I joined the Barnard-Seyfert astronomy club in Nashville. The group met at the Adventure Science Center.
Eagle-eye Barnard (1857-1923) was born in Nashville. He was a great observer and photographed the Milky Way. He discovered the first Jovian moon since Galileo.
Carl Seyfert was instrumental in building Dyer Observatory.
July 17, 2008, I attended a meeting of BSAS. The club president gave a presentation showing constellations and the location of Messier objects. There was discussion about star parties, when and where they would be held.
I looked forward to a Messier Marathon. They are normally held in March and April. The object is to observe as many of Charles Messier's 110 objects as possible.
It was a long road from interpreting events in the sky as whims of gods and goddesses to explaining them as the interaction of natural forces. The sun, moon and planets are part of nature as are mountains, forests and seas. The ancient Greeks made inroads into science. Aristarchus (310 BC - 230 BC) knew that the earth circled the sun. He was 18 centuries ahead of Copernicus.
In astronomy things are often not what they seem. There are apparent motions, apparent magnitudes and apparent diameters. Our senses say that the sun rises in the morning and sets at night. We know it is not so. The earth is rotating. We are the ones moving. Moreover, we may think that Venus is brighter than the stars because it appears so when in reality this nearby planet only reflects light from our sun. The stars are enormous suns trillions of miles away emitting their own radiation. Finally, we hold our thumbs up and cover the moon. Its diameter seems hardly an inch. We know this is not true as the astronauts who walked on the moon have told us. Our sensory perceptions evolved on earth to ensure our survival and capacity to function in our immediate surroundings. Knowledge of the earth's place in the solar system and that system's place in the Milky Way has come slowly over many centuries through the collaborative efforts of our greatest minds.
We take the sun for granted. It is the source of the earth's energy. Without it, life on earth would cease to exist. Earlier civilizations knew its importance. They worshipped the sun. People in high latitudes such as Scandinavians appreciate its annual return.
The sun is a star. It is one of 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. It only seems different from other stars because it is close. We circle it. The sun is yellow and a mere 93 million miles away. Other stars appear as points of light because they are trillions of miles from us.
The sun does not rise and set. The spinning earth makes it appear so. The apparent path of the sun is called the ecliptic because it is where eclipses take place. It is in the center of the zodiac.
The sun formed when a cloud of dust and gas collapsed. Its core was squeezed so tight that nuclear fusion began. Hydrogen atoms combined to form helium and give off energy. The sun shines by nuclear energy, some of which takes the form of light.
Someday the sun will exhaust its hydrogen. It will burn helium to form other elements. Toward the end of its cycle, the sun will become a red giant. Its outer shell will expand, and its core will shrink. Its core will become a white dwarf and eventually a burned-out ember. Heavy elements are made when massive stars explode as supernovas. These elements fly into space.
The sun is a hydrogen bomb!
The five major circles of latitude are the arctic circle, Tropic of Cancer, equator, Tropic of Capricorn and the antarctic circle. The Tropic of Cancer runs off the southern tip of Florida. The Tropic of Capricorn runs through Australia. The area between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn is called "the tropics." The word comes from the Greek "tropos," meaning "turn," because the sun appears to turn and move in the other direction after being overhead at noon in these places. This apparent movement north and south by the sun during the course of a year is caused by the 23 1/2 degree tilt of the earth's axis.
The hottest days come after the first day of summer, and the coldest days come after the first day of winter because it takes time for the earth to heat up and cool down.
The earth rotates 1,000 miles an hour. It revolves around the sun 66,000 miles an hour. Rotation causes day and night. Revolution causes the seasons.
It is easy to see why the ancients thought the stars rose nightly in the east and set in the west. It is an illusion given by our spinning planet.
Stars rise four minutes earlier each night as the earth orbits the sun.
70% of the earth is covered by water. The four oceans are: Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Arctic. 10% of the land is covered by ice.
Life began in the oceans, and our bodies are 75% water. We need water to survive.
