Saturday, April 22, 2017

S is for summer constellations: Scorpius and Sagittarius

We’re looking for heavenly bodies in our A-Z tour during the month of April.  S is for Summer, which has two delightful constellations: Scorpius and Sagittarius.  We’ve met these guys when we looked at Orion, as their stories ties to Orion, but today we can spend a little more time on each.
Scorpius is the easiest to spot as it looks like a scorpion with two pinchers and a curved tail ready to sting.  In the summer, from North America, it is seen on the southern horizon.  It is the southern-most constellation in the Zodiac.  If you are too far north, like northern Michigan, you won’t see the full tail.  But here in Georgia, when I’m out on the water in the evening or have a clear view to the south, the pesky insect is clearly seen.  It is also in a rather dark part of the Milky Way, which is appropriate as scorpions like to hang out in dark cracks.  As we learned at Orion, the scorpion bite the great hunter, mortally wounding him, which is why you never see Orion and the scorpion in the sky at the same time. 

Not far from Scorpius is Sagittarius, a centaur, half human and half horse.  This constellation is the Comanche of the sky.  The Comanche became feared warriors not only to soldiers and settlers in West Texas, but also to neighboring tribes as they mastered the art of war from the back of a horse.  In a way, they were at one with their horse, while soldiers and even other Native American tribes used horses as transportation but would generally dismount to fight.  As there is another constellation featuring a centaur, named Centaurus, it creates some confusion. There is even a debate about which centaur is Chorion, with some saying it is Sagittarius and others saying it is Centaurus.  Chorion was married to Rhea, who was so jealous that he changed himself into a horse/man as a way to escape her, showing that there is at least 51 ways to leave your lover. 
 Although many people envision a teapot from the key stars in Sagittarius, I see a bow drawn back and aiming at the red star Antares, the heart of Scorpius.  To the east of Scorpius, Sagittarius is chasing the scorpion from the sky.  Sometime this summer, find yourself with a dark and uncluttered southern horizon and see if you can make out these constellations.  Of course, if you live in the southern hemisphere, you will find these constellations high in the northern sky.

Have you ever seen these two constellations?  

Should I have included the Sun in the letter S or is it too obvious?

Friday, April 21, 2017

R is for.... get this.... Reticulum

R is a difficult one for the A-Z heavenly body challenge.  There is only one of the eighty-eight modern constellations that begins with an R, Reticulum.  To my ears, the name sounds like something a physician might utilize in a prostate exam.  Thankfully I don’t have to worry about having it staring me in the face when I am admiring the stars as the constellation cannot be seen at all from the continental United States.  You might get a glimpse of it in the southern Hawaiian Islands from October through December, but even then it’s going to be low on the southern horizon.  The constellation is not seen at all above latitude 23 degrees north. 

Like many of the southern hemisphere constellations, Reticulum is a relatively recent addition to the lists of constellations.  It was identified in the early 17th Century, but not added to the official list of constellations until 1922.  There are no stories or myths associated with these group of faint stars that supposedly represents a net.   However, it’s not a fishnet, but the gird lines within a telescope, the reticle.   And good luck with seeing this constellation, especially without a telescope.  There are only six of the stars with a magnitude bright enough to be seen by the eye without magnification, and none of them are very bright.

In 2022, the constellation will officially be 100 years old?  Shall we throw a party?  We could all dress up like urologists.  On second thought, I’m sure I have something else scheduled.  What about you?  Would you be interested in a party celebrating Reticulum’s centennial?  

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Q is for Queen Cassiopeia

We’re at Q in our heavenly bodies A-Z challenge tour.  Since there are no constellations or planets that begin with a Q and since I don’t really understand things like quasars (which don’t really fall under the “heavenly bodies” category as I am interpreting them), I’m going to cheat just a bit.  At Andromeda someone suggested that they bet C would be Cassiopeia, but they were wrong because I had anticipated this problem and saved Cassiopeia for now.  Today’s heavenly body is “Queen Cassiopeia,” the wife of Cepheus (we explored him under the letter K for King Cepheus).  Cassiopeia is a heavenly body in the beauty since, for she thought she was the most beautiful woman ever which, as we saw when exploring Andromeda, got her and her husband and their kingdom in trouble.   

