For those living with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia and their caregivers, navigating the COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique challenge. Many Tennesseans are currently not able to visit their loved ones living in memory care facilities and family caregivers with loved ones in the home may feel more isolated than ever before.
The Alzheimer’s Association stands ready to help families in the Williamson County community, and statewide, who are impacted. In addition to advocating for vital public policies to protect long-term care residents and workers, the Alzheimer’s Association has also released guidelines and tips to support Tennesseans through this crisis.
If you’re a family caregiver for someone living with Alzheimer’s or dementia, these tips can help you and your loved one stay healthy:
- For people living with dementia, increased confusion is often the first symptom of any illness. If a person living with dementia shows rapidly increased confusion, contact your health care provider for advice. Unless the person is having difficulty breathing or a very high fever, it is recommended that you call your healthcare provider instead of going directly to an emergency room. Your doctor may be able to treat the person without a visit to the hospital.
- People living with dementia may need extra and/or written reminders and support to remember important hygienic practices from one day to the next.
- Consider placing signs in the bathroom and elsewhere to remind people with dementia to wash their hands with soap for 20 seconds.
- Demonstrate thorough hand-washing.
- Alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol can be a quick alternative to hand-washing if the person with dementia cannot get to a sink or wash his/her hands easily.
- Ask your pharmacist or doctor about filling prescriptions for a greater number of days to reduce trips to the pharmacy.
- Think ahead and make alternative plans for the person with dementia should adult day care, respite, etc. be modified or cancelled in response to COVID-19.
- Think ahead and make alternative plans for care management if the primary caregiver should become sick.
If you or a loved one are living in a residential care facility, the Association recommends the following:
- Check with the facility regarding their procedures for managing COVID-19 risk. Ensure they have your emergency contact information and the information of another family member or friend as a backup.
- Do not visit your family member if you have any signs or symptoms of illness.
- Depending on the situation in your local area, facilities may limit or not allow visitors. This is to protect the residents but it can be difficult if you are unable to see your family member.
- If visitation is not allowed, ask the facility how you can have contact with your family member. Options include telephone calls, video chats or even emails to check in.
- If your family member is unable to engage in calls or video chats, ask the facility how you can keep in touch with facility staff in order to get updates.
Additionally, the Alzheimer’s Association has shifted their educational and support programming to a virtual format, including recurring programs in partnership with the library. You can find a full schedule of those programs here.
And finally, remember you are not alone. The Alzheimer’s Association offers a free, 24/7 Helpline where you can reach a master-level clinician for support or advice. Call 800-272-3900 to get connected.
By Thelma Battle
The cultural tradition of funeral services, among many African- American citizens, has been a unique tradition since slavery. Oral history tells us that during slavery times many slaves were not allowed the opportunity to have a funeral or to pay respect to the deceased. The deceased if fallen dead in the field, for instance was taken, wrapped and a hole was dug, with no funeral or burial rites. The only person to view this process was the digger of the hole. This was not always the case in many other instances of deceased slaves. Williamson County, Tennessee is known for its slave cemeteries, meaning that some slave owners had the decency to see that their slaves had a proper burial; and that loved ones were allowed to attend the burial.
The history of some African American funerals, carry a uniqueness that often interprets the region of habitation.
The cultural tradition of African Americans providing printed funeral programs at the ceremony of a loved one is a unique, yet national among most African Americans.
History tells us that slaves were sold and many slave families were separated forever. This cruel act meant such slaves would never see their loved ones again or have knowledge of who they were. Today the ability to put in writing the life and times concerning the deceased and sharing it with family, friends and loved ones is an expression of freedom. It is a reminder as well as a celebration of “Who You Were” and “Whence You Came”, What You Stood For”. The order of service, the undertaker, flower girls and pallbearer and cemetery is also announced.
Today many African Americans come together at funerals bearing an oppressed history, but are able to share in the freedom of this day and time; and in doing this act take home a keepsake printed history of the deceased. Such material is often priceless to genealogists tracing family trees.
Originally published December 12, 2014
Every family has traditional holiday foods. Instead of using the holidays as an excuse for high-fat, high calorie feasting, use these 5 easy tips to remake your holiday favorites with good health in mind.