Plants came onto the land 400 million years ago. They give off oxygen, making animal life possible.
Crescent shapes are common in the universe. The moon appears as a crescent when it is closer to the sun than we are.
A two-day-old crescent is easy to see. Crescent moons younger than 14 hours cannot be seen.
Thin crescents are illuminated by an almost full earth. Earthshine dims as the moon waxes.
I do not see a man in the moon. I see a foot with three toes. The arch is the Sea of Tranquillity. The heel is the Sea of Serenity. The toes are the Seas of Crises, Fertility and Nectar.
June 18, 2008, I stood outside my apartment at the Village at Vanderbilt where I had observed a lunar eclipse four months earlier. I looked at a full moon through binoculars. What I noticed was the foot with three toes and how the dark lava contrasted with the brightness of the southern highlands. The maria are dark because the iron-rich lava reflects less sunlight.
I saw Tycho and the Y formed by craters Copernicus, Aristarchus, Kepler and Grimaldi.
The moon orbits from west to east, rising 50 minutes later each night. It is visible in the sky less than half the time.
A full moon rises in the east at sunset and sets in the west at sunrise. I recall a full moon rising above the orchard on Aiken Road. A full moon is the only phase that can be seen all night.
The sun's rays hit a full moon directly. There are no shadows. The moon's features are best seen along the terminator at first and last quarters when there are shadows. The terminator is the line dividing day and night.
The moon was created when a Mars-like object impacted the earth in the early period of the solar system. Part of the earth was knocked out and became the moon. The impact caused the earth to tilt 23 1/2 degrees on its axis. This axis is an imaginary line from pole to pole.
The moon is locked by the earth's gravity. It rotates once as it orbits the earth, keeping the same side toward us.
The dark areas on the the moon are solidified lava. Lava seeped from the moon's interior and covered the lowlands. The bright highlands are covered with craters.
That there are fewer craters on the far side of the moon indicates that its crust is thicker. The crust on the near side was broken by the earth's gravity. The Russians were the first to photograph the far side.
The ancients called the planets "wanderers" because they moved in relation to the stars. They identified these wanderers with gods and goddesses. Jupiter was named after the king of the gods. Venus was named after the goddess of love. The more observant noticed that the planets, sun and moon stayed inside a narrow band of constellations. That band became known as the zodiac (zoo) because it is comprised of animals.
Of course, the planets are not gods and goddesses. Nor are they simply lights in the sky. They are places, worlds, like and unlike our own. We still talk of planets being in constellations, knowing it is another illusion. When we say that a planet is in a constellation, what we mean is that it is in the direction of that constellation. That the planets, sun and moon stay inside the zodiac shows the flatness of the solar system. Its parts revolve in the same plane.
From the Wal-Mart parking lot in Lebanon, I used binoculars to view an alignment of Saturn, Mars and Regulus near a four-day-old moon. I observed the moon's terminator and earthshine, the ghostly light reflected from Earth to the moon and back to Earth. The drama took place in the constellation Leo in the west after sunset. Saturn, Mars and Regulus lined up like Orion's belt to the right of the moon. It was the night of July 6, 2008.
Cousin got out his reflector, and we viewed Saturn, Mars, Jupiter and the first quarter moon. We had a nice view of the moon's craters in the southern highlands. We saw central peaks. Saturn and Mars were in conjunction in Leo, two degrees apart. Saturn was brightest, and we saw its rings. I recalled that Galileo described them as "handles." We saw three of Jupiter's Galilean moons. The fourth was either in front of or behind the planet. We located the summer triangle, and I mentioned how massive Deneb is. Its absolute brightness is greater than the other first magnitude stars.
Mercury circles the sun in 88 days. It flits back and forth from the western sky at sunset to the eastern sky at dawn.
Venus is the evening star for 9 months and the morning star for 9 months.
Venus transited the sun, June 5, 2012, appearing as a black dot moving across the sun's surface.
