The Milky Way

By Barbara Berryman

With a combination of dry air, little light pollution, and high elevation, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve near Alamosa Colorado is an excellent and easily accessible dark sky viewing location! In 2019, Great Sand Dunes was certified as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.  In the middle of August, I went with my Photography Club to take advantage of this amazing place and take photos of the Perseid Meteor Shower.  It was to be at its peak on August 11th.  The Perseids are one of the most plentiful showers (50-100 meteors seen per hour) and occur with warm summer nighttime weather, allowing sky watchers to easily view them.  However, there was too much cloud cover and I only saw 3, although they were pretty great!  But the first part of the evening we also had an amazing view of the Milky Way, the galaxy we call home.  We pointed our cameras at the Galactic Center and my friends patiently taught me how to set my camera to actually photograph stars.  And it worked!  Here are my photos.  The different colors are partly because of light from Alamosa intruding and partly from a little photo-editing to make the stars stand out more.  Also see the photo with the red camera showing at the bottom?  We had all our cameras on tripods pointing up, and a fellow photographer’s camera had a small red light on it that stayed on while he was shooting.  My camera picked up the glow.  Rather than being a problem, I think it is really “cool” because it shows what we were doing.  Other photos show the clouds coming in and obscuring the galaxy.  I think they look like a science fiction image.  All in all, it was an amazing night.  If you want to read more about the Milky Way, following is some info from the internet.

The Milky Way contains between 200 and 400 billion stars of different sizes, intensities and ages and maybe that same number of planets. At the center of the Milky Way is what’s called the Galactic Bulge, a region densely packed with stars, dust and gas. Right in the middle of the Galactic Bulge is an immense black hole called Sagittarius A*, voraciously consuming stars, gas and dust that are zooming around it.  Sagittarius A* is thought to have a mass of around 4 million times the mass of our sun.   The name “Milky Way” describes the galaxy’s appearance from Earth: a hazy band of light seen in the night sky formed from stars that cannot be individually distinguished by the naked eye. Galileo Galilei first resolved the band of light into individual stars with his telescope in 1610. Until the early 1920s, most astronomers thought that the Milky Way contained all the stars in the Universe. Edwin Hubble showed that the Milky Way is just one of many galaxies. The oldest stars in the Milky Way are nearly as old as the Universe itself.  Our Solar System is located at a radius of about 27,000 light-years from the Galactic Center of the Milky Way.