The Milky Way and the Mashed Potatoes Mountain

By Phil Plait | June 18, 2012 5:09 pm

Photographer Randy Halverson — whose pictures and time lapse videos have been featured here on the BA Blog many times; see Related Posts below — just posted an epically cool picture he took just last night: The Milky Way looming over Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

[Click to closeencountersofthethirdkindenate.]

He and his son (who also got a nice shot of it) were to the northwest of the gigantic butte-like structure; the night started out cloudy but it cleared after midnight. I’m glad! I love pictures like this for many reasons. Obviously, the Milky Way itself is amazing; the central bulge of our spiral galaxy is obvious, studded with stars, gas clouds, and dark bands of dust.

But the icing on the mashed potatoes is that silhouetted against it is such a recognizable landmark — and one that plays an essential part in one of my all-time favorite movies. Devil’s Tower has a fascinating geologic history, and I plan on visiting sometime. It’s a long drive from Boulder, but I swear, it would make my fanboy (of both Hollywood and geology) heart sing to be able just to stand there and soak it in.

Image credit: Randy Halverson, used by permission.

Related Posts:

Temporal Distortion
Reflecting on the ISS
Gorgeous aurorae
A meteor’s lingering tale


Comments (22)

  1. Crux Australis

    OK…how does one properly pronounce the word “butte”?

  2. Brian

    Like the first five letters of “beautiful.”

  3. RobinMD

    phil…it’s well worth the trip to see the tower…although we walked the trail completely around it and could not find the little box canyon in which the mothership landed(!). Nevertheless, the trail walk is well worth it as the crowds generally congregate around the parking lot views. Once you get around to the other side nothing but beautiful views of the tower and surrounding nature. There are usually rock climbers on the face who are pretty cool to watch. GO NOW!!

  4. Crux Australis

    Thank you, Brian, this will prevent my students laughing at me.

  5. James Evans

    “Toby! You are close to death!”

    Sniff. Sniff. They just don’t make movies with the proper balance between effects and human interest anymore. Or maybe it’s just no one can match Dreyfuss’ performance these days.

    If you blur your eyes, the Milky Way almost looks like the mother ship approaching/leaving the tower.

  6. Michael Evans

    Your post makes it sound like you’d have to go far, but you wouldn’t. Devil’s Tower is about a day’s drive from Boulder, and well worth the trip –avoid Sturgis Rally time, and you can find lots of places to stay in the nearby Black Hills.

  7. Matt B.

    I’m pretty sure I just accidentally saw the ISS half an hour ago. It passed right along the spine of Cygnus from my point of view in Denver.

  8. Crux Australis wrote:

    Thank you, Brian, this will prevent my students laughing at me.

    If you use the word butte to describe Devil’s Tower, be sure to include the qualifier, “like”, that Dr. Plaitt used.

    I could be wrong, but it seems like I have only seen butte used in relation to sedimentary rocks???

    Too, I was unaware of the controversy regarding the formation; I was taught that it was a neck. Any hard rock geeks out there that can shed some light on cooling rates of basalts that form columnar joints?

  9. Mejilan

    Phil, please don’t even stop posting this amazing images. They are almost universally perfect fodder for smartphone scrolling wallpapers! :)

  10. Chris Winter

    OK…how does one properly pronounce the word “butte”?

    Just think, “That Devil’s Tower — it’s a beaut!”

    (Firesign Theater fans have an edge here if they remember “Temporarily Humboldt County.” It’s a… masterpiece.)

  11. Chris Winter

    Solius wrote: “I could be wrong, but it seems like I have only seen butte used in relation to sedimentary rocks???”

    Geologically, that’s probably correct. I checked the dictionary definitions, and they are somewhat loose: All agree a butte is an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top.

    Devil’s Tower, of course, is obviously the basalt core of an eroded volcano.

  12. Chris Winter

    Michael Eans wrote: “Devil’s Tower is about a day’s drive from Boulder, and well worth the trip –avoid Sturgis Rally time, and you can find lots of places to stay in the nearby Black Hills.”

    I was fortunate to be able to drive there some years back. I can well understand why there is a rally there: The side road leading to the tower is a delight to drive in a sports car.

