A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….

We all know what a Solar System is, right? It’s a collection of planets, moons, asteroids, comets, and other smaller bits (all held together by the gravity between them) that circles around a star — in our case, the Sun — that stands at the center of the whole thing. So, a solar system is where we live. But where does our solar system “live”? What happens when we zoom out and see the effect of gravity at a much larger level?

Our solar system and at least 100 billion other star systems are part of a larger grouping, also held together by the gravity between them, called a GALAXY. And just like the planets of our solar system tend to orbit in a flattened disk or plane around the sun, all the billions of stars that make up our Galaxy orbit the center in a highly flattened disk. In fact, our galaxy is pretty much as flat as a pancake; it’s disk is 1,000 times longer across from side to side than it is thick from top to bottom! If we could zoom out from our galaxy, the “Milky Way,” and see it from afar, it would look like a huge pinwheel or whirlpool of stars, which is why ours and many others are called SPIRAL GALAXIES.

There are something like 100 billion visible-to-us galaxies in the universe. When we look at them, each one is quite literally “a galaxy far, far away.” They are so far away that the light we see from them, traveling at a speed of nearly 6 trillion miles per year, takes millions of years to reach us. Because of that, we see each galaxy “a long, long time ago” — not as it is today, but as it was when its light first started the journey through space to get to us.

For the first time ever, the GSC now has a powerful new telescope which, outfitted with a sensitive video camera, lets us view live, real-time images of distant galaxies from right outside our front doors! Watch for us to offer public viewings in the months ahead. In the meantime, here are are some actual views of galaxies with our new scope…

May the Force be with you.

It’s Meteor Season

Over the next six weeks or so, flashes of light will be streaking across the night sky. Weather permitting, five meteor showers will be visible in our area through mid-November.Leonid Meteor Storm

The first of these fiery shows takes place on October 7. The Draconid meteor shower is an unusual shower in that these meteors are best seen just after nightfall, whereas most meteor showers are best seen after midnight or in the pre-dawn hours. Although the Draconids are not expected to produce a great number of meteors per hour, nature is always unpredictable, so watching this shower is definitely worth a shot. A thin crescent moon means skies will be dark for viewing, so grab a sweater and head outside just after the sun sets. Allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness, then sit back, look up and enjoy the show!

During the early morning hours of October 21, the Orionid meteor shower will peak. Unfortunately, a bright moon will probably interfere with your ability to spot these “shooting stars.” Due to the moon’s interference this year, we’re not going to suggest getting out of bed at 3am for this shower, but if you happen to be awake anyway, you may as well try.

Two long-lasting meteor showers, the South Taurids and the North Taurids, will peak in early to mid-November. After midnight but before dawn on November 5, the South Taurid meteor shower will reach its peak; during the same timeframe on November 12, the North Taurids will peak. These showers generally only produce a handful or two of meteors each hour, but some can be remarkably bright, making for a good show.

Gibeon meteorite fragment

19 cm meteorite specimen.
Credit to H. Raab (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gibeon.jpg)

The Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak early morning on November 17 and 18. Although this shower has produced some amazing displays in the past, it looks like the full moon will wash out most of this year’s meteors. There’s always the chance the Leonids will impress despite the moon, though, so if you’re awake early in the morning, head outside and see what you can see!