Cassiopeia is easy to spot.  She is the W or the M  (depending on which side of the Celestial Pole the constellation is at) that circles the pole and in the middle northern latitudes can be seen all year.   She is on the far side of pole from the Big Dipper.  Although a queen, the five bright stars making up the W are not a crown as one would think…

In addition to being a queen, other cultures have seen different things.  In the Middle East, the stars have been seen as a women’s hand and a camel.  Lapplanders understood it to be a moose antler.  In Siberia, the five bright stars were seen as five reindeer (and as it is over the pole, maybe they belong to Santa, but we’re missing a few).  In the Marshall Islands, the “W” of Cassiopeia was seen as the back fins of a huge porpoise (that extended out, borrowing stars from the constellations Perseus, Andromeda, Triangulum and Aries). 

Have you ever seen Cassiopeia?  Do you think of her as a W or a M? 

P is for Perseus

P is our letter in this year’s A-Z challenge tour through the heavens.   There are nine constellations that begin with a “P”:  Pavo, Pegasus, Perseus, Phoenix, Pictor, Pisces, Piscis Austrinus, Puppis, and Pyxis.  Of those, only three are well known: Pegasus, Perseus and Pisces. There is also Pleiades, the seven sisters, which while not listed as a constellation is certainly a well known formation in the sky. Knowing it was going to be hard to pick, I covered Perseus under “F” for “flying horse.”  We could explore Pisces, which is one of the Zodiac constellations, but instead I’m going to go to Perseus.  We’re already met Perseus, who saved and then married the lovely Andromeda after he’d beheaded the horrific Medusa.  But there’s a lot more to his story.
Perseus is the son of Jupiter (you know, the god who had a thing for beautiful mortal women).  His mother was the beautiful Danae, who lived in Argos that was ruled by her father, Acrisius.  His was a dysfunctional family if there ever was one.  He was afraid that his daughter was going to kill his son, so he locked her up in a tower, not allowing her to marry.  But Jupiter, being a god, wasn’t deterred by a tower.  From their union came Perseus.  Acrisius then cast his daughter and grandson out to sea in a chest.  With the gods watching over them, they ended up on the island of Seriphos. 

While Perseus was away, the wife of Polydectes, the island’s chief, died.  He set his eyes on Danae, but she didn’t love him.  In retaliation, he made her his slave.  Of course, this didn’t please her son, Perseus, who was ready to kill Polydectes.  But instead of killing him, he acted on a dream and the aide of gods and went off to kill Medusa, one of the Gorgon sisters.  Mercury had loaned him his flying shoes and Minerva loaned him a sword and a bright shield that she suggested he use to look at Medusa, for to look at her head would mean certain death.   On the way to find the Gorgons, Perseus stopped by Atlas who was tired of holding up the earth.  Atlas gave Perseus a special helmet that allowed him to be invisible, asking Perseus to stop by and show him Medusa’s head when he was done.  Perseus cut off the head of Medusa, stopped by and showed it to Atlas (who turned to stone and became a mountain in Africa).  As he was making his way home, he saved Andromeda.  When he finally got back home, seven years later, there was a banquet where he displayed Medusa, turning the chieftain and his guests into stone.   

Perseus is best seen in the autumn sky as he leads his wife, Andromeda, up into the sky.  He is just above the Pleiades (the seven sisters).   The constellation has a number of interesting stars including Algol, a binary star that significantly changes in magnitude every 69 hours (as one star crosses in front of the other).  In the ancient world, this star which would be in Medusa’s head was seen as the winking eye of the beast. 

Late at night in mid-August is the Perseids meteors (which I wrote about under the letter M for “meteor”).  

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Letter O: Orion (and a bit about Ophiuchus)

Today in my A-Z challenge, we’re looking at things in sky that beings with the letter “O”.  There are three constellations u fitting this bill: Octans, Ophiuchus, and Orion.  Unless you live pretty far south of the equator, you’ve probably never heard of Octans, as it is around the Celestial South Pole.  It’s a more recent constellation, named for the tool used to determine latitude before sextants came into use.   It also doesn’t have a bright start like Polaris.  Ophiuchus, the snake handler, is found along the zodiac and is better known, but Orion is perhaps the best known constellation in the sky.   Of course, you probably didn’t know that Ophiuchus is in the Zodiac, but it is between Sagittarius and Scorpius.  It was in the Zodiacs of the Greeks and Romans and the modern scientific community, but not the one of fortune-tellers who have only 12 signs.   Although a neat constellation, it pales when compared to Orion, the most beautiful constellation in the winter sky.  
I have spoken of Orion several times in this tour, as we’ve looked at Betelgeuse   and this at Canis Major, his famous dog in the sky.  Orion is a huge constellation and from it you can find many other constellations in the winter sky.   I expect this constellation may be the most popular one in the sky, surpassing even the Big Dipper, because its position around the equator allows it to be seen by so much of the earth.