Holiday Tip #1: Control Portions
Set the holiday table with dinner plates 9 inches or so in diameter. No one will notice a decrease in portion sizes when you use smaller plates and glasses. Cut cake into 18 servings, make 4 dozen smaller cookies instead of 3 dozen larger ones, and use 4-ounce glasses for your favorite sparkling punch.
Holiday Tip #2: Double Up on Vegetables
Serve vitamin-packed, lower carbohydrate vegetables like asparagus, Brussels sprouts, or broccoli in large bowls. Put higher calorie mashed potatoes and winter squashes in smaller bowls and use a smaller serving spoon. Your family will unknowingly serve themselves smaller portions. Instead of meatballs and cheese logs, feature vegetable appetizers like marinated mushrooms, tomato bruschetta, roasted asparagus, etc.
Holiday Tip #3: Give Healthful Gifts
Give homemade gifts that are made with healthful ingredients. Bake breads that feature whole grains, send a basket of fresh fruit instead of a box of candy, or tie a bow around a bag of nuts instead of cookies.
Holiday Tip #4: Lighten Up
Lighten up favorite recipes. Use fat-free evaporated skim milk instead of cream in custard pies and sauces, boost flavor in casseroles with spices instead of butter or salt, and bake foods instead of frying them. No one will notice the changes!
Holiday Tip #5: Make Fruit the Star
Give colorful fruit a starring role. Serve fresh berries for a holiday breakfast, include fresh fruit such as pineapple, mango, kiwi, and red grapes on bamboo skewers for a holiday buffet. Offer dates and grapes instead of cheese and crackers, etc.
By Dr. Billy Teets, Outreach Astronomer at Vanderbilt University
August 21st is quickly approaching as one of the most anticipated days of 2017. For the first time in 38 years, a total solar eclipse will be visible from the U.S. mainland. Partial and even annular solar eclipses have been visible since then, but for those who have had the rare opportunity to ever witness the splendor of a total solar eclipse, partial and annular solar eclipses cannot compare.
Solar eclipses occur when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun and casts shadows on our planet. For the Moon to be able to obscure the Sun, it has to be in the new moon phase. We have new moons approximately every 29.5 days; however, we have solar eclipses about every 5 1/2 months. This discrepancy is due to the slight tilt of the Moon’s orbit with respect to the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. At most new moon phases, the Moon will either appear slightly above or below the Sun in the sky, so the shadows it casts miss the Earth. As time passes the apparent annual motion of the Sun in the sky and the daily motion of the Moon in its orbit eventually bring the two bodies to one of two points (known as nodes) in which their paths intersect. If the Sun and Moon are on the same side of the sky then a solar eclipse occurs. It is not surprising that approximately two weeks before or after a solar eclipse we experience a lunar eclipse in which the Moon passes through the shadows of the Earth. In that two-week period the Moon has had time to move to the opposite side of its orbit and the Sun has not moved substantially on the sky. Thus, the Moon is now on the exact opposite part of the sky as the Sun, allowing Earth to cast its shadow on the Moon. On August 7th, two weeks before the August 21st eclipse, the Moon will indeed undergo a lunar eclipse; however, the U.S. will not be able to observe it as we will be on the day side of our planet during the lunar eclipse. By the time we rotate to the night-side of Earth, the Moon will have moved out of our shadow. Oh well, the U.S. will still have the opportunity to observe a beautiful total lunar eclipse on January 21st, 2019!
The August 21st total solar eclipse will be special for several reasons. This will be the first total solar eclipse visible from both U.S. seaboards since 1918, and Nashville is the largest city in the path of totality. For this particular solar eclipse, observers will have up to 2 minutes and 42 seconds of total eclipse (“totality”), but this value greatly depends on location, especially with respect to the centerline of the path of totality. With this being the first total solar eclipse on the U.S. mainland in nearly 40 years, millions of people are anticipating the opportunity to witness this heavenly spectacle. Numerous events focused around the eclipse are being held in cities all throughout the path of totality as well as outside of the path. Nashville also has many groups that are planning festivities and viewings on August 21st (a growing list of events can be found here).
