Clear night skies are one of the advantages of living in the Western Plains, and our columnist, Vernon Whetstone, who recently moved to the Denver area, enjoys sharing his astronomical insights with our readers.
True, the lights of even a small town can cut down visibility of dimmer stars, planets and satellites, but you don't have to be in the middle of the Sandhills to get a good view of that blazing full moon.
Vernon and other astronomy buffs are gearing up for this evening's "transit" of the planed Venus across the face of the sun, something that won't occur again until 2117.
Don't look directly into the sun, of course, without a strong welding visor. Better yet, watch the event with the image created by a pinhole camera or other indirect methods. More information is available at
and live webcasts are available at:
The latter may actually be the best choice, since the transit will take 6 hours and 40 minutes, and won't start until just after 5 p.m. in the McCook area. To see the whole show, you would need to be in Hawaii, Alaska, eastern Australia and eastern Asia, including Japan, North and South Korea and eastern China.
Scientists all over the world are getting into the act, including some at the University of North Texas, who traveled to Alaska and Hawaii to re-enact the 1769 expedition of British Capt. James Cook, who used it to calculate Earth's distance from the sun. Today's scientists are using GPS, time-lapse video and sophisticated telescopes, but they still appreciate Cook's skill and determination.
If the Venus transit weren't enough to keep the star-geeks talking, the recent news that the military had a couple of extra Hubble-type telescopes laying around and decided to give them to NASA has them ecstatic.
Yes, NASA no longer has the shuttle to deliver the devices to orbit, but the hardware should save about half the cost of replacing the aging Hubble, which has been delivering eye-popping space images since it was fitted with corrective lenses in 1993.
Critics wondered how the Hubble was launched without full-up testing that would have discovered the flaws in the original optics, but it was a poorly-kept secret that the space telescope was basically just another spy satellite aimed away from the Earth instead of toward targets on the ground.
The fact that the National Reconnaissance Office built two more massive spy satellites than it wound up needing illustrates the relative funding of military and civilian NASA programs.
While the shuttle is retired, it was heartening to see the Dragon capsule bobbing in the Pacific after a successful flight to the International Space Station, launched by the private American company Space X. Hopefully, we will soon no longer depend on Russia for rides into space.