Orion drew my interest into astronomy.   As a child, I spent many nights fishing on beach during the fall.  In October, you’d see Orion rise, on his side, around 9 PM.  Later in the fall, it was early and by Christmas he’d cleared the horizon well before dark.  You can still see Orion now, shortly after dark, dropping in the Western horizon.  The most distinguishable feature of Orion are the three stars of his belt.  It’s easy to see the knife hanging off the belt, his arms and legs.  There are many bright stars in the constellation including Betelgeuse (12th brightest star in sky) and Rigel (his left foot and the 8th brightest star).

Almost every culture has a story about Orion, along with a different name.  The most common myth is that Orion was the son of Neptune and Euryale (a nymph).  He was a huge and fearless hunter who boasted that he was exterminate the animals of the earth.  Hearing this, Gaia, the goddess of earth, sent a scorpion that bit Orion, causing a mortal wound.  But he was saved by Ophiuchus, the snake handler who was also a physician.  This is all played out in the sky, as Orion is never present when the scorpion (Scorpius) is in the sky.  Furthermore, as Scorpius sets, Ophiuchus stands over the insect, trampling him.   In another story, Sagittarius, the archer, was sent to avenge Orion’s death and the archer’s arrow is pointed at the scorpion.  

Although he is not in the sky, Samuel Clemen's (Mark Twain's) brother was also named Orion.  Supposedly, their mother was interested in the stars and thereby decided to name her older son for the constellation.  The constellation Orion also appears three times in the Bible (Job 9:9 and 38:31   and Amos 5:8).

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Letter N: North Star

We’re up to the letter “N” in our A-Z challenge tour of heavenly bodies.  There is only one constellation that begins with an N, Norma, which is located in the southern sky and isn’t well known.  But there is the “North Star” which is we’ll explore today.  My apologies for readers living in the southern half of our globe because you may have never seen this star as it stands high over the Celestial North Pole.   The star is also known as Polaris (from Polaris Stella, Latin for North Star, not to be confused with Stella Artois or “star of Artois, the brewer).  It is actually a triple star.  Polaris A is a super-giant, with Polaris Ab orbiting about 2 billion miles out and Polaris B is orbiting at a distance of 240 million miles.  The star luminosity is 2500 times that of our sun, but because of the distance from earth (430 light-years) it is only the 50th brightest star in the heavens.   Although the star seems to remain steady, it is just off the true celestial north, and actually tightly circles the globe.
Time delay photo showing stars circling the North Star

The North Star hasn’t always been the North Star (see letter D for Draco), nor will it remain the North Star forever.  But we won’t have to worry about finding another north star during our lives as it will come the closest to the pole in 2100.  During the age of exploration, the North Star helped ships as they made their way across the Atlantic and when slavery was allowed in the United States, the “Dippers” and the North Star guided those fleeing slavery as they made their way north and on to Canada.

Polaris is the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor of the Little Bear).  It can be easily found by looking at the two stars at the cup end of the Big Dipper and following them to Polaris.  On a dark night, one can see the entire little dipper constellation.  The constellation, Ursa Minor or “The Little Bear” represents Arcas, Callisto’s son by Jupiter.  When Jupiter decided to place Callisto in the sky, he placed her son next to her, changing them into a bear.  I suppose Jupiter wasn’t just a seducer of mortals, he had a heart as seen in this kind act.    

Saturday, April 15, 2017

M is for Meteors and Mars

We're on the A-Z Challenge, exploring heavenly bodies. According to the modern list of 88 constellations, there are four beginning with the letter M”:  Mensa, Microscopium, Monoceros, and Musca.  They are all “recent” constellations, mostly “discovered” when sailors from Europe began to explore the oceans south of the Equator.  Since I can’t find any of these constellations and they lack mythological stories, we’re going to look elsewhere.  To me, M is for Meteors and Mars.

