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Not all visitors to this website probably share my fascination with celestial things like stars, planets and our Moon. But I like to pay attention to that vast and still unexplored space beyond.

Here is a current example. Ceres will be closest to Earth for 2018 on February 1. To ask what Ceres is would make a good trivia question for HQ. (* If you sign up to play this currently hot trivia game app – IOS or Android –  put my username in – ronkowitz – so I get a much-needed extra life!) 


Dwarf planet Ceres. The color is added to highlight differences in surface materials. Photo: NASA

Ceres is a tiny world, but the largest body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and the only dwarf planet located in the inner solar system. It was the first member of the asteroid belt to be discovered back in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi.

Ceres became the first dwarf planet to receive a visit from a spacecraft, Dawn, in 2015.

It was classified as asteroid for many years, but it is so much bigger and different from its rocky neighbors that scientists classified it as a dwarf planet in 2006. Remember all the outcry when Pluto got pushed to dwarf planet status and out of the planet list we all learned in school? Ceres is sometimes compared in size to the state of Texas, but Pluto is still 14 times more massive than Ceres.

Ceres hasn’t been this close since 2009 and on February 1, 2018 it will shine its brightest. But it still won’t be visible with the naked eye. A telescope or even good binoculars will bring it into focus. But the Moon will also be bright that night, so it is suggested that if you are going to look for Ceres, you try tonight or at the end of next week.

I don’t plan to look for Ceres tucked inside the constellation Cancer. I am quite happy to know that it is up there in the asteroid belt. That belt consists of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of tiny worlds circling the sun in between Mars and Jupiter.

This is the kind of thing that is truly awesome and wonderful to me. Knowing that all of this is out there, and also not knowing so much of what is out there.

The stars appear fixed relative to one another, but Ceres will move moving noticeably westward in front of the stars that make up the constellation Cancer. That movement was how that Italian monk, Giuseppe Piazzi, discovered it. He saw it in front of the constellation Taurus the Bull, but because it moved relative to the backdrop stars, he knew it was a solar system object and not a star. he thought it might be a comet.

Piazzi originally suggested the name Cerere Ferdinandea for his discovery, after the goddess Ceres (Roman goddess of agriculture and where we get our word cereal). She is Cerere in Italian and was believed to have originated in Sicily where the oldest temple for her was located. Added to that was a nod to King Ferdinand of Sicily, but “Ferdinandea” was not acceptable to other nations and was dropped. Ceres was called Hera for a short time in Germany, and in Greece, it is called Demeter, who is the Greek equivalent of the Roman Cerēs. there is also a asteroid called 1108 Demeter.

More at and


Image via Oliver Jeffers

On this New Year’s Eve, I will look up to the night sky to the brightest star there. That is Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major. You can see it in the evening every year at this time from almost all parts of Earth. Tonight is not only the calendar end of year but, in one of those nice celestial coincidences, it is the midnight culmination of Sirius. That is when it is highest in the sky at midnight, which occurs only once every year.

I need to point out that this midnight is mid-night and not the drop-the-ball midnight we will celebrate tonight. What I will call mid-night is the actual middle of the night, which is midway between sunset and sunrise. For my little piece of Paradelle, that will be at 9:18 pm ET.

If you go to you can get a quick calculation done for your little place on Earth for the times of the rise, set, and transit for the Sun and all major solar system bodies and selected bright stars.

From the Northern Hemisphere, we will look toward the south to see Sirius shining brightly on a clear night. (From the Southern Hemisphere, look overhead or high in the north.)

Sirius, the Dog Star, gets its name from a romanization of the Greek Seirios, meaning “glowing” or “scorching.” It appears almost twice as bright as the next brightest star (Canopus). Sirius appears bright because of its “intrinsic luminosity” and also because of its proximity to Earth.  It is 2.6 parsecs away. I know that sounds like Star Trek talk, but the Sirius system is one of Earth’s near neighbours. Sirius is gradually moving closer to the Solar System, so it will slightly increase in brightness over the next 60,000 years. After that time, its distance will begin to increase and it will become fainter. But Sirius doesn’t have to worry about losing its brightest star ranking for 210,000 years.

What we see is a bit of an illusion because “Sirius” is a binary star system, consisting of a white main-sequence star, called Sirius A, and a faint white dwarf companion of called Sirius B. Sirius A is about twice as massive as the Sun and 25 times more luminous than the Sun. Sirius B was actually bigger but consumed its resources and became a red giant. Then, it shed its outer layers and collapsed into its current state as a white dwarf. That happened around 120 million years ago.

All this makes me feel both very tiny, and also part of something so large that I cannot really comprehend it all. So, I will simply go out tonight on this very cold night and look up at Sirius with great wonder.


“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”
― Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions

van Gogh

Did you know that the Big Dipper appears in Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone? He painted it in September 1888 at Arles.