Mars circles the sun in 697 days, less than two Earth years. Mars is closest to Earth when it is at opposition, on the opposite side of us from the sun,
The Curiosity rover landed on Mars in August, 2012. The public will not become excited until a man walks on Mars or indisputable fossils are found.
Jupiter is made of hydrogen and helium. It has no surface. When we view Jupiter, we are looking at the tops of thick clouds. Jupiter's rapid rotation has stretched these clouds into parallel bands. The dark bands are called belts. The light bands are called zones.
The Great Red Spot is shrinking. It is a storm, and all storms eventually play out. The Red Spot has the characteristics of a hurricane, strong winds and circular motion. It has lasted so long because there is no land to slow it down.
In June, 2008, Jupiter was in Sagittarius at -2.7 magnitude. Jupiter circles the zodiac in 12 years.
Saturn is also made of hydrogen and helium. Yellow and gold bands make up its atmosphere. The Hubble Space Telescope imaged Saturn's northern and southern lights. Titan is Saturn's best known moon and the second largest in the solar system after Ganymede.
Saturn takes 29 years to circle the sun. Its rings are best seen near opposition. As I write, they are closing.
Uranus is in Aquarius. It circles the sun in 84 years.
William Herschel named Uranus' moons after Shakespeare's characters. Oberon, Titania and Puck are from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Prospero and his daughter Miranda, her man Ferdinand, Ariel and Caliban are from The Tempest. Juliet, Ophelia, and Desdemona are three of Shakespeare's tragic women.
Neptune is in Capricornus. It circles the sky in 146 years. We seldom hear of Johann Gottfried Galle, the German who discovered Neptune.
Pluto will be in Sagittarius until 2024. It takes 248 years to circle the sun. Like Uranus, Pluto rotates on its side.
I defended Pluto for a while. Now I think it is a Kuiper Belt Object. That Pluto crosses Neptune's orbit casts suspicion on its status as a planet. Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930.
Pluto is the last planet to be explored. New Horizons arrives in 2015. That Pluto has three companions supports the idea that it might be a planet. Pluto was the god of the underworld. Charon ferried the dead across the river Styx. Nix was the goddess of night. Hydra was a monster.
The Perseids are the most reliable meteors. Other important showers are the Leonids and the Geminids. The Leonids have been known to be spectacular. They peak November 17/18. The "id" suffix means "from."
The Leonids of 1833 are legendary. An estimated 100,000 meteors fell per hour. It was a meteor storm. The superstitious believed it was the end of the world.
Bright meteors leave trails. Objects as small as apple seeds flare up because their temperatures reach 4,000 degrees. Being seen against dark skies exaggerates their brightness. Meteors coming straight at us appear as stationary bursts of light.
Stars rise four minutes earlier each night because the earth revolves around the sun. After a year, the stars are back where they were.
Changes in longitude do not affect how we see the sky. Changes in latitude can affect it dramatically. Flying from Sydney to Santiago, the sky will look the same. Flying from Sydney to Reykjavik, there will be big changes.
If we were at the equator, we would see all the stars in a year. If we were at the North Pole, Polaris would be overhead and we would see only the stars in the sky's northern half. They would circle us, neither rising nor setting. At the South Pole, we would see only the south circumpolar stars. If the earth were transparent, we would see all the stars in all directions.
There are 88 constellations, the number of keys on a piano. Western civilization inherited the constellations from the Greeks and Romans. Some look like what they are supposed to. Others do not. The Big Dipper certainly looks like a dipper. As part of Ursa Major, it is circumpolar, meaning that it is close enough to the north celestial pole to not rise and set at mid-northern latitudes. It is seen all night. The Dipper is an asterism, a well-known group of stars that is not a constellation. Orion's Belt and the Summer Triangle are asterisms.
Constellations are not real. They are imaginary star patterns created by farmers, shepherds and poets. Farmers relied on the stars to know when to plant and harvest crops. Shepherds watched the night sky as they tended their flocks. Poets fabricated stories about gods and heroes that have passed through generations. The Greeks gave us 48 classical constellations. 40 more were added by Europeans during the age of exploration. Frenchman Nicolas de Lacaille created 17 constellations while in South Africa. The International Astronomical Union divided the entire sky into 88 sections, adhering to classical boundaries. Now every object in the sky is part of a constellation.