I became interested in meteors as a child.  It was in the mid-60s and we were at Ralph and Louise’s house (he was my great-uncle, my granddaddy’s brother).  It was August and we were standing out on the front yard.  Lightning bugs were flickering around and in the humid air the scent of flowers teases our noses.  Maybe that’s why someone looked up and saw a “falling star.”  Then we were all looking up and watching stars fall toward earth.  For a long time afterwards, I would gaze at the Big Dipper, just waiting to see one of those stars fall.  Then, as I learned that that dipper had been that way for thousands of years I became discouraged.  It was sad to realize that I would never see a falling star.  Of course, as I was interested in what I’d seen, I began to read and learned that meteors weren’t stars but cosmic trash burning up in the atmosphere, and that meteor showers are often the remnants of comets or other such objects and when the earth moves through the debris field, we get a shower. 

What I had witnessed that August night in the mid-60s was probably the Perseid Meteor Showers.  Over the years, I have seen this shower many times.  I remember watching it one evening while camping with an old girlfriend at a hot springs in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  I also saw it while hiking a section of the John Muir Trail.  When living in Utah, we would watch it from our back patio, which was screened from streetlights by the house.  This year promises to be a good show, as the moon is waning and won’t drown the meteors out with its light. Look for them at the peak between August 9 and the 13th. 

Mars, the red planet, is the fourth planet from the sun.  It’s a small planet, which is a good thing for its namesake (it was named for the god of war, and war is best kept to a minimum).  Only Mercury is smaller.  Although small, it can be bright in the sky (at times, it is even brighter than Jupiter, making it the fourth brightest object in the sky (behind the Sun, the Moon and Venus).  Like earth, the planet has an axial tilt, that provides for seasons.  It also has a rotation that is just a little slower than earth's. The planet has been studied for at least 3500 years, going back to ancient Egyptian astronomers.  It was a favorite local for Science Fiction writers to populate with alien beings, some of who as in H. G. Wells War of the Worlds, attacked earth.

You can observe Mars this month in the west, just above the horizon, after dusk.  It is dropping in the sky and because it’s distance is so far away, isn’t nearly as bright as it was last summer.  By the end of the month, the planet will barely be visible as it orbit is on the other side of the sun. 

Did you ever think that “falling stars” were literally, falling stars?

Have you been able to spot the Mars in the sky?

What do you think happened to Martians

Do you have a suggestion for what I might explore under the letters W through Y? 

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Letter L is for "Lots" in our Heavenly Body Journey

I apologize that this is later than my other post and is probably not sufficiently proofed...  but it's out the day it was due!

We’re taking a stop today at the letter L in our A-Z Challenge.  As it was with the letter C, there are a host of constellations that begin with an L.  Three of the most well-known ones are Leo, Libra and Lyra.  Among the half dozen not well known ones is Lynx, which has no bright stars and can only be seen where the sky is truly black.  The elusive nature of the Lynx, like the wild variety of which I’ve only seen once (in Northern Ontario), made it worth a mention.

Leo the Lion, is best seen in the northern hemisphere during the Spring.  You can find it under the Big Dipper.  Look for the star Regulus, which makes up Leo’s front hip.  It is a bright star (the 20th brightest in the sky).  The shape of the other stars make out a lion.  This is an old constellation, existing in mythology long before Ptolemy created his classification of 48 constellations in the 2nd Century.  Leo is also in the Zodiac, the swath of stars in which the sun travels through the sky.  It is also from this constellation that the Leonid meteors seem to come (around November 17th each year).  Leo was one of the challenges that Hercules faced (see the Letter H).  The strong man killed the lion which is now set into the sky.

