Sunday, April 30, 2017

Z is for Zodiac

Z is for Zodiac as we come to the end of our A-Z challenge of exploring heavenly bodies.  The Zodiac is the sun’s apparent path across the skies, which because of the earth’s rotation and tilt isn’t right on the equator.  Instead, the Zodiac follows the sun and, before calendars, was a way of keeping the date straight as the sun is roughly at the same place at the same time year after year.  But because the sun’s elliptical path varies from the equator (which the sun is only at twice a year at the fall equinox and the spring equinox) the “stars in the zodiac vary from north and south of the equator. 

We can thank the Babylonians for our current Zodiac.  Studying the sun’s and moon’s path across the sky, they placed constellations in each 30 day block.  But there is a problem with this as the sun may be “in a particular constellation” from as few as eight days (for Scorpius) to as many as forty-five days (Virgo).  They also capped the zodiac at 12 constellations even though there are thirteen constellations that are in the sun’s path.  When one speaks of being born under a Zodiac sign, it means that when the sun is overhead at noon, the sun is in that constellation, but of course we can’t tell because it is daytime and the stars can’t be seen.   But there’s a problem.  The zodiac dates and the actual position of the sun has changed.  So instead of being born in the sign of Capricorn, I was born in the sign of Sagittarius.  This doesn’t bother me any, although I kind of liked being a goat, but being a horse archer isn’t bad either.  But then, I don’t plan my life on my astrological signs.  

For more information on the Zodiac, check out Heidi Kneale's A-Z challenge blog.  Being from Australia and on the other side of the International Time Zone, she  had her post up a day before mine! :  

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Y is for Yellow Dwarf

We are almost done with exploring heavenly bodies in this year’s April’s A-Z challenge.  Y is for Yellow Dwarf.  No, I don’t mean Snow White’s Asian suitor, but a “g-type main-sequence star.”  All that gobble-goop means is a star like our sun!  These stars range in color from white to slightly yellow.  Our sun is actually a white star but appears more yellow because of our atmosphere.  This is something one might lose sleep over.  Our sun is burning 4 million tons of fuel a second.  Imagine that number, 4 million tons a second!  As it consumes this much fuel, it is producing the equivalent energy of 60 billion times the electricity produced by all the world’s power plants.  The sun can’t keep this up.  Sooner or later the sun will run out of fuel and then all our investments in solar energy will be wasted.  What are we to do?

Well, don’t sweat it, for as the sun begins to run short on fuel, it’ll throw one final party as it bellows itself into a red giant.  Then you’ll sweat it, but not for long for the earth will be consumed (as will we).  But don’t worry too much, that shouldn’t happen for another 4.5 billion years or so.  Chances are, we’ll all be long gone or have blown each other up by then.   After that last big party, the sun will dump a lot of its excessive matter, forming a planetary nebula as the core gradually shrink into a white dwarf. 

Of all the heavenly bodies we’ve discussed, there is one yellow dwarf is the easiest to spot.  Think you’re  up for the task?  (just don't stare at the sun, it's not good for your eyes).

Friday, April 28, 2017

X is for the X in the summer sky

Now for the promised post that many of you have been waiting for...

If you look overhead (from the northern hemisphere) during the summer, into the heart of the Milky Way, you might be able to make out an X or a cross in the sky.  X is today's letter in our A-Z Challenge.  This "X" is Cygnus, the swan, although it is also called “The Northern Cross.”  Although larger than its companion constellation, the Southern Cross, it’s not as famous possibly because Crosby Stills and Nash never sang a song about it.  

We’ve heard a bit about one of the stories that deal with Cygnus when we looked at Gemini (so you might want to look back and review).   If you remember, Gemini were the children of the affair between Jupiter (or Zeus) and Leda.  Leda, at the time, was the wife of the King of Sparta and Jupiter, from his all-seeing perch above earth, spots her having a bath.  Wanting a closer look, Jupiter changed himself into a swan and swam over to Leda.  The beautiful queen found the swan so lovely, she stoked his neck which drove Jupiter mad with lust.  He turned back into himself and they had sexual relationships that evening.  That same night, Leda, also had sex with her husband and somehow sperm from both found their way into Leda’s eggs.  Nine months later, she give birth to the Gemini twins, one who was immortal, thanks to his father being a god.  The other child was mortal, thanks to his dad being just a king.  So today, during the summer months, the swan is overhead waiting to seduce another beauty…  Or maybe this nonsense should just be called a “Midsummer Nights Dream.’   

There are other legends about Cygnus, but this one involved our old friend, Jupiter.

