us that reside here in Hidden Meadow are no exception. If you would like to join us to see what’s happening in the night sky, plan to attend our Star Party at 6:30 pm, on the 6th of December at the Boulder Oaks Golf Club near the putting green where we will have telescopes available for viewing, weather permitting.