The Big Dipper is an asterism – not officially a constellation – but part of  Ursa Major, AKA the Great Bear.

It is difficult, maybe impossible, for you to see the Big Dipper on a November night.  For those of you in the southern U.S. or a similar latitude around the world or in the Southern Hemisphere, the Dipper is below the northern horizon in the evening now.

Here in Paradelle and most of the northern U.S. it can be seen low above the northern horizon if you have a clear view without mountains or trees.



The Big Dipper is seen as a Celestial Bear that comes to Earth in November by the Micmac Indians of  southeast Canada. The Celestial Bear’s arrival signals the start of hibernation season and it joins our planet’s bears in returning to their dens.

I’m not a star seed. I didn’t even know there was the possibility that I could be until this week. I’m still not so sure that anyone might be one.

I am sure that we are made of stardust, just as Joni Mitchell sang in “Woodstock.”

Science bears this idea out – “Everything we are and everything in the universe and on Earth originated from stardust, and it continually floats through us even today. It directly connects us to the universe, rebuilding our bodies over and again over our lifetimes.”

But Star Seeds are way beyond that. Star Seeds are defined as beings that have experienced life elsewhere in the Universe on other planets and in non-physical dimensions other than on Earth. They may also have had previous life times on earth.

Also known as Star People, this New Age belief seems to have been introduced by Brad Steiger, a very prolific writer of oddities, in his book Gods of Aquarius. He posited that people originated as extraterrestrials and arrived on Earth through birth or as a walk-in to an existing human body.

Alien-human hybrids sends my mind right to some X-Files episodes and more than a few science-fiction tales. Going back further, there are “star people” in some Native American spiritual mythologies.

Steiger said that one of my favorite sci-fi writers, Philip K. Dick, had written to him in the late 1970s to say he thought he might be one of the star people, and that his novel VALIS contained related themes.

There are several websites listing characteristics of a Star Seed – and I definitely have a few of them – but I don’t think I am one of them.

But humans are made of stardust, in that humans and their galaxy have about 97 percent of the same kind of atoms. The building blocks of life are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur and fairly recently astronomers have cataloged the abundance of these elements in a huge sample of stars.

Artist's impression of a Dyson swarm

Artist’s impression of a Dyson swarm. By Vedexent at en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY 2.5

Something is blocking the light coming from a distant star known as KIC 8462852. The star has become a kind of mystery because no one seems to be able to figure out what is blocking it. Whatever it is, it is massive. Like 1000 times the area of Earth.

KIC 8462852 (where KIC stands for Kepler Input Catalog) is one of 150,000 stars studied by NASA’s Kepler space telescope that is searching for planets. It was found in a star-packed region of the Milky Way. What caught the attention of astronomers over the past 4 years is that the star repeatedly and inexplicably would dim and then brighten again. It doesn’t seem to be the star itself which is stable. And the flickering is irregular, so they discount that it is the shadows of planets passing in front of the star. Is it comet dust? Debris from a shattered planet?  The star itself is calm and stable, but it is getting dimmer.

Is it just a oddball star or the one example we have found of another type of star?

KIC 8462852 is sometimes called “Tabby’s star” after planet-hunter Tabetha Boyajian and her team of  researchers who study it. It is also called the WTF Star for “where’s the flux” because of its unusual brightness variations.

The wildest explanation, and therefore the one I’m interested in, is that it is an alien megastructure.

One astronomer, Jason Wright, got a lot of media attention when he hypothesized that a megastructure made by an alien civilization might be what is blocking the star. There is something called a Dyson swarm which is a hypothetical structure that an advanced civilization might build around a star to intercept some of its light for their energy needs. Is it a solar power satellite or a space habitat?

This idea was popularized by Freeman Dyson in his 1960 paper “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation.” Dyson speculated that if we looked for such things we would be likely to find alien civilizations. These structures would be the logical consequence of the escalating energy needs of a technological civilization and would be a necessity for its long-term survival. Those aliens need a lot of power.

Even Jason Wright thinks the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence causing the star to dim is quite low.

This story reminds me a bit of the Wow! Signal which is also still mysterious after much study. People are still studying the Wow! Signal and the WTF Star and I would think that WTF Star is a good SETI target for finding extra-terrestrial life.

Boyajian thinks it probably is an unusual type of comet swarm, but I’m still hoping for something more alien. However, a friend of mine has warned me that my wish is a bad one. “What do you want them to find – a Death Star?,” he asked me.

No, I don’t want it to be like the Death Stars appearing in the Star Wars movies. But even the second Death Star was only 99 mi (160 km) in diameter. Imagine a Death Star 1000 times the size of Earth designed to gather massive power from the star and able to easily destroy an entire planet with a blast from some superlaser.

Okay, I guess it better be a comet swarm rather than a Dyson swarm – although that would make a boring movie.

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.

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