But, as with real estate, observing a total solar eclipse is all about location, location, location! There is no, “I’m close to the path of totality so that will be good enough.” IF YOU ARE NOT WITHIN THE PATH OF TOTALITY, YOU WILL NOT SEE THE TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE. The closer you are to the center of the path of totality, the longer the duration of total eclipse you will experience. Observers are encouraged to move towards the centerline, but that will actually take some planning. First of all, excitement for the eclipse has really been gaining momentum over the past few months, and many people (some estimates say well over two million) will be flocking to Nashville to witness totality. As you can expect, this is going to create major issues on the interstates and even side roads, especially as totality is about to occur. People will be stopping alongside and in the middle of the highways and getting out of their vehicles to see the totally eclipsed Sun – the interstates may literally be parking lots. The point here is that if you are planning on viewing from a specific location, then plan on leaving very early in the morning or even a day or two before. Many hotels are already booked solid, so the chances of getting a room in or near the path are pretty slim now. It is advisable to keep a close eye on the news of road conditions.
So, what can you expect to see during the three hours of solar eclipse? For the majority of the time, the Sun will only be partially obscured. It will take almost 90 minutes for the Moon to move completely in front of the Sun and then roughly another hour and a half for it to move back out. So, in all, most people will get to see approximately three hours of partial eclipse. During this time, proper solar filters (not sunglasses) must be used to protect your eyes, cameras, telescopes, etc. If one has a properly filtered telescope, then the partial eclipse would provide an opportune time to get an up-close view of the Sun as the Moon gradually covers it. It may be possible to observe sunspots (cooler areas that appear as black blemishes on the solar surface). Some astronomy enthusiasts may even be able to observe prominences (enormous clouds of gas lofted up from the Sun’s surface) during the partial eclipse by using a special type of telescope known as a hydrogen-alpha telescope. The long durations of the partial eclipses provide ample time for one to take pictures. Also, be sure to take a look under the surrounding trees – as sunlight passes through the gaps and holes in the tree leaves, numerous images of the partially eclipsed Sun will be projected on the ground.
As the last few minutes of partial eclipse pass, one will be able to feel the tension and excitement filling the air. By this time the vast majority of the solar disk is invisible and only a few percent of the Sun’s photosphere (the technical name for the solar “surface”) are illuminating the surrounding landscape. If the day is clear, then this time will provide a very dramatic lighting that many often describe as “eerie” or “surreal.” If you have a good view of the northwest you will notice that portion of the sky is darker and growing darker – you are seeing the umbra approaching at roughly twice the speed of sound! In the final few seconds before totality, as the last percent of the Sun’s surface is still just peeking around the silhouetted Moon, the dramatically diminishing sunlight will begin to allow the corona to take center stage. The corona is the outer atmosphere of the Sun, and even though the gas of the corona is several million degrees Fahrenheit, it only glows about as bright as the full moon. The last bead of light visible from the Sun’s surface, along with the corona surrounding the eclipsing Moon, form a spectacular “diamond ring” in the sky.
The effect only lasts a few seconds before totality begins and a few seconds just after totality ends. The faint corona is safe to observe with the naked eye; however, one should not look directly at the “diamond” as direct viewing of any portion of the Sun’s surface can damage your eyes in a matter of seconds.
Once the diamond disappears, the corona will blaze forth in all of its glory – totality has finally started. By now people are screaming, cheering, clapping, crying, you name it! Observing a total solar eclipse is a life-changing event for most people. Some people become addicted to seeing them and travel the world in order just to be in the path of totality for those precious few minutes.
During totality one MUST remove any protective eyewear and observe the corona with the naked eye, for solar glasses will completely block out the corona. The corona will appear very tenuous, and you may see some structure in it that is caused by the Sun’s complicated and ever-changing magnetic field.
Right around the edge of the Moon’s silhouette you might even see some reddish-pink tufts barely sticking out from around the Moon – these are prominences, which are now visible to the naked eye. Depending on your observing location one portion of the Moon’s edge may appear outlined in a pinkish-red hue – this is the lower atmosphere of the Sun, which is known as the chromosphere. The coloration is the distinctive hue of hot hydrogen gas – the main component of the Sun and all stars.