The end stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper are the pointers. They point to Polaris, the North Star. Polaris is still inching closer to true north, the point directly above Earth's axis. The axis is an imaginary line running from the North Pole to the South Pole. Polaris was not always the north star nor will it always be. Thuban was the north star 4,500 years ago. 13,000 years in the future, it will be Vega. Precession of the equinoxes causes this shift. Over 26,000 years, the earth wobbles like a top because of the moon's pull.
The constellation Draco winds between the dippers. Draco was the dragon killed by Hercules when he took the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides. The Hesperides were nymphs who tended the garden.
The story of Hercules is in the stars. We see the Nemean lion (Leo) vanquished by Hercules as part of his 12 labors. Hercules strangled the lion with his bare hands. The constellations in general depict man's conquest of the animal world.
The handle of the Big Dipper curves toward Arcturus. Orange Arcturus in Bootes the herdsman is the 4th brightest star. Bootes is accompanied by Canes Venatici, the hunting dogs which chase the bears around the pole. The Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) is in Canes Venatici.
Spica is the first magnitude star in Virgo the virgin. Spica is found by extending the curve of the Dipper's handle through Arcturus. Spica is one of four bright stars that can be occulted by the sun and moon due to its proximity to the ecliptic. Regulus, Antares and Aldebaran are the others.
Virgo is associated with the earth goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Persephone was abducted by Pluto and taken to the Underworld. Zeus brokered a deal whereby Persephone would spend summers with her mother and winters with her husband. This is how the Greeks explained the seasons.
The Virgo supercluster is called the Realm of the Galaxies. When we look toward this supercluster, we look away from the plane of the Milky Way. Out the top or bottom of our galaxy.
In Greek mythology the Pleiades were seven sisters. Orion the hunter chased them across the sky. Orion bonded with Artemis, Apollo's twin sister, with whom he shared the hunt. Apollo became jealous and sent a scorpion to kill Orion. Thus Orion and Scorpius are not in the sky at the same time, at least not in the Northern Hemisphere. I saw them together in Australia.
Some people see seven Pleiades. Others see six. One story names Merope as the Lost Pleiad. She married a mortal and hides herself in shame. The Pleiades are in Taurus and ride the bull. Star lore is fascinating even if it is about man's imagination rather than science.
The Hyades, an open cluster in Taurus, were half-sisters of the Pleiades. This V-shaped star cluster near Aldebaran is actually far beyond it.
Auriga the charioteer carries a goat and two kids (small goats). Capella is the 6th brightest star.
Scorpius is a constellation that looks like what it is supposed to be. From my parents' front yard I watched it crawl silently across the sky, moving low on the horizon. First magnitude Antares is like Betelgeuse in that both are red giants. They are near death.
Libra the scales is the only non-living constellation in the zodiac. It was once considered to be the scorpion's claws.
Sagittarius the archer killed the scorpion to avenge Orion. Sagittarius looks like a teapot. Star clouds resembling steam rise from its spout. The Trifid nebula is in Sagittarius. Dust lanes divide it into three lobes. A star inside causes the hydrogen to glow.
The Orion Nebula (M42) is a stellar nursery like the Pleiades. Stars are forming from dust and gas. The Horsehead Nebula is in Orion under Alnitak, the first star in the belt. The Horsehead is a dark nebula. We see it in silhouette because Alnitak lights up the gas behind it.
Constellations fit together to create scenes. Orion's dogs, Canis Major and Minor, chase Lepus the hare. Sirius is the brightest star because it is close, only 9 light-years away. Sirius is blue and shines at -1.44 magnitude. Blue stars are young and hot. Canopus, the second brightest star, is dimmer than Sirius only because it is farther away.