Lyra is a small constellation located in the northern sky during summer, between Hercules and Cygnus, on the edge of the Milky Way.  The star, Vega, the fourth brightest in the sky and of a blue color is located at the top of the constellation and an easy point to make out the rest of the stars (which appears to form a box of which Vega is a handle) It is often depicted as a stringed musical instrument.  According to mythology, Mercury found a shell along the banks of the Nile, which he noticed had an echo.  He decided to attach strings to it, which when plucked, created a pleasing sound.  Apollo became interested in this instrument and traded his staff (which allowed one to fly) for it.  Apollos then passed the instrument on to his son, Orpheus.  Orpheus married Eurydice, but she died from a snake bite. Grief stricken, Orpheus headed underground and charmed Pluto, the god of the underworld, through his music.  Pluto agreed to release his wife. The condition was that she could follow Orpheus from the underworld, but he couldn’t look back.  Like Lot’s wife, Orpheus couldn’t resist the temptation to make sure his wife was following and when glanced back, his wife was doomed to remain in Pluto’s realm.  Orpheus then traveled around, the Harry Chapin of the day,singing sad love songs.  Many women fell in love with him through his music.  They tried to seduce him, but he would have none of it.  Finally, he was killed by some of the potential lovers that he had rejected.  "If you can't love 'em, kill 'em" was their motto.  These murdering seductresses threw the lyre into river, but Jupiter sent a vulture to retrieve the instrument.  He had it placed safely in the sky.  

Libra is another constellation within the Zodiac and is seen as a set of ancient scales that is used to weighing out goods in a market place (or the scales of justice as the stars are also sometimes placed in the hand of Virgo, the goddess of justice).  Originally, these stars were seen as a part of scorpion’s claws, but was broken off from Scorpius to form this constellation.  It was through this occurred around twelves centuries before Christ, when the constellation would have been seen with the Autumnal Equinox and the scales were depicted as weighing out equal time for day and night. 

I have been collecting and checking my information from these post from a collection of books about the stars that I own along with the internet.  However, my main source is Julius D. W. Staal’s The New Patterns in the Sky: Myths and Legends of the Stars. The book was originally published in 1961, but the new version came out in 1988.  It is a delightful book that tells the stories of the stars (this is not the book to find the constellations, for that I would suggest one of several field guides to the stars or an “app” on a smart phone.

Although not heavenly bodies, I should mention two other “L’s”: Longitude and Latitude.  These imaginary lines that dissect our global home have a linkage to the stars.  Latitudes run east and west and in the northern hemisphere can be easily determined by the angle of height the North Star is above the horizon.  If you’re at the pole, the star would be straight overhead (90 degrees) and at the equator the star would be right on the horizon (0 degrees).  Longitude was a harder one to determine.  They run north and south (and easy way to remember is that these lines are all the same length--hence "Long" unlike latitudes in which the line becomes smaller as they approach the poles).  The solution to finding one's longitude involved science, mechanics and politics.  First of all, there wasn’t a pole and equator in which to establish a baseline.  And then there was no “North Star.”  Eventually, such a baseline was established running through Greenwich England and, once timepieces became accurate enough to maintain time, one could figure out the precise time at a particular site and compare that to the time in Greenwich to determine the correct longitude.  Dava Sobel wrote a fascinating book, titled Longitude that tells of the politics and mechanical struggles that led to the determination of one’s location.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

K is for King Cepheus

Next stop in the A-Z challenge, as we make our tour of heavenly bodies, is the letter K.  There’s no constellations that begin with K.  I suppose I could look for another heavenly body with a K such as Kim Kardashian, but frankly I hope I never hear of that family again.  A better choice would be Ksenia Kakhnovich, a Russian model from Vladivostok.  But since no one knows of her and I wouldn't even know  how to begin to say her name (I had to do a google search for models whose name began with a K), I'll going to bend the rules a bit and have us look at Cepheus, or make that King Cepheus.
Heavenly body "Ksenia Kakhnovich"

Cepheus was the king of Aethopia (or Ethiopia).  We’ve already met him at letter A for he is the husband of Cassiopeia and the father of Andromeda.  In the winter sky, he can be seen high above, on his throne, with his hands raised in prayer to the gods as we asks for a miracle (whose name was p  ) to save his daughter.  Andromeda was offered up as a sacrifice to atone for her mother’s bragging. 

Cepheus isn’t as easy to find as his wife, but he’s up there with stars not quite as bright.  If you are not too far south, you can find him this evening in the north, east of Cassiopeia and under the little dipper.  I think the constellations look like a house (box with a triangle roof on top). 


