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Venus reflected in the Pacific Ocean

On February 16, 2017, here in the Western Hemisphere, Venus will reach its greatest illuminated extent. Those of you in Australia, New Zealand, Asia will see this on February 17.

You shouldn’t need an “event” to look up at the night sky in wonder, but this might be a reason to look up tonight and know a bit more about what you are seeing.

Look for Venus in the west after sunset and you will also see Mars nearby to the left (south) and a bit higher. That “evening star” is at its most brilliant because its day/illuminated side is covering more square area of Earth’s sky than in its 9.6-month appearance in the evening sky.

If you looked through a telescope, you would see that Venus’ disk is just a bit more than one-quarter illuminated by sunshine, and the full Venus is always on the far side of the sun from us. So, we are seeing Venus as a crescent at its greatest illuminated extent – and still, it is spectacular.


zodiac revised

NASA is science and astrology is not. But that doesn’t mean that very logical, well-informed people don’t look at their horoscope once and awhile. And everyone knows what their zodiac (“circle of animals”) sign is supposed to be.

A few months ago, NASA put out some zodiac information that the popular press picked up on and took further than NASA intended.

On the science side of things, NASA made the point that the sky and positions of the stars and constellation is significantly different from the sky that the ancients used when they came up with the zodiac signs that we all have known.

The zodiac signs were created based on the calendar year of the Babylonians who  lived over 3,000 years ago. They divided the zodiac into 12 equal parts pie slices, even though they seem to have known that there were actually 13 constellations in the zodiac.  Twelve just worked neater.

The Earth orbits the Sun, so the Sun appears to pass through each of those 12 zodiac signs. That worked out nicely with their 12-month lunar calendar.

Orion stars

You can see Orion’s familiar 3-star belt. Can you see in this group of stars what the ancient Greeks thought looked like a giant hunter with a sword attached to his belt.?

What is the zodiac anyway? NASA explains it like this:

Imagine a straight line drawn from Earth though the sun and out into space way beyond our solar system where the stars are. Then, picture Earth following its orbit around the sun. This imaginary line would rotate, pointing to different stars throughout one complete trip around the sun – or, one year. All the stars that lie close to the imaginary flat disk swept out by this imaginary line are said to be in the zodiac.

One thing that NASA announced was that the thirteenth sign – which had been there all along – was Ophiuchus. NASA didn’t come with that Latin name either (meaning “serpent bearer”) it had been written about by Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the second century.

I first heard about this “news” because I follow NASA’s Tumblr account. where they said “We didn’t change any zodiac signs, we just did the math.”

In those 3000 years, the Earth, which wobbles a bit as it orbits, has shifted our view of the sky. The Earth’s axis (North pole) isn’t pointing in the same direction it was to the Babylonian viewer.

But the news that there was a thirteenth zodiac sign (Ophiuchus) and the shifting sky meant that more than 80% of us were born under a different sign. That would be true if someone redrew the sky charts and used those revised charts to do your horoscope based on when you were born. The sign you always thought was your sign actually was your sign – three millennia ago.

I had a friend in college who was really into astrology. She did a chart for me and made the point that those horoscopes that you see in magazines and online are so general for a sign that they mean almost nothing. You need a chart done for you based on the day and time you were born. I learned that astrologers use “artificial” constellations that are fixed in the Sun’s path as seen from Earth and use that to track planetary movements. Therefore, the zodiac sign dates remain the same for astrologers no matter what NASA says..

Of course, NASA doesn’t really care about your horoscope. I think their interest in all this is pretty close to my own interest in astrology. It makes you pay more attention to celestial observations.

But, if you have looked at your horoscope and found it not to be so accurate, maybe you want to consider the more modern view of the sky that was up there when you were born.  I moved from being a Libra to being a Virgo. If you were born today you are born under Ophiuchus. Some Capricorns are now finding out they are a Sagittarius. It’s like a commercial for DNA ancestry testing that I see on television – you thought you were a Cancer and now you’re a Gemini. Poor Scorpio went from being about a month to just six days long.