Vega, Deneb and Altair form the Summer Triangle. Vega is in Lyra, the the only musical instrument in the sky. Orpheus played this lyre to save the Argonauts from the sirens. The Ring Nebula (M57) is a planetary nebula. It would be better if planetary nebulas were simply called "dying stars."
Cygnus the swan flies overhead in summer. The Cygnus star cloud is a bright region of the Milky Way. The Greeks saw Cygnus as Zeus in the form of a swan. He seduced Leda, causing her to lay eggs from which Castor and Pollux were hatched. The twins sailed with Jason and the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece. Deneb is 2,600 light-years away and 60,000 times more luminous than the sun.
The constellations Aquila and Aquarius are related. Aquarius is Ganymede the water carrier. Zeus sent his eagle to fetch Ganymede because he wanted him as his personal cup-bearer. Ganymede brings water from the river Eridanus. First magnitude Achernar sits at the river's end.
Delphinus the dolphin, Pisces the fish and Capricornus the seagoat are in this watery part of the sky. The seagoat is Pan after he jumped in the river. Part of Pan got wet, and that part changed into a fish. Organizing stars into pictures that tell stories makes them easy to remember.
That the Greek myths survived the Scientific Revolution is a testimony to the marvelous imaginations of those ancient people. The word "myth" comes from the Greek "mythos," meaning story. There are creation myths telling how the world began, explanation myths that attempt to explain nature and quest myths, stories of heroes and their adventures.
Magnitude measures the brightness of stars. There are 21 first magnitude stars. Four have minus magnitudes: Sirius -1.44, Canopus -0.62, Alpha Centauri -0.27 and Arcturus -0.05. Those with minus magnitudes are still called first magnitude. The higher the magnitude, the dimmer the star.
21 First Magnitude Stars
..1 Sirius --------- Canis Major
..2 Canopus -------- Carina
..3 Alpha Centauri --- Centaurus
..4 Arcturus ------- Bootes
..5 Vega ----------- Lyra
..6 Capella -------- Auriga
..7 Rigel ---------- Orion
..8 Procyon -------- Canis Minor
..9 Achernar ------- Eridanus
10 Betelgeuse ---- Orion
11 Hadar --------- Centaurus
12 Altair -------- Aquila
13 Acrux --------- Crux
14 Aldebaran ----- Taurus
15 Spica --------- Virgo
16 Antares ------- Scorpius
17 Pollux -------- Gemini
18 Fomalhaut ----- Piscis Austrinus
19 Becrux -------- Crux
20 Deneb --------- Cygnus
21 Regulus ------- Leo
1 Sirius fascinates Fred Schaaf. He claims to have seen it through his bedroom window at age six. I was 16 when I spotted it rising above the woods across the road from where we lived. Schaaf revels in Sirius' many hues as its light passes through our atmosphere.
2 I saw Canopus from Australia. It is in Carina the keel which was part of Argo Navis, the ship on which the Argonauts sailed. Modern astronomers split the constellation.
3 The Alpha Centauri system boasts the closest star at 4.4 light-years, 25 trillion miles. Alpha Centauri A is like our sun.
4 Arcturus hovered above my parents' back yard, where we played horseshoes and croquet as I tried to beat my friends at games. Arcturus has burned its hydrogen and is now burning helium. It is 37 light-years away.
5 Vega is a blue-white sapphire dominating the Summer Triangle. There is evidence that it has a Jupiter-like planet.
6 Like so many stars, Capella turns out to be a double.
7 In Norse mythology Rigel was a big toe of the giant Orwandil. When his other big toe became frost-bitten, Thor broke it off and threw it into the northern sky as Alcor.
8 Star pronunciation varies over time. Procyon is now pronounced pro-SY-on.
9 Achernar is the least famous of the first magnitude stars. In Australia I pointed to it and asked a fellow stargazer what it was. He said, "That's Achernar!" The moment stayed with me. Achernar is isolated at the river's end.