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

J is for Jupiter (and an evening paddle)

We’re at the letter J in our A-Z Challenge tour of heavenly bodies.  J must stand for Jupiter as there are no constellations within the 88 listed constellations that began with a J.  Besides, Jupiter is the fourth brightest object in our sky (behind the Sun, moon, and Venus).  Since the planet is beyond our solar system, it can be seen at all levels of height in the sky (Venus and Mercury are only seen near the horizon).  It’s a huge planet (but only about 1% the size of the sun).  The weight of Jupiter is estimated to 2.5 times the weight of all the other planets.  This big boy’s gravitational pull is so great that it’s known as the vacuum cleaner of the solar system.  It would take 1321 earths to equal one Jupiter.  Jupiter is not as solid as our planet and unless one enjoys (and could live off of) huffing ammonium, the planet’s atmosphere doesn’t have much to offer the human respiratory system. 

Jupiter has been known as a planet that moves through the Zodiac since ancient times.  In the early 17th Century, Galileo discovered the four major moons of Jupiter (the Galilean moons, one of which was named Europa, a name borrowed by Santana for their wonderful instrumental hit).  In the 17th and early 18th century, there were hopes that these moons which had a regular movement could serve as a clock to help solve the “Longitude” problem (I’ll talk about that when I get to the letter L).  They didn’t but the focus on the moons led to a number of other discovers such as the speed of light.  Today, thanks to better telescopes and the vacuum affect, the planet is known to boast 67 moons (maybe as many as the semi-mortal children that Jupiter sired. 

Jupiter and its moons
Jupiter was named for the Roman God (the Greek Zeus).  He was Hercules’ daddy (see my H entry) and seemed to take it as his right to seduce beautiful mortals. 

This is a wonderful month to observe Jupiter.  (Actually, April is a wonderful month to observe all the bright planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn).  Tonight, Jupiter can be seen rising in the eastern sky around sunset and a bit before the nearly full but waning moon.  It is visible all night, the later you look the higher it’ll be, and will be dropping low in the western sky by dawn. 
Heading out as the sunsets 

Moonrise (Jupiter was maybe 15 degrees above)
When I got back from kayaking yesterday afternoon, I left my kayak on top of my vehicle.  I would have loved to have paddled yesterday evening, but I had a volunteer firefighter meeting.  But today, I slide the kayak into the water around 7:15 PM, watched the sunset and then paddled several miles down the waterway, watching the sky darken.  Jupiter was the first "star" that I saw after the sun went down.  It was a bit up over the eastern horizon.  The next star (to the south) visible was Sirius in Canis Major (see letter C). Next was Orion, who is quickly slipping down toward the western horizon and the big dipper.  Then I was able to see the North Star...  All were present.  When the wind died, I could see the brighter stars reflect in the water.  Then the moon rose.  At first it was an reddish color.  With only my iPhone, I wasn't able to get the  the best photo and it came out more black and white, but watching the moon slowly make higher in the sky was magical. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Letter I: Indus (and an afternoon paddle)

 Today we’re at the letter I, and there is only one constellation associated with this letter: Indus.  Unlike the other constellations mentioned so far, I’ve not been able to make this one out.  It’s found deep in the southern sky and contains no outstanding stars.  With the exception of Sagittarius (which is seen low on the Southern horizon from my latitude, I don’t know the other constellations that surround Indus.  Of course, with Sagittarius being low in the horizon and Indus further south, it is unlike that I have had much time to see it except for the few times I’ve been near the equator.  This constellation doesn’t have any great stars.  There are no great mythological stories associated by it.  It’s also a relatively young constellation, being named by Petrus Plancius, a Dutch astronomer is the 17th Century.  I suppose at the time, the Dutch were sailing ships off to the East Indies and had plenty of time at night to add a few constellations in the southern sky.  Indus is an Indian, and is depicted as a naked man holding arrows.  It could be Indians from either Asia or from South America.
Preparing to leave Raccoon Key
 In other news, after not having a day off in a couple of weeks, I took the afternoon off and paddled over to Raccoon Key, where I pitched a hammock and took a nap, delighting in the sound of wind blowing through palm fronds.  The pictures below are from my mini-expedition.  
Where I took a nap and did some reading

Monday, April 10, 2017

H is for Hercules

We are rapidly moving through the alphabet with this year’s A-Z Challenge.  In my blog, we’re looking at heavenly bodies (those in the sky, not on the pages of certain magazines).  Today, we’re at the letter H.  There are a handful of constellations that begin with H:  Horologium, Hydra and, of course our choice for today, Hercules. 

Hercules was superman before superman.  He’s one of the largest constellations in the sky.  If Orion is the bad dude of the winter sky, Hercules is the tough man that hangs upside down in the summer sky.  Sadly, Hercules does not have the bright stars of Orion, but if you can pick out a few constellations in the summer sky, Hercules isn’t hard to find.  It’s just to the east of Cygnus the Swan and Lyra with its bright star, Vega.  To the east of Hercules is the soup bowl of the summer sky (that’s my description), Corona Borealis.  The Big Dipper and Draco is to the north of Hercules.

According to legend, Hercules father was Jupiter and his mother the beautiful Alcmene, wife of Amphytrion, a military leader of Thebes.  Jupiter spotted Alcmene and seduced her.  She gave birth to Hercules, who as an infant had amazing strength.  Jupiter’s wife, Juno, decided to do away with this latest consequence to her husband’s unfaithfulness and sent snakes to kill the infant.  Hercules, still in diapers, rung the necks of the snakes.  As a man, he met two women, Pleasure and Virtue.  Pleasure offered him a fun life, while Virtue offered a difficult life, but one he would ultimately claim glory.  Choosing the latter, Hercules found he had to atone for some of his misdeeds and was placed under the control of King Eurystheus, who told Hercules he’d have to accomplish twelve feats before he could be free.  Each feat was harder, but Hercules prevailed and now he reigns in the summer sky. 

Saturday, April 08, 2017

The Letter G: Gemini

  We are quickly running through the alphabet of this year's A-Z challenge as we explore heavenly bodies.  Today’s letter is “G” and we’re going to take a peek at Gemini, the twins.  This is the first of our constellations that are in the zodiac (a band around the earth in which the sun travels).  Astrologist a great deal out about the zodiac, but they are not scientists.  Frankly, I ignore the horoscope in the paper, but have often read those “horrorscopes” found in alternative papers.  But that’s another subject and we’ll come back to the zodiac at the end of the month (when we get to the letter Z).

According to legend, the Gemini twins were sons of Leda.  Zeus seduced Leda, so she gave birth to Pollux who was immortal.  But the other twin, Castor (from whom the oil may have been named) had a mortal dad and therefore was mortal.  Don’t ask me how a woman can have twins to different fathers.  This is mythology, not science.  The twins were assigned as protectors of the ship Argo as it sailed in search of the Golden Fleece.  When they boarded the ship, flames leaped from the mast, which associates them with St. Elmo’s fire.  Of course, being mortal, Castrol dies.  Pollux didn’t feel he could live without his brother and asked his dad, Zeus, if he could die.  It was arranged that when Castor sets in the western sky, he dies and goes to Hades, and Pollux gets to follow him.  When Castor rises, Pollux also rises. 

The best time to see Gemini is late in the evening in the fall, right after Orion has risen.  Gemini rises ahead of Orion, so is higher in the sky (just above Betelgeuse.    Castor and Pollux are both bright stars, but to me the constellation looks like an upside U, with Castor and Pollux anchoring the letter.  Castor is a unique object as it is actually made up of eight stars that circle each other. 

Of course, Gemini was the name of a series of American rockets that carried two astronauts into the sky.  The first manned rockets were the Mercury program.  Gemini was a bridge before the launch of the Saturn rockets that carried the first men to the moon.  Castor and Pollux are also characters in the third book of the Hunger Game series (and in the movie).  

Friday, April 07, 2017

The Letter "F": Flying Horse

We are at the letter F in our April’s A-Z challenge, as we tour of heavenly bodies.  “F” is even less popular than “E” for constellations.  There is only one, Fornax.  This constellation is in the southern hemisphere, but can be seen from the mid-latitudes in the north, but it is a constellation that lacks any bright stars and I’m sure I couldn’t pick it out without some help.  Fornax means furnace and is located in one of the bends of yesterday’s constellation, Eridanus.  But none of its stars are very bright.  So I am going to bend the rules and instead of using actual names of the heavenly body, I’m going to go by a description: “Flying Horse.”  That’s right, for letter “F” we’re going to explore Pegasus, the flying horse.
For those who would like to try to find Formax

