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Celestial News: See the Mystical Milky Way

Jimmy Westlake
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
The Milky Way (Courtesy photo)

Now that June’s full Strawberry Moon is out of the way, the dark summer night can reveal one of its most spectacular treasures — the soft, misty glow of the Via Lactea, or the Milky Way.

Contrary to what the ancient Romans believed, the Milky Way isn’t made from the milk of the queen goddess Juno. The Milky Way is our home galaxy, a swirling collection of hundreds of billions of suns. The word “galaxy” itself is derived from the Greek word for milk, “galax.”

If you look through a pair of binoculars and sweep slowly across the hazy Milky Way, you will rediscover what Galileo did way back in the year 1610 — that milky mist is a multitude of faint stars.



The situation is analogous to soaring high over a sandy beach and seeing the white sand stretch for miles in both directions and yet you cannot see the individual sand grains that make up the beach from that height. In the case of the Milky Way, the grains of sand are the myriad stars that populate our galaxy.

The Sun is but one grain of sand on this cosmic beach. Think about that as you dump a million sand grain suns out of your shoe on your next visit to the seashore.



The Milky Way is flattened, like a pancake of stars, and we view the universe from inside that pancake. As we peer outward into space, we see the Milky Way’s spiral arms wrapped gently around us in a narrow band that runs almost north to south in the sky on summer evenings.

Our tiny solar system isn’t located near the central hub of the Milky Way but instead is located about two-thirds of the way from the center to the edge, out in the galactic boonies.

One of the brightest star clouds of the Milky Way is seen just above the spout of the Teapot asterism in the constellation Sagittarius, hanging low in our southern sky around 11 p.m. this month. When we look off in this direction, we are looking directly toward the center of the Milky Way galaxy, some 28,000 light years away. We can’t view the center directly because of the intervening stars, gas and dust, but there is mounting evidence that a supermassive black hole lurks there.

This behemoth tips the scale at 4-million times the mass of our sun and has a gravity so powerful that its own light cannot escape its grip. Astronomers find themselves struggling with the proverbial chicken/egg question: Which came first, the Milky Way galaxy or the monster black hole that lies at its core?

Seeing the subtle beauty of the Milky Way has become an experience that many people might never have. The majority of our nation’s population lives in or near a large city where human light pollution drowns out this natural wonder.

To them, the Milky Way is something that you see in a picture book or in a planetarium theater. Streetlights and spotlights aimed skyward scatter so much unnecessary light into the night sky that it overwhelms all but the brightest stars.

Thankfully, many cities and national parks are making efforts to curb this urban light pollution to preserve the beauty of the nighttime sky. The International Dark-Sky Association, or IDA, is the only nonprofit organization fighting to preserve the night. For more information, you can check out their website at DarkSky.org.

For the time being, at least, all we have to do here in northwestern Colorado is step out into our backyard to see the galaxy of which we are a part, the magnificent Milky Way.

For information about astronomy-related events in Steamboat Springs, including public star parties at CMC’s Ball Observatory, contact physics and astronomy instructor Paul McCudden, at pmccudden@coloradomtn.edu or 970-870-4537 or visit the SKY Club webpage at ColoradoMTN.edu/skyclub.

Jimmy Westlake is the former full-time professor of physical sciences at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs and former director of the Rollins Planetarium at Young Harris College in Georgia and the St. Charles Parish Planetarium in Louisiana. His “Celestial News” column appears monthly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Visit his website at JWestlake.com.


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