As for Crosby, Stills and Nash, I love the song, "Southern Cross," Anytime you can mix together sailing, the stars, and lost lovers together, I tend internalize the message...  
When you see the Southern Cross for the first time
You understand now why you came this way
'Cause the truth you might be runnin' from is so small
But it's as big as the promise, the promise of a comin' day

                               -Crosby, Stills and Nash, 1982

Thursday, April 27, 2017

W is for White Dwarf

Today, as we move into the doldrums of the skies in our A-Z challenge, we’re at the letter W.  There are no constellations that begin with a “W”, so we’ll have to look elsewhere for a heavenly body to admire.  Today, it will be a “White Dwarf.”  No, this is not one of Snow White’s Caucasian Suitors (which one of the seven dwarfs would that be?). 

Wrong Dwarfs (and shouldn't snow white be a blonde?)
Instead, I am speaking of a particular type of star, of which we have a hard time seeing because they are so dim.  White dwarfs are stars that are on their way out, so to speak, having burned up their fuel, they now remain as a dense compact core that slowly cools.  There is still enough heat and energy to emit some light, but fusion has stopped and at some point in the next dozen or so billions of years, the star will switch off its light and become a black dwarf (of which none is currently known to exist, but then the solar system is vast and a dark star could hide anywhere).  The closest white dwarf is a binary star to Sirius.

Now, I should have never said "never" when it comes to Mr. Jupiter.  There is no reason for this blog to go back to its normal G-rating.  Tomorrow, I have a surprised cooked up for you that includes another Don Juan Jupiter’s exploits.  I’ve been worrying for some time what to say about the letter “X”.  I had originally thought I’d write something about navigation but that’s not as fun...  As I pondered about my situation, I finally came up with another idea.  Stay tuned (and keep the kiddies away for another day as the blog will remain PG13)!  

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

V is for Venus

Our A-Z challenge journey through the sky is about over and today we have our last major heavenly body to explore: Venus.  Don’t worry, I will have posts for w, x, y, z, but they’re not going to be nearly as exciting as the ones so far.  For some reason, Jupiter (or Zeus) was never tempted to seduce a beautiful woman named Wanda,  Xinda, Yvonne, or Zanda, and then in consolation to their mistreatment by his wife, give them a place in the sky.  

Venus is a lovely planet from earth.  It’s close to the same size as our home planet, the second planet from the sun, and is a most inhospitable place and isn't very pretty close up.  It is the hottest planet, hotter than even Mercury even though it is further away from the sun.  Gas in the atmosphere traps in heat and the surface can be as hot as 870 degrees Fahrenheit.  That’s hot enough to melt lead.  The atmosphere is much heavier than earths and consist of Carbon Dioxide and Sulfuric Acid and other goodies.  You’d have to hold your nose because the smell, but the good news is that you’d not last long.  The surface is dry and dotted with volcanoes, some of which are still active.  Although the Venus year is only 220 days long (as it has less distance to circle the sun), it’s days are very long as are its nights as the planet slowly rotates. 

In ancient times, it was thought that Venus was two stars, the morning star named Lucifer and the evening star called Vespers.  But as astronomers began to figure things out, they realized it was on the same star and since it is closer to the sun than the earth, it is either seen in the morning or evening and never high overhead.   In the Bible, Venus as a morning star is referenced.  The King James Version translates Isaiah 14:13 as “O Lucifer, son of the morning.”  However, Lucifer is not in Hebrew.  The word Lucifer is Latin, meaning “Bearer of the Light.”  Although Venus sounds hellish enough for Lucifer, the reference to this star doesn’t always mean the devil or Satan.  In the last book of Scripture (Revelation 22:16), we read of Jesus speaking: “ I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” 

Of course, the name Venus is taken from the Roman goddess of love and pleasure. 

If you want to see Venus, go out early tomorrow the morning.  The planet is the third brightest object in the sky (behind the Sun and moon) and can often be seen when other stars are not visible.  Look for it in East just before dawn, near the waning moon.  (If you are reading this blog later, check to see whether Venus is in the morning or evening sky). 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

U is for Ursa Major

We're at U in our journey through the night sky in search of heavenly bodies as we complete April’s A-Z challenge.  Today it's Ursa Major, best known as the Big Dipper or the Plough.  It's one of the more familiar constellations for those readers who live in the northern hemisphere, where it can be seen most of the year as it circles the pole.  This will also, I promise, be the last time I tell of Jupiter (or Zeus’) sexual infidelities during this challenge.  We have heard so much of his seducing that I’m sure many of you have become tired of it. 

The seven stars that make up the Dipper are all bright and easily spotted, unlike the Little Dipper which have only dim stars with the exception of Polaris. But the constellation is much larger than just the dipper and represents a large mother bear in the sky.  The constellation is the third largest.