It will be difficult to peel your eyes away from the beauty of the corona, but remember to take a least a few seconds and look around at the rest of the sky. During totality, the sky will be dark enough to observe a few planets and stars. Venus will be visible in the upper western sky while Jupiter will appear about halfway up in the southeast. Both will appear as very bright stars. Mars and Mercury will be located close to the eclipsed Sun and appear as moderately bright stars. A few of the true stars, such as Sirius and Arcturus, will likely be fairly easy to spot if you know where to look. Don’t forget to look around the horizon as well – though the sky above you will be fairly dark the majority of the horizon itself will illuminated. Try to keep an eye out for odd animal behavior as well. Birds have often been reported to exhibit roosting behavior around and during totality (birds flock in to roost, roosters crow, etc.)
It will also be difficult during totality, especially in this age of technology and social media, to suppress the urge to snap pictures and text. Don’t think about selfies. The precious seconds of totality will pass by quicker than you think, and you don’t want to spend all of your time looking through a viewfinder or staring at a phone screen. The end result will be no different than if you stared at a picture of the eclipsed sun on your computer. Experience this eclipse! Take in the splendor of the event with your own eyes. Try to live in the moment so that you can remember it vividly for the rest of your life. You may never get another chance like this, especially if the skies are completely clear.
If you are going to take away anything from this article, then here are a few key points to remember:
- Do not look at any portion of the Sun’s surface with your naked eye during the partial eclipse – you MUST have appropriate eye protection when any portion of the Sun’s surface is exposed. Do not look through an unfiltered telescope while wearing solar eclipse glasses – the focused sunlight will melt the glasses in seconds and then cause permanent eye damage.
- During totality, when the entire solar disk is obscured by the Moon, you MUST observe the total solar eclipse with your naked eye. Any protective eyewear will make it impossible to see the total solar eclipse and you will miss the spectacular part of the show. Remember, the corona by itself is safe to look at naked eye.
- It is NOT recommended to observe the total eclipse with a telescope as this requires using an unfiltered telescope to view the corona. This is dangerous because one does not know the exact moment when the solar disk will begin to emerge from behind the Moon. Less than one percent of the Sun’s surface is easily enough to cause permanent eye damage in a short period of time, especially when looking through an unfiltered telescope.
- Photographing the partial eclipse is recommended since you will have close to three hours to do so, but remember that your camera can be damaged by the unfiltered Sun. Therefore, you must use an appropriate solar filter to prevent your camera from being damaged.
- Photographing the total eclipse is NOT recommended (even without using a telescope) solely for the fact that we will only have a maximum of two minutes and 42 seconds to see the total eclipse. Due to the large dynamic range of the total solar eclipse, it can be fairly difficult to capture a good image that really shows the awesome splendor of a total solar eclipse. There are, however, websites, magazine articles, and even books that deal with the subject of how to photograph a total solar eclipse. Experienced eclipse observers have also stated that even the best images they have ever seen of a total solar eclipse do not convey the beauty of what you will see with the naked eye. They also recommend that if this is your first total solar eclipse you should only focus on actually seeing it with your own eyes because it will be an experience that you will never forget. Don’t waste those precious seconds trying to take images – people all over the United States will be taking images, including professional photographers who have had experience photographing total solar eclipses.
Good luck, and here’s hoping for clear skies across the U.S. on August 21st!
By Patsy Watkins MPS, CFCSFamily & Consumer Sciences Agent, UT/TSU Extension, Williamson County
Spring means beautiful flowers, blooming trees, and fresh cut grass. But if you are 1 out of the 50+ million people in the U.S. that suffer from nasal allergies, it can be miserable!
- Allergies are abnormal immune system reactions to things that are typically harmless to most people.
- Allergens or triggers are substances that cause the allergic reaction.
- Sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes and throat, nasal congestion, but no fever are all symptoms of allergic rhinitis also commonly known as “hay fever.”
- Seasonal allergies are caused by tree pollen, grass pollen, weed pollen and airborne mold spores.
- Perennial allergies, which occur year round, are caused by animal dander, dust mites, cockroaches, and indoor mold spores.
Tips to Reduce Your Exposure:
- Use air-conditioning in your home and car.
- Use a humidifier.
- Avoid pets in the home.
- Bathe dogs twice a week.
- Vacuum carpets weekly using a HEPA filter.
- Wash sheets and blankets weekly in hot water 130°F.
- Don’t dry laundry outside.
- Stay indoors on dry windy days.
- Keep your doors and windows closed during pollen season.
- Avoid mowing grass or raking leaves.
- Avoid outdoor activity in the early morning.