10 Red giant Betelgeuse in Orion is the most famous star. If put in our sun's place, it would reach beyond Mars.
11 Hadar is a name for Beta Centauri.
12 Altair lies between two dimmer stars in the constellation Aquila. In the movie, Forbidden Planet, action takes place on the fourth planet from Altair.
13 Acrux is Alpha Crucis in the Southern Cross.
14 Occultation is when one object hides another. Aldebaran is one of four first magnitude stars that can be occulted by the sun and moon. Aldebaran is the bull's-eye in Taurus. It is converting helium into carbon.
15 Virgo is pictured with wheat in her left hand. Spica means "ear of wheat."
16 Antares in the scorpion is another first magnitude star that can be occulted. It was during an occultation that its companion was discovered. Antares is like Altair in that it is flanked by two stars.
17 Castor and Pollux are famous twins in mythology and the bright stars of Gemini. Only Pollux is first magnitude. Astronomers think it has a Jupiter-like planet.
18 I practised the pronunciation of Fomalhaut. The h is silent. It is fom-a-lawt. Fomalhaut is the mouth of the southern fish and believed to have at least one planet.
19 Becrux is Beta Crucis. It is called Mimosa. It lies near the dark nebula known as the Coalsack.
20 Medieval Arabs named the stars. "Deneb" means "tail," and Deneb is the tail of the swan.
21 Regulus is a flat star. Its equatorial diameter is greater than its polar diameter. Rapid rotation causes flatness. The Sphinx of Giza was inspired by Leo.
The Messier Marathon took place, April 25, 2009, at Mark Manner's Spot Observatory, 50 miles west of Nashville on I-40. I anticipated this as a BSAS member. Fortunately, the sky was clear. Charles Messier was the 18th century comet hunter who numbered 110 fuzzy objects not to be mistaken for comets. Ironically, it is his throwaway list for which he is remembered.
It reminded me of Australia, walking out and seeing bright stars after being cooped up at Vanderbilt. I even befriended a married couple. He went down the list of Messier objects with machine-like precision, locating targets in the big reflector. She worked at the Sudekum Planetarium in Nashville and talked of the Kepler project and the search for exoplanets.
We sampled a cross-section of objects. It is unrealistic to try to see them all in a night. After several open clusters, they start to look alike and even in late April, it gets chilly after midnight. The M numbers I saw could have been pulled out of a hat, but this is how they turned out. It felt good to be out of the city and under a dark sky.
M1 - The Crab Nebula in Taurus is the remains of a supernova. A star exploded, leaving expanding gas and a rotating pulsar.
M35 - Open cluster off Castor's toe in Gemini containing 200 stars.
M36 - Open cluster in Auriga. These 60 stars appeared as a fuzzy object in the center of the reflector's field of view.
M37 - Dense open cluster in Auriga with a red giant in the middle. Open clusters are found along the plane of the Milky Way.
M38 - Open cluster, this one in the central part of Auriga. Open clusters break up after a few million years because of gravitational influence from nearby stars.
M40 - Double star in Ursa Major.
M42 & M43 - M42 is the Orion Nebula and a favorite. It resembles a peacock. M43 is nearby.
M44 - The 200 stars of the Beehive cluster were sharp and bright in the reflector. Also known as Praesepe (Latin for "manger"), the Beehive lies in the center of Cancer. In mythology Hera sent this crab to attack Hercules.
M45 - This is the Pleiades although we did not observe it through the telescope.
M65 & M66 - Two galaxies in Leo 35 million light-years away. M65 is edge-on in our line of sight. M66 is dominant.
M67 - Open cluster in Cancer found by locating the Hydra's head. Colors indicate that these are mature stars: yellow, orange and red. The older a cluster, the more red giants.
M81 & M82 - Two galaxies in Ursa Major. M81 is a spiral. M82 is disturbed. They are only 100,000 light-years apart, and each can be clearly seen from the other.
M95 & M96 - Two galaxies in Leo along the lion's belly. M95 is barred. M96 is a spiral and the brightest.
