Saturday, June 24, 2006

A Sky Without Stars

A Sky Without Stars
by Dave Adalian

The greatest bane of astronomers is encroaching light.

When the Moon is full or the neighbor leaves his porch light on all night the splendor of the starry sky is ruined.

Fortunately, in Tulare County (Calif.) we can always retreat to the countryside and the vast open acres of croplands and grasslands.

My favorite place to remove myself from the lights of an increasingly bright Central (San Joaquin) Valley is the lonely cattle country of Yokohl Valley east of Rocky Hill.

Out among rolling hills covered in brown grass baked in the heat the sky is still a jewel encrusted dome, where thousands of lights dazzle on a velvet backdrop. Just minutes from downtown Visalia (Calif.), where the star clouds of the Milky Way are never seen, our home galaxy stretches itself from horizon to horizon so beautifully it pulls the breath from your body.

Just five miles down a winding two-lane road there is isolation almost complete, where seeing more than two cars in a night is heavy traffic. Owls cry in the dark. Coyotes yip and laugh and howl to one another among the silhouettes of ancient oak trees standing sentinel on far away ridge tops. It is so quiet you can hear the clicking screech of bats finding their way through blinding inkiness.

Yokohl Valley is a place that I hold dear, and it has been my secret retreat for a dozen years. Now, I’m sharing it with you.

You’d better get there soon.

I’ve been selfish with my hideaway, but no more. As many people as can come should see the wonder of this hidden foothill valley before it’s gone.

An international corporation has decided to turn my secret Eden into a retirement community. If our leaders lend support to this idea, the splendor of Yokohl Valley will soon be no more.

The land will still be there. The stars will still shine overhead, too, but we’ll never see them in the glow of a thousand shining street lights.

Come out to Yokohl Valley before the Sun sets and let the blazing summer turn into cool, dark night around you. Let the sweet smell of wild grasses baked in the sun fill your senses. Hear nighthawks’ screams echo among the rocks and feel the chill on your skin as the coyotes call to one another across the empty spaces.

See the stars shining over this doomed valley before they’re lost forever.


Join the Tulare Astronomical Association for a public star party this Friday, 9:30-11:30 p.m., at the Purcell Observatory, 9242 Ave 198, south of Tulare (Calif.) and 2.1 miles west of Hwy 99. Information:


This column originally appeared in the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta and Tulare (Calif.) Advance-Register on Thurs., July 13, 2006.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Solstice Marks Summer's Start

Solstice Marks Summer's Start
by Dave Adalian

Soaring temperatures may make it seem like summer has already arrived, but even so the astronomical start of the season is still nearly a week away.

Summer, according to astronomers, begins with the solstice, the moment when the Sun reaches the northernmost point above the celestial equator, an imaginary line above Earth’s equator that divides the sky into northern and southern hemispheres.

The solstice is also marked by the rising and setting of the Sun as far north on the horizon as it can reach. If you watched the sunrise each day, you’d notice the Sun swings back and forth slowly along the horizon until it reaches its northernmost point in June and its southernmost point in December. Solstices mark the days when the Sun stops then reverses direction. In Latin the word solstice literally means Sun (Sol) stands still (sistere).

The Sun will reach the summer solstice on Wednesday at 5:26 a.m., just a few minutes before it rises, and summer 2006 will be underway.

Even if you didn’t have the Sun to set your calendar by, the stars could serve in its stead.

It’s a sure sign spring is at an end when the constellation Leo is standing on its head above the western horizon just after the Sun goes down. Find it by looking for the backward question marking the lion’s head and the triangle of stars that is its haunch.

Looking north, the Big Dipper of Ursa Major is propped up with its handle high in the air. Following the curve of its tail and extending it past the end of the handle and across the zenith takes us to bright orange Arcturus in the constellation Bootes. This star is the brightest in the summer sky and the northern hemisphere.

After arcing to Arcturus, continue along the curve from the Dipper and speed on to Spica, the brightest star in the Virgo. Don’t make the mistake of confusing Spica with bright Jupiter which sits just up and to Spica’s left.

The eastern sky holds a trio of bright stars so tied to summertime the shape they draw is named after the season. Deneb in the north, Altair in the south and Vega above them form the Summer Triangle. One of the brightest portions of the Milky Way spills through the center of the triangle and is visible even from urban backyards. For an even better view, head for the darker skies outside the city.


This column originally appeared in the Visalia Times-Delta on Thurs., June 15, 2006.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The June Moon

I've been playing the shutter bug this month with my new camera. My subject has been the Moon, and here are the results: