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The stars move with our seasons. For most of us, some move below the horizon and we lose sight of them for part of the year. But the circumpolar stars stay above the horizon all hours of the day, every day of the year. They are there now, even if it is daylight as you read this, they are there. there’s not a lot you can count on here on Earth – or even in the heavens – but you can count on them.

The Big Dipper asterism is the best known of the circumpolar groups at all latitudes north of 41 degrees north latitude. (That is the northern half of the mainland United States and most of Europe.)

The Big Dipper is part of a bigger constellation, Ursa Major or the Great Bear.

In Greek mythology, the god Zeus had fallen in love with the maiden Callisto. In a story that would make the news today, and get Zeus some bad headlines, Zeus got her pregnant. Callisto was a nymph in the retinue of the goddess Artemis. But she would not be with anyone but Artemis. Zeus disguised himself as Artemis and seduced Callisto. When the child Arcas was born, Zeus’ wife Hera turned Callisto into a bear in revenge.

Callisto wandered the forest for years in bear form, until a chance meeting with her son, Arcas. He was the king of Arcadia and a great hunter. He raised his spear to strike at the bear, not knowing it was his mother. Zeus stepped in and sent them up to the heavens with Callisto as the Great Bear and Arcas as Bootes the Herdsman. (Or maybe he is Ursa Minor, the Little Bear,  depending on whose mythology you follow.) Hera was not pleased that Zeus stepped in, so she wever, and conspired with the gods of the sea so that the Bear could never swim in the ocean. That is one explanation – totally unscientific – for why Ursa Major never sets

The Big Dipper is circumpolar, so it is visible year round. It is up in the spring and down in the fall. The pointer stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper always point to Polaris, the North Star |  |  Image via Chris Mihos, Department of Astronomy, Case Western Reserve University

Where are you? If you’re with me in the Northern Hemisphere, every star north of the celestial equator is circumpolar, and every star south of the celestial equator is below the horizon. At the Earth’s South Pole, every star south of the celestial equator is circumpolar, whereas every star north of the celestial equator remains beneath the horizon.

And at the Earth’s equator, no star is circumpolar because all the stars rise and set daily in that part of the world. You can actually see every star in the night sky over the course of one year.

This past Memorial Day Weekend, we had some clear skies and some rainy ones. On one clear evening in Paradelle I was able to see a very bright “star” near the moon. It looks like a star, but it is Jupiter.

Venus sets in the west not too long after the sun sets, and the Moon and Jupiter were the two brightest objects in the sky.

I knew to look for a fainter true star. It is fainter but still one of the brightest stars, even in the moon’s glare. This is Spica. It is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo the Maiden. I’m not very knowledgeable about the zodiac, but I know it is a key star in that study.

Spica is a first-magnitude star, but it appears much fainter than Jupiter. That is because Jupiter is relatively close (or at least nearer)to Earth. This is what draws me to gazing at the night sky is my semi-knowledgeable way: the idea that Spica is about 262 light-years away, and I am looking at its light.

The universe makes me think about the original meanings of words like WONDERful and AWEsome.

Spica is the easiest star to spot in Virgo. There is a saying to find Spica you can “follow the arc of the Big Dipper to Arcturus and speed on to Spica.” But that probably doesn’t make it any easier for the average Earthling to find because most people know very little about the night sky.

Besides Spica, other bright stars in Virgo include many I had never heard of: β Virginis (Zavijava), γ Virginis (Porrima), δ Virginis (Auva) and ε Virginis (Vindemiatrix). Other fainter stars that were also given names are ζ Virginis (Heze), η Virginis (Zaniah), ι Virginis (Syrma) and μ Virginis (Rijl al Awwa).

Again, the wonder and awe of all this is discovering that one of the stars, 70 Virginis, has one of the first known extrasolar planetary systems and it contains a confirmed planet 7.5 times the mass of Jupiter. I can’t even really grasp the size of my own Earth. And the star Chi Virginis has one of the most massive planets ever detected, at a mass of 11.1 times that of Jupiter. And there are 35 verified exoplanets orbiting 29 stars in Virgo.

All this makes me feel like such a small part of the universe. But i also makes me feel part of the universe.

 

This first appeared on One-Page Schoolhouse

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!) 

Ceres

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 solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/ceres/ and wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceres

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 http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/mrst.php 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.

 

stars

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.

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