M97 - Called the Owl Nebula because details were thought to resemble the eyes of an owl. This is a so-called "planetary nebula," a dying star giving off a shell of gas. It appeared as a smudge in the middle of the eyepiece.
M105 - Elliptical galaxy in Leo.
M109 - Spiral galaxy in Ursa Major. Averted vision helped to spot this oval blur.
We saw an array of spring constellations: Virgo and the diamond-shaped Corvus. Saturn lay beneath Leo. Later on, Scorpius was rising, and Vega was up. The party ended with Mark showing me his slides. We talked about eclipses. He had taken a picture of the 1991 solar eclipse in Hawaii.
Perseid Meteor Shower
I became aware of the Perseid meteor shower in 1961. In 1964 the Perseids were spectacular. I was spoiled. I counted 351 meteors the night of August 11 and morning of August 12. Many were fireballs, leaving trails. I always dreamed that one day I would experience another shower like that. Most years it was either cloudy or the moon was out. I counted over a hundred meteors from my front yard in Lebanon, Tennessee, in 1978. As the years went on, the problem became one of getting away from city lights, finding skies dark enough to make the effort worthwhile.
Most meteors are 50 to 100 miles up. They are no bigger than grains of sand. They enter our atmosphere at 40 miles per second. Nearly all are vaporized. The radiant for the Perseids is at the top of Perseus' head.
The Milky Way -
When I saw the Milky Way arching across the night sky as a teenager, I gave it little thought. It was a glowing band of light, nothing more. In my 30s I realized that the Milky Way is the galaxy in which our sun and planets reside. Our solar system lies on the edge of one of its spiral arms.
The Milky Way stretches from northeast to southwest in summer. It circles the sky although part of it is never seen from the United States. I saw the southern piece from Australia. Light from the Milky Way is the combined glow of billions of suns thousands of light-years away. Our galaxy appears as it does because of its flat shape. It bulges in the center and tapers at the edges like a fried egg. Our solar system is located toward the outer rim. When we view the star clouds in Sagittarius, we look toward the Milky Way's center. Viewing in the opposite direction, we look toward the rim. Perpendicular to the Milky Way, we look out the top or bottom of the galaxy where stars are scarce. The Milky Way is rotating. It spins once every 200,000 years. If I had known this as a teenager, I would have been a genius. It is revelation to look at the Milky Way and to understand even in some elemental way what we are seeing.
Parts of the Milky Way are obscured by dust and gas. They are not holes. The Great Rift divides the stream from Cygnus toward Sagittarius. In summer, we look toward the center of our galaxy in the direction of Sagittarius. In winter, we look toward its outer rim in the direction of Orion.
Tracing the Milky Way around the summer sky, we first notice it in the direction of Perseus, Cassiopeia and Cepheus. From there, it flows to Cygnus. E. E. Barnard studied the Milky Way, and it was he who realized that the dark patches are clouds of dust and gas and not holes. The Great Rift starts at Deneb and extends almost to the Southern Cross. It divides one-third of the Milky Way into two apparent streams. Barnard's starry band flows into Scutum, and he referred to the Scutum star cloud as "the gem of the Milky Way." It moves southward beyond Centaurus, coming close to the south celestial pole near Crux. We follow it past Canopus and between the Dog Stars, where it is less brilliant. It passes the feet of Gemini, and suddenly we are back to Perseus where we first noticed our starry circle. Seen from afar, the Milky Way is a flat spiral with arms coiling around a central mass.
Astronomers have identified five spiral arms around the Milky Way. These are the Orion, Cygnus, Sagittarius, Perseus and Centaurus arms. Our solar system is in the Orion arm.
Stars move around the galaxy although not in one piece. They move like the planets do around the sun. Stars near the hub of the galaxy move faster. Those toward the rim move slower.
One rotation of the Milky Way is called a comic year.
The Hubble Space Telescope has added as much to our confusion as to our understanding. Hubble images illustrate the chaos of the universe and convey a feeling of being lost in space. The Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula in Serpens provides some reference. Star formation goes on in these fingerlike spires of gas.