  13. Chris A.

    In my experience, the definition of “butte” is rather loose. I just spent Sunday hiking in the Soldier Mountains of Southern Idaho, past Grouse Butte which is neither isolated, nor flat-topped, nor a volcanic core. In this case, “butte” appears to mean “mountain lacking trees or exposed rock at its summit.”

  14. mountainmckay

    From NPS:

    Is Devils Tower an old volcano?- No.  Geologists agree that Devils Tower is an igneous intrusion.  Magma welled up into the surrounding sedimentary rock.  There it cooled and hardened.  The sedimentary rock has since eroded away to show the tower.

    Is it hollow?- No! You could compare it to a bunch of pencils held together by gravity.

    What kind of rock is it? – Phonolite porphyry, it is similar in composition to granite but lacks quartz. Phonolite refers to the ringing of the rock when a small slab is struck, and its ability to reflect sound. Porphyry refers to its texture, large crystals of feldspar embedded in a mass of smaller crystals.

  15. Looks like a good spot for a … Science Getaway!

    Never mind the canyon where the mothership landed, what about the giant sinkhole on the other side in which the mothership was hiding before it rose up?

  16. Matt B.

    “Magma welled up into the surrounding sedimentary rock. There it cooled and hardened. The sedimentary rock has since eroded away to show the tower.”

    Huh? I thought a giant bear with a tail scraped at it with its claws. 😉 Some school I went to!

    @8 Ed – Thanks, I knew someone would geek out (that’s a compliment) and prove me right or wrong. I was able to see just the orbit of the ISS on Heavens Above, but I’m not registered there, so I couldn’t go any further. One bit of corroboration, though, was that it seemed to fade in brightness as I watched it.

  17. Love the photo, love Devil’s Tower (visited it on a family vacation back in the days of B&W photography), but the BA and I will have to disagree on Close Encounters… It’s one of my *least* favorite SF movies. That mashed potatoes scene is where it seriously jumped the shark for me. (And, full disclosure, in general I don’t care for Spielberg’s work… also really hated A.I., but I did rather like Minority Report.)

  18. Chris Winter

    Thanks, Mountainmckay. Wikipedia mentions several theories of origin, with the best accepted being that it’s a laccolith (which is what your quote describes.)

  19. mountainmckay wrote:

    Is Devils Tower an old volcano?- No. Geologists agree that Devils Tower is an igneous intrusion.

    Hmmm, the definition for phonolite that I find describe it as an extrusive. Anything with columnar jointing is, obviously, intrusive. What gives?

  20. CR

    About twenty years ago, my parents & I visited Devil’s Tower while on a trip that included the Tetons and Yellowstone. Aside from my nerdiness relating Devil’s Tower to CE3K, it was one of my favorite parts of that trip (not to mention one of the last ‘landmark’ type places I visited on the route). I, like others, walked the trails around the base, and observed climbers about halfway up the side… it’s much bigger than you realize, once you see tiny humans scaling it!

    An interesting–to me–side note is that on the way to the Tower, we pulled over to switch drivers, and encountered a cow on the side of the road that said “MOOOOO.” I’m not saying that it went moo, it actually SAID the American English word “MOOOOO.” The “oo” was sort of stretched out. It enunciated so clearly, I swore we were being pranked (‘tricked’ would have been the phrase back then); I looked for a farmer/rancher hiding in nearby bushes, figuring we were on some sort of ‘Candid Camera’ show. (Boy, I’m really dating myself with that reference!) Nope, no humans around besides us. It was a talking cow.

    Well, if you consider a one-word vocabulary to be talking. Still…

    About a decade later, I drove past it again on a different trip–Devil’s Tower, that is, not the talking cow. I got nowhere near it that time, but still could not miss it jutting up from the horizon, all those miles away. Can’t miss it, really.

    So, yeah, go there! It’s amazing.

  21. rob

    i visited the Tower several times. one time three friends and i climbed it–the Durrance route. that was a lot of fun. one of the things i remember as i was hanging on by my fingernails contemplating gravity was a scrawny chipmunk zipping up right past me. show off!

    anyway, there is no alien landing strip at the top–but there is a *wonderful* view.


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