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AAAA Observing Reports

A Trip 
Through 
The Universe

by 
Dr. Paul Derrick, 
Waco, TX

We will be taking a trip from Ground Earth to the Edge of the Universe. Along the way, we will take a quick look at many of the celestial objects and astronomical phenomena which fill the universe, and which make it such an interesting place both to live in and to study.

Earth and the Solar System

Meteors streak through the Earth's atmosphere, and are relatively close to the observer, only a few miles up. Meteors usually burn up in the air, but occasionally, one will actually hit the surface of the Earth. 

One very famous artifact that resulted in a meteor collision with Earth is Meteor Crater in Arizona. Usually, meteors vaporize upon impact, but very large ones will leave behind a crater marking the spot they hit. In Meteor Crater, there is a great deal of debris buried below the crater and left from the impact that confirms that this was indeed a meteor impact.  There is also a certain amount of debris from the impact that is scattered in the surrounding area. Meteor Crater was created 50,000 years ago, and is fairly recent in both the geological and astronomical time scale. Any meteor that impacts with the ground at an angle between 45 degrees and 90 degrees will leave a circular crater, which accounts for the shape of Meteor Crater, as well as the many craters we see on the Moon and other planets. There are many other meteor craters that have been found on the face of the earth, but most have been filled in over millions of years and so are indistinct.

Above the atmosphere we can find satellites like the Hubble Space Telescope and many military and communications satellites. The famous first Apollo picture of Earth gave mankind a glimpse of the our planet from space.

The Moon is the closest celestial object to Earth. Only one side of our satellite can be seen from Earth, due to  the orbital period and the rotation of the moon being in sync. The earthshine we can see during the Dark of the Moon is bright enough to read a newspaper by.

The Sun is the closest start to Earth. It is also the center of our Solar System. The Sun has cycles of surface activity that are related to the well-known 11 year sunspot cycle. The high number of sunspots currently visible is due to the fact that we are at the peak of the current cycle.

Solar Eclipses are favorite events of amateur astronomers, who often travel many miles to view one. A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes in from for the Sun. It is an interesting fact the the angular size of the Moon as seen from Earth is almost exactly the same at that of the Sun. The next total solar eclipse which can be seen from Texas and most of the US will be in 2024.

The Solar System is the family of planets that belong to our Sun, and of which the Earth is a part. Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system, and is famous for its Red Spot, a great storm that his been raging on the surface of Jupiter since 1600, when it was first discovered with a telescope. Jupiter is the most visible active and interesting planet to observe in the solar system. However, it is actually nothing but a cloud or big ball of gas, mostly hydrogen, with no surface, which would make it a very difficult place to visit. Its satellites, on the other hand, are rocky and solid, and are each quite varied, making them interesting destinations for a future trip. It is interesting that the solar system is made up of four inner rocky planets, and four outer gas planets. Pluto, the ninth and outermost planet, may not be a planet at all, but a large asteroid. 

Comets are visitors to the Solar system. The recent famous comets Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake made a brilliant spectacle as seen from earth. Comets are "dirty snowballs" that glow as the energy from the sun heats up their surface materials, which are then thrown off into space as a "tail."

Out into the Milky Way Galaxy

As we move beyond the solar system, we begin to encounter the other inhabitants of the galaxy in which we live, the Milky Way. In addition to other stars and their planets, there are other types of objects which we can observe.

Spectacular Deep-Sky objects like the Great Nebula in Orion, M42, are Emission Nebulae made up of glowing clouds of hydrogen gas. Nebulae like M42 are "stellar nurseries" in which new stars are born from the condensation of dust and gas. The baby stars begin to glow from the atomic fusion that is causes by the large gravitational forces holding the stars together. Nebula like M42 look red in photographs, but this color is not seen by the human eye, because the light levels are not bright enough to stimulate our color vision.

M57 - The Ring Nebula in LyraPlanetary Nebulae like the Ring Nebula (M57) in Lyra, are the remains of a nova, or exploding star. The central star of such a nebula is a compact neutron star caused during the stellar explosion, and can sometimes be seen in large telescopes. Another remnant of the death of a star is the Crab Nebula (M1) in Taurus. This nebula was caused by a supernova explosion about 1000 years ago. 

The explosion of an exceptionally large supernova can result in a Black Hole. A black hole is a point in space that has no dimension, but has so much mass in it that the gravity is so strong that even light cannot escape from it. But even a black hole was originally a super large star that collapsed at the end of its life cycle. The bigger a star is, the faster it burns up and dies.

M13 - The Hercules Globuler ClusterGlobular Clusters are round groups of stars that live in the form of a halo around the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. M13, the great Globular Cluster in Hercules, is one of the most famous globular clusters visible from the Northern Hemisphers. A globular cluster can contain more that 100,000 stars, but even so, there is so much space between the stars that they will never collide. The distance between stars in a globular cluster varies from less than one light-year to more than four light-years. Globular clusters are very old, dating from the time of the formation of the galaxy.

Beyond Our Milky Way Galaxy

We have already mentioned galaxies and talked about our own Milky Way Galaxy. But what is a galaxy, really?

Galaxies are families of stars, somewhat like the solar system is a family of planets. Thus, galaxies are big conglomerations of dust, stars, and gas held together by a black hole at the center.

The universe is made up of millions, or billions, or even trillions of galaxies. The total number is not known. These galaxies clump together into groups called galaxy clusters. Our Local Groups of Galaxies is made up of the Milky Way, M31 in Andromeda, and M33, the Pinwheel Galaxy in Triangulum. Other famous groups of galaxies are the Virgo Cluster and the Cluster in Coma Berenices.

M31 - The Great Galaxy in Andromeda.M-31, The Great Galaxy in Andromeda is the most famous examples of a galaxy. In shape and size, it is a much like our own Milky Way, even to the extent that it has companion galaxies M32 and M110, similar to our own galactic companions, the Magellanic Clouds. M-31 is the closest large spiral galaxy to our own Milky Way galaxy, and therefore presents us with a wealth of details. Numerous dust lanes are evident, and large telescopes can even identify individual members of its system of globular clusters. 

Galaxies actually do rotate, but on a very slow time scale compared to earth: it takes 275 million earth years for the Milky Way to rotate once!

At the edge of the universe are Quasars. Quasars are not yet fully understood, but they are thought to be a stage in the development of normal galaxies. The word Quasar is  made up from the words "Quasi-Stellar Source", due to their star-like appearance in a telescope.

A telescope is both a Visual Machine and a Time Machine. Not only does a telescope gather light, but it also looks back in time. The farther away an object is, the longer it takes the light of that object to reach us. Thus, when we look through a telescope, we are looking at the object as it was perhaps millions of years ago, instead of what is actually looks like now. When we observe Quasars, we are looking at the very beginning of the Universe!

The Hubble Deep Field is the farthest and deepest we have ever looked into the universe. When the Hubble Space Telescope took a photo of a blank area of sky for 100 hours, it revealed hundreds of galaxies which had never been seen before. The Universe is indeed immense!

"Be Glad of life ...
Because it gives you the chance
To Love, to Work, and to Play, ...
And to look up at the stars!"

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