You can also attend out upcoming Using Essential Oils to Prepare our Sinuses for Spring event. Preparing for spring sinuses and maintaining our sinuses is key to having a great season. Learn how to use Essential Oils to keep our sinuses happy.
By Sara Skillen, SkillSet Organizing (Owner)
As a professional organizer, I get asked a quite a bit about making the New Year’s resolution to “get organized” or “de-clutter”, and I get a lot of calls for appointments during this season. Everyone is excited to start fresh and determined to get their spaces and lives under control. January is even National “Get Organized” Month, sponsored by the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO). But really, although I’m always on board with helping people achieve goals, I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. There is a quote I love:
“Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us.” – Hal Borland
In other words, using the knowledge we gain from all times should help us to improve and continue on our journeys. Although it’s a nice starting point, there really is nothing magic about January 1 for setting goals. Additionally, statistics bear out the fact that most resolutions are not achieved or maintained – one source I reviewed for this post indicated that although 45% of Americans generally make New Year’s resolutions, only 8% are successful in achieving them. And think about it…in January you can never find a free treadmill at the gym, but by Feb. 15 it’s usually a ghost town. Sustained effort on new habits can be tough for all of us.
So what gives? Why bother? Are resolutions pointless? I have three ideas to consider:
First off, I think any time is a great time to think about getting organized. If it’s late March, maybe the weather is perfect for working on the garage (not too hot, not too cold, juuuust right). If it’s November, getting all of the family paperwork in order might be appropriate. And maybe you’ll finally get Aunt Marge’s spoon collection (that you inherited but never exactly appreciated) cleaned up and listed on eBay this June. Thinking of clearing out and organizing as a year-round habit ensures better results than emptying out all the closets the first week of January, only to get discouraged and not ever finish the job.
Secondly (and along those same lines), if getting organized is a goal, be sure that the projects you choose are targeted and approachable. “Get organized” is too vague (not to mention too HUGE for most people), but “Sort, purge and rearrange my spice rack,” is specific and easier to think through. For my most overwhelmed clients, I sometimes suggest organizing one small thing each day – sort out the mail, put everything on the calendar for the month, go through one junk drawer, etc. It helps to reinforce that idea that organizing is not a one-time event, but really a way of living.
Finally, have you ever stopped to think that most any resolution you make requires some level of planning and organization in order to succeed? What if, instead of thinking of organizing as one of your resolutions, you thought of it as the framework upon which all of your other resolutions and goals needed to be built? So if your goal is to lose weight, maybe you should organize the pantry and fridge so that they are ready for the healthier food choices you need to make. If you want to get your personal finances in order, setting up a streamlined, labeled filing system would be a great first step. Weaving the organization through another worthy resolution can ensure higher achievement for both.
So whether you make those resolutions or not, working for better organization, for more simplified spaces, for less stressful schedules and systems, can always be worthy goals. If you need a the support, knowledge, and inspiration to get that process started, I’m here to help (http://www.skillsetorganizing.com), or you can find qualified professional organizers in this area on the NAPO Nashville chapter website.
Here’s to a happy, healthy, and organized 2016!
By Patsy Watkins MPS, CFCS
Family & Consumer Sciences Agent, UT/TSU Extension, Williamson County
Keep you Holidays green by saving money. Follow these tips:
- Make a holiday budget for all holiday spending and Stick To It!
- Pay cash for all purchases
- Just say NO – you don’t have to do everything
- Avoid the store card discount traps- do NOT sign up for a new credit card in exchange for 10%-20% off your purchase
- Make a holiday shopping list and include the maximum amount to be spent for each item
- Start early – so you don’t panic
- Remember money does not equal love or affection
Avoid these Holiday Spending Mistakes
- Going overboard with gift wrap. Recycle- Reuse is totally acceptable.
- Overuse of credit cards. Set a spending limit and stick to it!
- Guilty Spending. Don’t shop with negative emotions. Don’t shop in a rush or when you are tired.
- Not trimming your gift list. You don’t have to buy everyone a gift. Send a card or note.
- Confusing buying with celebrating. Remember the real reason for the season.
By Patsy Watkins MPS, CFCS
Family & Consumer Sciences Agent, UT/TSU Extension, Williamson County
Did you know? Food poisoning not only sends more than 100,000 Americans to the hospital each year, but it can also have long-term health consequences. Follow these 4 steps to keep your family safe from food poisoning at home.