Ursa Major means Large She-Bear, while Ursa Minor is Small She-Bear.  To see the constellation, look north and for the familiar dipper pattern.  This constellation is also old and is referred to not only be Greek writers but also in the Bible.  In the 9th chapter, Job challenges his friends pointing out that God is the maker of the “Bear and Orion and the Pleiades.”  And then, at the end of the book, God responds to Job, “Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs?”  (Job 9:9 and 38:32).  Like other constellations, some cultures have seen different images with the dipper, such as the Babylonians seeing it as a wagon, northern European visualizing it as a plough, and the Azetc seeing one of their gods in the skies.  However, it's amazing how man cultures from Europe to Asia to Native Americans saw it as a bear.

Now concerning Mr. Don Juan Jupiter…  Callisto was the beautiful daughter of King Lycaon of Arcadia.  Like the girl in the Hunger Games, she loved to hunt and was good with a bow and arrow.  She worshiped Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, and pledged herself tot he goddess, promising to remain celibate.  But along comes Jupiter, who sees the beautiful girl taking a nap in the woods while she hunted.  Seeing a good opportunity, he changed himself into the likeness of Artemis and was able to engage in conversation with Callisto.  But his passion got the best of him and soon he forced himself on her, kissing her roughly and letting Callisto know that he was not Artemis, but Jupiter. Callistro resisted but she couldn’t keep Jupiter for doing what he intended. 
Again, Jupiter planted the seed and it was fertilized and grew and after nine months, Callisto gave birth to a son, Arcas.  When Juno, Jupiter’s wife, found out, she was furious and blamed Callistro and turned her into a bear.  Callistro now had to avoid hunters in the woods.  Years later she spotted a hunter who was her son, Arcas.  Forgetting she was a bear and took off to be reunited with her son, but he drew an arrow and shot it at the bear’s heart.  At this point Jupiter intervenes, saves Callistro, turns Arcas also into a bear and grabs both by the tail and toss them into the sky, where they were able to be together forever. 

Of course, Juno wasn’t happy about the immortality of Callistro and her son, so she arranged it that they never get to rest or take a bath, for they are doomed to rotate around the globe by the pole so that they never set (for resting is done when the constellation is behind the earth, the washing comes form setting in the ocean for a bath).  

Do you think Juno was taking out her anger on the victim and not the cause of her pain?

Monday, April 24, 2017

T is for Taurus (and this one ain't a Ford)

We are beginning our last week in April's A-Z challenge as we explore heavenly bodies.  For the letter T, we’re look for Taurus.  If you have a good dark eastern horizon, Taurus can be seen rising in the east an hour or so before Orion.  As Orion’s belt becomes visible, follow them up till you see the “V” in the sky.  The main “V” forms the Bull’s face with the bright star, Aldebaran, serving as the bull’s eye.  Many of the stars in the V make up the Hyades Cluster and although it appears that Aldebaran is one of them, it isn’t as it is much closer to earth than the other stars  The V, called Hyades, takes up but a little of Taurus.  The Pleiades (or the seven sisters) are the Bull’s shoulder.  As fall turns to winter, the bull is seen higher and higher in the sky.  Taurus is a part of the Zodiac, the band of stars around the equator in which the sun and planets move.

There are a couple of mythological stories relating to Taurus and Jupiter (or Zeus) playing a major role in both as he sought to commit yet another extra-marital affair.  One of the stories involved the over-sex god disguising himself as a beautiful and tame bull, that lured Europa (the beautiful daughter of the Phoenicia king) to climb on his back while she was playing by the sea.  Once she mounted the bull, he led her away through the sea.  As land disappeared, Europa held on tighter, till they came to Crete, where Jupiter seduced her.  Jupiter, it seems, never shot any blanks.  Europa conceived and gave birth to Minos, the king of Crete.  Missing children were tragic in antiquities, too. 

In another story, Jupiter fell in love with Io, who happened to be a priestess in the temple of Juno (Jupiter’s wife).  Learning of her husband’s affair, she change Io into a heifer and orders Argus to keep her prisoner.  Wanting to free Io, Jupiter asks Mercury to intervene and to kill Argus (who has 100 eyes so he sees all).  He decapitates Argus and Jupiter takes Io to Egypt and restores her into a woman, where she becomes the mother of Epaphus, ruler of the Nile.

The Greeks believed that Pleiades, the seven sisters, were the children of Atlas and Pleione.  They are also seen as a bunch of grapes and when Taurus and Orion are setting in the west, it appears the hunter is leaning in to fetch the grapes (however, he’d be butted by the bull if he’s not careful).  

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