The calendar has turned to April, another month has passed and our swiftly-moving home planet has moved another 47.94 million miles around the sun. During the next 47.94 million miles, Earth will be celebrating Global Astronomy Month as set by Astronomers Without Borders.
In that starry spirit, we decided to spotlight the beautiful world of astronomy and how you can get involved right here in Denton, Texas. From star maps to stargazing parties to hotly-anticipated space travel events in 2018, here's a handy guide to get you through Global Astronomy Month in style. (With plenty of links to relevant books from UNT Libraries, of course!)
What is astronomy?
Astronomy, according to the definition we just Googled, is “the branch of science that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe as a whole.” That sounds like a pretty huge branch. The neighboring branch is astrophysics, which deals with the actual mechanics (physics, motion, behavior, etc.) of those heavenly bodies.
There are two fields of astronomy: observational (the direct study of celestial objects) and theoretical (modeling and analyzing how celestial systems evolve).
The neat thing about astronomy is the barrier to entry, which doesn’t exist. Any of us can look up at the stars and practice observational astronomy. The key is knowing what you’re looking at and where to look.
That’s where we come in!
The UNT Sky
Obviously, the sky is slightly different depending on where on Earth you're standing and the time of year. Our planet, other planets, the stars and the galaxies that hold them ... staring up at the universe is like staring out from a Tilt-A-Whirl ride at the fair, only at a slower speed and a grander scale.
But pinpoint the exact date and location and you can figure out what you can look at and when to look for it. So here's what you can look for from Denton's streets around April 15, 2018.
Looking to the South
That thin blue line cutting across the middle of the sky is the galactic plane of the Milky Way. Yes, it's visible from Earth! Raise your right arm out from your body, turn your head to look at it and you can get a decent idea of what you're looking at when you see our galaxy from Earth, resting deep inside it.
By the way: M42 is the Orion Nebula.
Looking to the North
Here's a quick guide to viewing our solar system's planets in April with links to star charts.
- Venus is difficult to observe from our city, but it will become visible from about 7:48 p.m. to 8:44 p.m. just barely above the horizon.
- Neptune, Pluto, Mars, and Saturn are all visible in the night sky this month. The best time to glimpse all of them in the same sky is around 5:30 a.m. while looking southeast.
- Jupiter rises to its highest visible point at 3:06 a.m., where it will rest within the Libra constellation just above the ecliptic.
- Ceres, the lovable dwarf planet with the fascinating bright spots, is visible in Denton from 8:31 p.m. to 3:53 a.m. The best time to see it is at 10:32 p.m. when it rests smack-dab in the night sky. Here’s a way to view it if you look west.
Now you know where to look, but if you need some helpful guides make sure to check out these online books from UNT Libraries:
- Astronomy for Older Eyes: A Guide for Aging Backyard Astronomers by James L. Chen
- Astronomy of the Milky Way: The Observer’s Guide to the Northern Sky by Mike Inglis
- Astronomy Adventures and Vacations: How to Get the Most Out of Astronomy in Your Leisure Time by Timothy Treadwell
You may be surprised to learn just how many stargazing events go on around the Dallas-Fort Worth area every month. We live in a sprawling metroplex of lights and planes, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy some amateur astronomy with friends and family around here. The Texas Astronomical Society hosts the Frisco Starfest each month at Frisco Commons Park. The next Starfest, on April 14, should be a big one as Global Astronomy Month continues. Our UNT friends in Cowtown won't get left out, either: the Fort Worth Astronomical Society hosts a Tandy Hills Star Party each month as well over at the Tandy Hills Nature Area.
If you really want to get outside of the D-FW light pollution, you can drive two hours and 120 miles away to Hubbard City Lakes Park, home of the famous Hubbard City Lakes Star Party.
All of these events are free and provide telescopes and helpful guides to any visitors. You owe it to yourself to slow down, hit one of these star parties and take in the beauty that is our night sky. Just make sure to bring your copy of A Stargazing Program for Beginners: A Pocket Field Guide with you!
Global Astronomy in 2018
The advent of the internet and live streams have made space mission launches must-see events each year. With some help from the New York Times, we've assembled a handful of the astronomical missions we're most excited to read about in 2018.
April 1: NASA launches the Grace-FO satellite
The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) consisted of twin satellites, GRACE-1 and GRACE-2, that took measurements of anomalies in the Earth’s gravity field for over 15 years. They were decommissioned in October 2017, but the GRACE program will continue in April when GRACE-FO is launched. GRACE is an important part of climate science; the satellite tracks the movement of water and ice around the Earth.
April: NASA launches the TESS spacecraft
The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite is designed to search for planets orbiting other stars throughout the Milky Way galaxy. It will replace the Kepler space telescope, which is in its final months of service. UNT Libraries has an online film snout the groundbreaking Kepler mission available to stream anytime.
Starting on April 22: Lyrids meteor shower will peak
From the dusk of April 22 to dawn the next day, you can get a look at the annual Lyrids meteor shower. The Lyrids are the strongest annual shower of meteors in our night sky. The best time for Texans will be from 11:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m.
May: NASA launches the Mars InSight lander
When InSight lands on the vast plain of Elysium Planitia, it will study Mars’ early geological evolution with an onboard seismometer and heat probe. Mars’ seismic activity is of interest in this mission to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which has been a key part of NASA's journeys to Mars.
June 1: Japan’s Hayabusa-2 will reach the asteroid Ryugu
After 18 months of study, Hayabusa-2 will attempt to return to Earth with a surface sample from Ryugu in 2020.
July 31: Parker Solar Probe launch
NASA is sending this poor, doomed probe to within 4 million miles of the Sun’s surface, closer than any human spacecraft has come before. Parker will study the sun’s corona and solar wind. In the image above, the sun on the right is from Earth's viewpoint. The sun on the left is how Parker will see it.
August 17: Osiris-Rex reaches Bennu
Osiris-Rex was launched at the asteroid Bennu in 2016; like Hayabusa-2, NASA plans to have Osiris-Rex return an asteroid sample.by 2023.
Books of Note
The UNT Libraries collection of books on astronomy is vast; over 4,000 results come up through our online catalog. We encourage students and visitors to browse at their own leisure, but here are a few that piqued our own interest.
- We would be remiss if we didn't start with Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. The late, transcendent scientist and black hole researcher set out in 1988 to make the field of astronomy and astrophysics easily accessible to the general public. He succeeded: Hawking's book sold over 10 million copies in 20 years.
- Another can't-miss staple of astronomical literature is Cosmos by Carl Sagan. It served initially as a companion piece to the Cosmos TV series, but it stands on its own as well.
- Galileo's inventions may have revolutionized astronomy, but there was certainly Astronomy Before the Telescope.
- But this book on Galileo's astronomy and the pushback by religion is still fascinating.