- Wash hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water.
- Wash surfaces, cutting boards, dishes, and cooking utensils with hot soapy water after each use to prevent bacteria from spreading.
- Wash produce under running water, but not meat, poultry, or eggs.
- Don’t cross-contaminate! Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs separate from other foods in the grocery cart, grocery bags and in your refrigerator.
- Use separate cutting boards/plates/utensils for produce and raw meat.
- Cook to the right temperature. Use a food thermometer.
- Keep food hot after cooking (at 140oF or above). Bacterial growth increases as food cools.
- Microwave food thoroughly (to 165oF).
- Refrigerate perishable foods at or below 40oF within 2 hours, or 1 hour if in weather over 90oF
- Never thaw or marinate foods on the counter. Bacteria grows rapidly.
- Know when to throw food out. Be sure to toss expired foods.
Food Safety myths
When cleaning my kitchen, the more bleach I use, the better. More bleach kills more bacteria
There is no advantage to using more bleach than needed. Use 1 teaspoon of bleach to 1 quart of water.
I don’t need to wash fruits and vegetables if I’m going to peel them.
You can transfer bacteria from the peel or rind you’re cutting to the inside of your fruits and veggies.
Leftovers are safe to eat until they smell bad.
The kind of bacteria that cause food poisoning do not affect the look, smell, or taste of food.
Cross- contamination doesn’t happen in the refrigerator – it’s too cold for bacteria to survive!
Bacteria can survive and some can grow in cool, moist environments like the refrigerator.
By Patsy Watkins MPS, CFCSFamily & Consumer Sciences Agent, UT/TSU Extension, Williamson County
Whether you have a few days to leave town or two weeks, packing all the essentials into a carry on seems like an impossible task. Pack like a professional using these tips:
- Pack fast-drying or athletic tops. If it gets dirty, you can wash it and be ready to go within the half hour.
- Wear your walking shoes to stay comfortable and pack a dressier pair of shoes for a night out.
- Pack items by type in plastic bags with dryer sheets to keep the suitcase
organized and smelling fresh.
- Use a multipurpose soap in a refillable bottle to cut down on liquids.
- Buy a solar keychain charger for organization and to keep your phone ready for pictures.
- Visit a nursery where you can choose plants and flowers that you would like to grow as a You don’t have to have tons of space, many plants can be enjoyed from small containers. Turn this into a science experiment for children.
- Go on a There are many trails and areas where families can explore on their own. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy the great outdoors. National parks have several free entrance days throughout the year. Check out www.nps.gov to find a date that works for your family.
- Geocaching adds adventure for young and old Enjoy this “treasure hunt” together and see new places and things in old places near or far. Geocaching is an engaging adventure that combines technology, the outdoors, and exploration.
- Groupon, Living Social and many other travel websites offer hidden gems at over half the Explore every corner of your state with these tools.
- Search for local festivals across the Tennessee has free events year round that include toy train shows, reenactments, music, and various food, and garden festivals. Enjoy a weekend and potentially find new hobbies for the family.
If the planets are your favorite objects to view through a telescope or even just by eye, then May has a show in store. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are all bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye and thus have been known since antiquity. Except for Mars, all of these planets will put on an evening performance for skywatchers in May.
By far the hardest to spot of the four planets will be Mercury. Mercury’s small orbital radius (about one-third the Earth-Sun distance) never allows the planet to stray far from the Sun, so most of the time it is easily lost in the glow of sunrise or sunset; however, Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation on May 7, which simply means that it will appear about as far from the Sun in the evening sky as it can get. During this time Mercury can be found as a moderately bright “star” just above the west-northwestern horizon after sunset, and the planet will take on a very small, crescent-moon shape when viewed through backyard telescopes. Mercury and Venus both go through a complete cycle of phases for the same reason that our Moon exhibits phases. At all times, half of the surfaces of Mercury, Venus, the Moon, and any other round body orbiting the Sun are always illuminated just as half of the Earth is experiencing daytime as you read this. Using his small telescope Galileo Galilei was the first to observe this in the early 1600s, and these observations provided direct observational proof that some objects, namely Venus, go around the Sun and not the Earth. In addition, as these planets move closer to and farther away from us as we all orbit the Sun, they appear to enlarge and shrink in telescopic views due to the changing distances between us and them. If you get a chance to observe Venus and Mercury through a backyard telescope, you will see both of these phenomena quite well.