As with most of the constellations, there are numerous stories about Pegasus.  He was supposedly born when Perseus decapitated Medusa.  When Medusa’ blood fell upon the foam waters of the sea, Pegasus rose.  He’s supposedly a horse with a mild temper and whose hoofs have been known to “kick up” springs with water that inspire poets.  At one time in his career, he carried Zeus or Jupiter’s lightning bolts.  He also spent time grazing on the earth (probably because the grass was better than Mount Olympus).  Bellerophon, the son of the King of Corinth, put a bridle on Pegasus and the two of them had a fine time riding around.  But when Bellerophon asked Pegasus to take him to Mount Olympus, the gods became concerned that the mythical horse was bringing a mortal rider and either snapped a lightning bolt or sent a biting fly to cause Pegasus to buck.  Bellerophon was thrown off and crashed back down to earth while Pegasus took his place in the sky.

Pegasus can easily be seen in overhead during the fall (or later at night during the summer).  Look for a large square.  There are four bright stars that make up the corners and there are only very dim stars within the square (unless it is really dark, you might not even see any stars within the large square).  In addition to the square, stars led off to make up the horses neck and head and front legs.  Other cultures have created different stories to go with the great square.  In India, it’s seen as a bedstead and in South America it was understood to be a barbecue grill.  

Thursday, April 06, 2017

The Letter E: Eridanus

We are at the letter E in our April’s A-Z challenge, as we tour of heavenly bodies.  “E” isn’t a popular letter to begin constellations, but there is one that is close to my heart even though it can’t always be fully seen in the northern hemisphere, especially where light pollution is a problem on the southern horizon.  Today we’re considering the constellation Eridanus, or the River Eridanus.  For those of us in the Northern Latitudes, the beginning of the constellation can be easily found as it begins near the star, Rigel, in Orion’s foot.  From there it winds itself south, star after star, nearly 40 degrees south, ending up at the star Acamar.  This star, whose name means the end of the river, was the brightest star from the southern skies that could be seen in ancient Greece.  Later, as Europeans traveled further south, they noticed the line of stars continued on, ending at the star Achernar, nearly 60 degrees south. 
Ancient cultures thrived by rivers and this constellation was often seen as a reflection of their river.  Egyptians saw it as the Nile, different European groups as the Rhine and Rhone, the Spaniards as the Ebro, the Romans as the Po, the Indians as the Ganges, and the Chinese the Yellow River.  With the northern stars near the foot of Orion, the upper part of the constellation was also seen at times as Orion’s footstool. 

There is something about a river flowing off the horizon that draws my eyes, my imagination, and my heart.  

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

The Letter D: Draco

We are at the letter D in our A-Z tour of heavenly bodies.  There are only three constellations that begin with a “D”, the most popular being Draco or the Dragon.  This constellation doesn’t stand out like the dippers or Orion.  Most of the stars are rather dim and although the constellation is huge, wrapping itself around the North Pole, it is hard to follow the stars to make out the dragon as it squeezes in between the two dippers (or the Bears or Ursa Major and Minor).   However, it is visible most of the year for those of us in the northern latitudes, but it is probably best seen in summer when it is higher in the sky.  For southern readers, Draco will remain elusive. 
There are several legends that are associated with Draco.  In one, Ladon the dragon guards the apples of Hesperides, which is under Atlas’ control.  Hercules final feat that will free him is to snatch one of these “golden apples.”  By tricking Atlas, Hercules fetches an apple and in the summer when the dragon is at its zenith, Hercules can be seen standing over the dragon. 

There's another legend set in primordial times when the Titanic gods fought against the Olympic gods.  In this story, Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, caught the dragon by its tail and tossed it up on the dome of stars in the sky where it swings around and around the pole (kind of like a record turning on a turntable).  Some say the dragon got tangled up and was unable to free itself and, being near the pole, froze there.   

The Dragon and Bear

Most everyone has heard of the North Star, but I’m pretty sure even the oldest of my readers can't recall a time when that star set in the Little Dipper didn’t stand over the Celestial Pole.  But the North Star has not always maintained this prominent position over the pole.  A mere five thousand years ago, Thuban (or alpha-draconis), a star within Draco’s tail, was the star that appeared over the pole.  The star does move, just very slowly. Although I’m pretty sure I won’t live to see it, twenty-some thousand years from now, the dragon will again claim the north point in the sky.