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field was the most pervasive photograph taken in astronomy until the eXtreme Deep Field. The HUDF imaged 10,000 galaxies and looked back 13 billion years to when the universe was 700 million years old. HUDF penetrated an area in the constellation Fornax 1/10 the size of a full moon. Astronomers compared it to "looking through an 8-foot-long soda straw."
The eXtreme Deep Field looked back even farther. So why can we not see the Big Bang If we can get that close? Go all the way? I have had the thought that we are not looking back in time because we never really see objects but only light reflected by objects. And this light evolves and changes as it moves across space, whether that space is six feet or millions of light years. We only see light and only see it in the present.
The universe was pure energy after the Big Bang. It was not long before some of it froze into matter. It may be that a wall of radiation keeps us from seeing the beginning. But even if we did see the Big Bang, what would it mean? We would still question. Only when we are united with God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit will there be true understanding and lasting peace.
Exoplanets have been the big thing since 1995. These are planets circling stars in other solar systems. 838 are confirmed. They are found by indirect methods, not by telescopes or imaging. That most are gas giants like Jupiter is probably due to the limitations of current technology. There may turn out to be many terrestrial exoplanets.
Our immediate reaction is to think there must be other civilizations. And there may be! No one knows! Ours may be the only one, and the rest of the universe, regardless of its size, may be leftover material from God's creation of Earth. Sawdust on the floor. We are still not alone if there is a loving Creator.
Scientists believe that if matter is arranged in a certain way, there will be life. I do not think so. Life is more than a particular arrangement of atoms and molecules. It was created by a divine spark, the same spark that created the Big Bang. Without God, no universe and no life.
Kepler Space Telescope
The Kepler telescope is searching for Earth-like planets. It was launched in 2009, and will survey 100,000 stars. Of the exoplanets found so far, most are huge balls of gas resembling Jupiter. The Kepler telescope is designed to search for small, rocky worlds. Scientists look for planets in "habitable zones" capable of sustaining water.
It is no simple matter to detect smallish objects orbiting stars at great distances, and it is done by indirect means. Kepler records fluctuations in starlight as planets transit their suns. Times between transits are measured. Kepler is surveying stars in the direction of Cygnus.
The New Horizons spacecraft was launched at Cape Canaveral in 2006. It will fly by Pluto in July, 2015, completing a three billion mile journey. New Horizons will study Pluto, then fly toward the Kuiper Belt. The spacecraft uses nuclear power to generate electricity.
James Webb Space Telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to go up in 2018. It will observe the most distant objects. JWST will penetrate dust and gas to gather data from the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum.
James Webb was the Administrator of NASA 1961-1968. He led NASA in the years following Kennedy's moon speech.
The Jewel Box is an open cluster. It is near the Southern Cross. The "jewels" are red, orange and blue. These stars formed from surrounding dust and gas.
Achernar is 9th on the list of brightest stars. It is a flat star. Rapid rotation caused it to flatten. Achernar means "river's end," and it lies at the end of the constellation Eridanus the river.
This dark nebula is a patch of dust and gas in the Milky Way. It lies close to Crux, the southern cross.
Sigma Octanis is the south pole star. It is one degree from the south celestial pole and very dim at 5.4 magnitude. It is in the constellation Octans the Octant (a navigation instrument). It barely moves in the southern sky as stars revolve around it.
Nicolas de Lacaille split Argo Navis into 3 constellations. Vela is the sail. Puppis is the stern. Carina is the keel. Canopus is in Carina.
Crux (Southern Cross)
Crux is the smallest constellation. It is near Musca.
This is a triple star. Alpha Centauri A & B are comparable to the sun. They are 4 light-years away.
The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are irregular galaxies. A supernova appeared in the LMC in 1987. Its light was from a star that exploded 150,000 years ago.
Musca and Chamaeleon
I took a fancy to Musca the fly and Chamaeleon the chameleon. The chameleon is trying to eat the fly.
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Originally written 2008