Enjoy the night sky at 30 below…

This is the time of year when you can really get some good looks at the night sky. This is also the time of year when it’s most often the coldest of the winter. So how does that work? You can’t enjoy anything, not even a Klondike bar, when it’s 30 below zero.

If astronomy is something you fancy, you’ll just have to dress in layers, lots of them, to keep warm in the deep freeze. It seems like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? It’s obvious, however, that there are advantages to looking at the night sky when it’s so cold. Or, we can hope and pray for mild weather in early February like we had in February 2000.

You’re going to think I’ve really gone off the deep end when I say the weather is favorable in order to see the sky in that extreme. All too often, in late January and early February, weather patterns are conducive to lots of cloudless nights, and that’s exactly what we need to see some of the phenomenon that lurks in space. Yes, you can see these images in the middle of summer also, but look at it like high definition TV (winter) vs. analog TV (summer).

And given clear nights, the colder the better, you can really get sharp images of everything from Deimos to Polaris. The colder it gets, the less diffusion of light. So, if it is 30 below zero, the images that we see from the Earth, won’t be “bent” as much as they would be in say July or August. It’s simply a sharper image. If you have the patience, you can actually find things in space that you probably never knew existed.

One of the things I like to find and watch are the satellites that are rotating around the Earth. If you see something like the Hubble Space Telescope pass over the top of you, just stay there an hour later, it should come back.

Using a telescope, magnified binoculars or 1,000 millimeter lens on a camera, you can really get some good images of the moon and the planets. As an example, with the naked eye, Mars is nothing more than a copper-colored blob in the sky. Magnify it, and you might very well be shocked at what you see. Take a look at the Martian surface and all the impact it’s had from invading meteors. Because it has a thin atmosphere, many meteors “pepper” the planet, and it shows. You can see the “canals” that meander across the face of the planet as well as the polar ice caps. Normally we see one polar ice cap, the North Pole, but if the planet is close enough to Earth, we can see the south polar ice cap as well and that will unlock a lot of secrets about that part of the Martian surface. Last, but not least, is Olympus Mons, the gigantic volcano that is said to be twice as high as Mount Everest. I can’t even imagine something being that high in the sky. Think of the long-distance radio possibilities with antennas on a mountain like that.

It doesn’t stop there. Jupiter is always mysterious, and although we talk about the “Great Red Spot,” that vortex is constantly changing, and through a telescope, you can see many of those changes from day to day. The morning star Venus, the rings of Saturn, as well as Neptune and Uranus are there, but by this distance, it’s more about vivid color than it is anything else because those two guys are deep in space. I think a favorite of everyone is the Aurora Borealis. Movement in numerous colors without sound is just incredible and to capture it on film is even more so. The North Dakota State Tourism Department once said that Glen Ullin is the place to be for observance of the Aurora Borealis.

Finally, comets are a real treat when you can find them. Some of the things you can see around a comet will amaze you. The tail is the first thing. Did you know that the tail of Halley’s Comet was completely different in 1910 than it was in 1985? And what is that tail? It’s gas that are dissipating from the comet in a phenomenon known as sublimation. It’s where the ice goes from a solid to a gas and bypasses the liquid stage because it is so cold in space. Sometimes a comet will have a round core, and other times it will look irregular or something where ridged areas are slowly being eaten away by this “dirty snowball” that is flying through space and past Earth.

So if you really want to amaze your friends, put a huge lens on your camera, set it on a tripod and take pictures of the moon or Mars. You’ll agree, some of those images will be stunning, and there is no chance you’ll get pictures that vivid in summer.

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