Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Saturn Has a Moon That Looks Like the Death Star from Star Wars!

Really! But more about that later.  Right now, during this week, Saturn is at it closest point to Earth and is at its brightest.  Jupiter and Venus are also putting on a show in the early evening sky, but to see Saturn through a telescope, these are the perfect conditions. Lucky for all of us, we'll be out at Valley Springs Park in Durham on Friday night with our giant telescopes and knowledgeable staff. 

 If I asked you to draw a planet, odds are that you'd draw Saturn, mostly because it's the most distinctive of the planets in our solar system. Think about it, if I asked you to draw Pluto, you'd most likely...oh, wait....
Saturn is second in size only to Jupiter, is a truly massive feature of our night sky. Despite its incredible size Saturn is made mostly of gas and is so light it would float in a bathtub, if only we could find one big enough! The iconic rings of Saturn are pretty remarkable too. They are made up of ice crystals with a very small amount of rocky material and are often shaped by orbiting moons.
See, it does look like the Death Star!

Find yourself mesmerized by Earth's solitary, lonely moon?  Imagine having 62 to look at! Saturn has 62 known moons, 53 of which are officially named, and over a hundred moonlets and counting. Some of the more unique moons include Enceladus with its surface geysers; Iapetus, which is completely black on one half and white on the other; Rhea, which has an oxygen atmosphere; and Titan, an aptly-named giant that is larger than Mercury.  Our staff favorite, Mimas, looks just like the death star from Star Wars. 

Join us this Friday, May 22 from 10:00pm – 11:00pm at Valley Springs Park to get up close and personal with Saturn. We will be joined by staff from NCCU (and their very powerful telescopes) to take a look at Saturn, its rings and if we’re lucky maybe even a few moons. Friday is looking like a great night for star gazing; we hope to see you there!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Poison Ivy and Baby Animals--What to Watch for This Time of Year

Now that we're all (hopefully) out and about in Durham's natural areas, it's time to have a conversation about poison ivy and baby animals in the wild.  First, the most exciting subject, poison ivy.  Most people know the mnemonic "Leaves of three, let it be" that guides us away from the plant, but the problem is, there are lots of plants that have a cluster of three leaves.  So how does one tell the difference to avoid days of blistering misery?

If we look at the picture below, you'll see three different 3-leaf clusters.  Confusing, right? The key to poison ivy is that on the plant/vine, there are only three leaf clusters, and those leaves have serrated (jagged) edges with a fine point.  So in the picture below, poison ivy is in the bottom right corner.  If you look further down the stems of the other two plants, there are pairs of leaves that accompany the 3-leaf groupings.

Which is the poison ivy?
Interestingly, poison ivy will also start at the base of a tree and become a large, fuzzy vine that runs up the tree toward sunlight. These will have large, mature leaves and white-to-purple berry clusters like the one below.  Pretty, but definitely something we want to avoid.

Poison Ivy vine with mature leaves and berries
 Another topic of wonder, and concern, in the Spring is the abundance of baby wildlife.  This picture below was taken in a tree near Morreene Rd. in Durham.  A significant concern is that well-intentioned folks see baby birds, deer or other animals without a mother present, make an assumption that the babies have been abandoned or the mother has been killed and take the baby into their care. What we all need to know is that mothers give their children room to grow, explore and learn in order to become capable on their own.  You may see a baby deer on it's young legs in your back yard with no adult in sight, but odds are that the mother is watching carefully from a short distance away, camouflaged by her surroundings.  So if you see babies in the wild, leave them be, please!
Baby robins waiting for mom to bring breakfast