When night falls out at Gold Butte N.M., do not just crawl into your tent and give up on the natural beauty of our scenic national monument. Some of the best treasures of our public lands in remote places come on display after dark. If you are enjoying a campfire, step away from it for a few minutes, letting your eyes adjust to the darkness, and look up at the astounding view of the cosmos above.
Let’s start with that really bright object high in the West easily visible as twilight is changing into complete darkness. That is the planet Venus, named for the Roman name of the drop dead gorgeous goddess of love and beauty. Notice that the planet is not twinkling, but shining with a steady light. Stars twinkle, but planets do not. Why? Because “Twinkle, twinkle little planet” does not rhyme with “How I wonder what you are.” Which all goes to show that astronomy is very easy and anyone can understand it with very little effort.
Venus is actually the brightest thing up there in the night sky other than the moon, because it is totally enshrouded in a thick layer of highly reflective clouds. They are not our friendly clouds of water vapor that we have here on earth, but rather concentrated battery acid. Did I mention that it is hot on Venus also? Nine hundred degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt lead. Maybe you were thinking about visiting some day. Forget it, there are a lot of other nicer places to spend your time. Venus will be at her highest in the western sky at the end of March. Then she will dramatically drop towards the West, riding off into the sunset glow sometime in May.
Also in the western sky look for those bright stars of Winter while they are still around. The constellation of Orion boasts more brilliant starry lights than any other. Just southeast of the Great Hunter, Sirius shines brighter than all the other stars in the night sky. Notice how it is twinkling when compared to Venus.
If you are up early before sunrise, look for the planet Jupiter in the Southeast before it starts to get light. Almost as bright as Venus , it too shines with a steady yellowish light. With a small telescope you can catch a glimpse of Jupiter’s four largest moons discovered by Galileo. Watch them move around the giant planet from night to night.
Mars and Saturn are nearby, but not nearly as bright as Jupiter. If you enjoy shooting pictures of the Milky Way, just before dawn is a great time to get an impressive shot.
Be sure to enjoy your national monument and all the celestial wonders you can see from there.
By Dave Ward
Dave is a Friends of Gold Butte volunteer and along with his wife Teresa is an Archeological Site Steward for the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office.