I checked my Libra horoscope while I was writing this. Bummer: “You probably aren’t going to feel very friendly. You’re most likely to want to sequester yourself at home and not see or speak to anyone.”  I checked in on Virgo – not much better: “Today you might get the feeling that someone in your family is hiding something. The atmosphere might be strained and somewhat tense.” Why can’t I have this one? “Venus, your personal planet, enters a dynamic and positive sector of your chart, making this the perfect time to make over your life, attitude and relationships.”

Here are NASA’s revised 13 signs and dates:

Capricorn: Jan. 20 – Feb. 16
Aquarius: Feb. 16 – March 11
Pisces: March 11 – April 18
Aries: April 18 – May 13
Taurus: May 13 – June 21
Gemini: June 21 – July 20
Cancer: July 20 – Aug. 10
Leo: Aug. 10 – Sept. 16
Virgo: Sept. 16 – Oct. 30
Libra: Oct. 30 – Nov. 23
Scorpio: Nov. 23 – Nov. 29
Ophiuchus: Nov. 29 – Dec. 17
Sagittarius: Dec. 17 – Jan. 20


Mosaic pavement from a 6th century synagogue at Beth Alpha, Israel showing the zodiac surround the central chariot of the Sun (a Greek idea) and the corners depict the 4 “turning points”  of the year, solstices and equinoxes.

This post might sound very improbable, but it’s not a completely hypothetical idea. One day, it will certainly have a chance of happening. The idea is that we might “seed” life on another planet via a human corpse.

Imagine that an astronaut dies in space. Remember what happened to Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) in the film Gravity? The two spacewalking astronauts in that film become tangled in cords and, realizing that the cords will not support both of them, Matt detaches to save his partner. He drifts away.



We are talking seriously now about going to Mars. It is a long journey, and maybe a death occurs en route. If we had a burial at space, the corpse could be adrift for a decade or a thousand years. It might be pulled into the gravity of a planet. It might burn up in a star. But it might land on a planet.

The idea with a corpse seed is that it could deliver living microbes, viruses and bacteria that survive to a place and spark a genesis of some new life entirely.

We know that our body contains microbes that can survive long periods of time in stasis in cold, dry environments similar to space.

Of course, we are not talking about that corpse creating a human on the distant world, but life in some form. The three  key factors appear to be what holds the corpse (a spacesuit or a spacecraft), the storage environment, and how long it travels to that planet (long-term exposure to radiation would hurt).

Corpses in a spacecraft that crashes into a planet and busts open spilling well-maintained corpses (perhaps not frozen, though freeze-dried bacteria can also survive) into a hospitable environment could do it.

Scientists say that a corpse without creatures (worms, beetles etc.) to speed up the decaying process, would provide fuel for many generations of bacteria, for thousands of years.

Scientists have said that life on Earth occurred because of an unlikely combination of perfect conditions.  That body bag of amino acids, fats, proteins, carbohydrates and microbes existing in ideal conditions would be the spark.

What this “starter-pack of chemistry” might create as a lifeform is unknown, but it’s an interesting idea.


What might be considered the oldest government computer is more than 12 billion miles from Earth.

There were two Voyager probes launched in 1977. They both have 69.63 kilobytes of total computer memory on board. That is almost exactly equal to the memory required for the illustration of Voyager in this post. They still work because were set to overwrite old data once it has been sent to Earth.

Artist's Concept of Voyager

Artist’s impression of Voyager 1  – image via WikiMedia Commons

The Voyager program was to study the outer Solar System. Oddly, Voyager 1 launched 16 days after its twin, Voyager 2. It has been sending data for 39 years. It still communicates with the Deep Space Network to receive routine commands and return data.

It was 135 AU (2.02×1010 km) from the Sun as of June 2016, making it the farthest spacecraft from Earth.