Speaking of Venus, even casual observers will have noted the bright planet in the western sky after sunset. Over the past few months, Venus has been creeping higher up in the evening sky as it rounds the Sun to catch up to the Earth. For the next few months, Venus will only be outshone by the Moon in the evening sky as it continues parading as the “Evening Star.” Venus’s high brightness is due to its clouds, which are highly reflective and completely enshroud the Venusian surface. Just like Mercury, Venus’ orbit will never let it stray far from the Sun in our skies, but its larger orbital radius lets it get significantly higher in the sky as compared to Mercury. On June 6, Venus will reach greatest eastern elongation and show a distinctive half-moon phase when viewed telescopically. From this point onward, it will grow larger in telescopes as it takes on a thinner and thinner crescent phase. When it finally catches up to and passes us in August, Venus will begin creeping up in the eastern sky before sunrise as it changes to its “Morning Star” persona.
Jupiter continues to ride high in the sky just after sunset. The most massive of the solar system’s planets puts on a new display each night as its four largest moons, also discovered by Galileo, continually change positions. Folks with medium- to large-aperture telescopes will note that each of these moons appears as a small disk under high magnification as opposed to pinpoints of light. Though these moons are roughly a half-billion miles from us, they are large enough (about the size of our moon, to first order) that even backyard telescopes can resolve them. Occasionally we are treated to additional performances by the moons as their ink-black shadows are cast on the planet and sweep across its atmosphere in a matter of hours.
Finally, the real gem of the solar system makes its debut in the evening skies by early May. During the first part of May, Saturn will appear as a bright “star” near the east-southeastern horizon just above the star Antares, the brightest star of the constellation Scorpius. As the month progresses, Saturn will gradually slide west among the stars and move from Scorpius to Libra. Normally, as Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun, one would expect the planets to move eastward among the stars. However, as Saturn approaches opposition on May 23 (another fancy term that simply means Saturn rises as the Sun sets), it will appear to move backward in its orbit as Earth catches up to and passes it. This retrograde motion will continue until the start of August at which point skywatchers will note that Saturn will halt its backwards movement and resume its normal, easterly trek among the stars. Opposition is a great time to view Saturn as it means that the planet will also be visible for the majority of the night, giving those with telescopes plenty of time to admire the giant rings of the planet and even spot a few of its moons.
During the start of May, around 10pm CDT, folks with clear eastern and western horizons can spot all four of these planets simultaneously. Starting low on the west-northwestern horizon one can first spot dim Mercury, then brilliant Venus high up in the western sky, then Jupiter almost overhead, and finally Saturn near the east-southeastern horizon. If the ground were transparent and no atmosphere was present, one could continue this line, known as the ecliptic, around to form a complete circle and also intercept the planets Uranus, Neptune, and Mars. The Moon would also lie fairly close to this line, and the Sun would lie directly on top of it. This alignment is not coincidence – the ecliptic is the orbital plane of the Earth, or as viewed from Earth, it marks the apparent path of the Sun through our sky. The planets and Moon do not stray far from the ecliptic because the orbital planes of Earth and the planets are in close alignment, and this alignment is a result of the formation of the solar system. Approximately five billion years ago, a large, rotating cloud of gas and dust began collapsing in on itself due to its own self-gravity. As the rotating cloud collapsed to a smaller, more compact size its rotation speed increased just as a rotating ice skater spins faster as she pulls her arms closer to her body. But, as anyone who has spun around has experienced, centrifugal force causes a spinning ice skater’s arms to want to fly outwards – this is also experienced by the collapsing cloud. As the cloud collapses down, it not only spins faster but centrifugal force tries to halt the collapse in the direction perpendicular to the cloud’s rotation axis but not the collapse along the rotation axis. The end result is the cloud flattens down to become a rotating disk – the Sun forms at the center of the disk and planets form in the outer portion. The planets slowly build up in the rotating disk of material and, once the cloud of material is depleted/dissipated, the newborn planets continue their orbits around the Sun in approximately the same orbital plane.