Voyager 1 visited Jupiter and Saturn before a flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan set it on a trajectory out of the solar system. Voyager 2 also visited those planets before heading to Uranus and Neptune. It is currently in the Heliosheath, a zone in the outer limits of the Sun’s magnetic field.

You may remember Voyager because each probe carries a gold-plated audio-visual disc in the event that the spacecraft is ever found by intelligent life forms from other planetary systems. I wrote about the discs in my “Hello Aliens!” post. The “records” have photos of the Earth and its lifeforms, scientific information, spoken greetings from Earthlings, “Sounds of Earth” audio with whales, a baby crying, waves breaking on a shore, and music (including works by Mozart, Blind Willie Johnson, Chuck Berry, and Valya Balkanska, Eastern and Western classics and indigenous music from around the world.   It also has a greeting to the aliens in 55 different languages.


gold-plated disc being attached to Voyager 1

The Voyager probes are not the only artificial objects we have launched that are leaving the Solar System. There is a pretty large list of space probes and their upper stages launched by NASA the aliens might come across out there. And we have others closer to home that are in orbit around planets or around the Sun.

More at


Planet 9 by Tomruen; background taken from File:ESO – Milky Way.jpg – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

This year, a pair of astronomers announced they had found evidence that another, massive planet may exist in the outer solar system. This would be a planet roughly 10 times the mass of Earth. That makes it something like Neptune in size. Big.

It orbits our Sun on a tipped, elliptical path. It never gets closer to the Sun than 30 billion kilometers. That is out there.

When I first read about it, I thought “Maybe this is Planet X.”

Back in the early 1900s, astronomer Percival Lowell starting search for a planet beyond Neptune. For years, he studied the sky from his observatory in Arizona  looking for that planet. He never found it, but his calculations helped other astronomers find Pluto in 1930.

Planet X (also known as Niribu)  is a planet that some people have believed is in our solar system, even though scientists have said it’s not. You might say that believers in Planet X are also “out there” like this new planet. Believers claimed it was not only out there, but possibly inhabited. They claim it is on a huge 3,600-year orbit.

That orbit brought it into our inner solar system enough times to deliver literally Biblical catastrophes to little Earth.

In 2003, a cult following Niribu got some attention in the media until their critical May 15, 2003 date for the appearance of Planet X passed without an appearance.

The Mayan special date of December 21, 2012 (which I covered with some unserious seriousness on this blog) also passed by quietly and Nibiru was slated to crash into Earth that day which was the winter solstice. (Though I still say that the Mayan calendar was misinterpreted and was never meant to indicate the “end of the world.”)

One of the astronomers who discovered this new planet was Mike Brown who was also one of the party-poopers who helped get Pluto demoted to less than planet status. (PlutoKiller‘s team discovered Eris, a large object roughly the same size as Pluto and that discovery eventually led to the International Astronomical Union’s demotion.

Of course, this new planet is not going to be demoted, because it is very big. It would become the new ninth planet. It is a tricky call on this one because to say the planet was “discovered” when no one has seen it (even in a big telescope) is a bit of a reach.  Like other things in science, including most things that Albert Einstein was famous for, we have some evidence that something exists or is possible, but we don’t actually have it. Think about all that searching for the Higgs boson particle which was “confirmed” in 2013.

People haven’t given up on Planet X or Niribu. There are still “predictions” of disaster connected to it. And NASA has checked in to say that although their WISE survey found thousands of new stars, but no Planet X – but maybe a “Planet 9.” (Not to be confused with the wonderfully, terrible film Plan 9 From Outer Space)


It hasn’t happened in 11 years, but starting in the morning hours of January 20, all five bright planets will appear together in the morning sky.

Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn should be visible simultaneously before dawn beginning tomorrow and will remain visible before dawn until February 20, 2016.

These planets reflect sunlight and will shine not brighter but steadier than the more distant stars. Look to the south and check out the sky charts here.


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