Keep Looking Up

Wish Upon A Star.

Source: Sky & Telescope Interactive Sky Chart. Check it out. It’s really cool.

Have you ever made a wish on a star? Traditionally wishes are made on the first star to appear in the evening. Maybe that’s because the first visible star is the brightest and therefore able to shine through the sun’s lingering radiance, and was there long before you could see it, although the brightest stars aren’t necessarily the closest stars, and the more distant stars may not even be around anymore. Maybe stars are such lousy wish-granters because we’re wasting our wishes on the ghostly light of stars that burned out long ago. And can wishes move faster than the speed of light? If not and if you get lucky enough to make a wish on Proxima Centauri it’s going to be more than four years before your wish gets there and just as long before it gets back. I don’t know about anyone else but my priorities when I was seventeen were very different from when I was nine.

Maybe I’m overthinking this.

Sunday morning, after Daylight Savings Time ended and all the clocks fell back an hour, I got up early because my wife was going somewhere and I helped her load stuff into the car, take the dogs out, and whatever else needed to be done. I don’t remember exactly because my brain was still hanging out an hour back, but after she left and before I went back inside I looked to the south and there was a single star, bright enough to still be visible in the approaching dawn. And it was definitely a star, not a planet.

It was the star Alphard, the brightest star in Hydra, the constellation of the snake. The constellation is Greek, but the star’s name is Arabic for “the solitary one”, and it’s one of the stars on the Brazilian flag, representing the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, and it’s on that state’s flag.

I can’t say I knew all of that while I was standing out in the backyard. Some of it I had to look up, including the fact that Alphard is larger and brighter than Earth’s sun, although cooler, and about one hundred and seventy-seven light years away, which makes it a relatively close cosmic neighbor, although still farther than you’d want to go for help if you locked yourself out of your house.

What I did know, standing out there in my bathrobe, is that the weather has gotten colder as we’ve moved into November, as the Earth’s orbit has taken it to closer to the sun, making the northern hemisphere’s nights longer, and that got me thinking about time. The ways we measure time–hours, minutes, even days–are arbitrary. Some cultures begin days at sunup, others begin at sundown, and in either case the sky never goes from completely light to complete dark in one swell foop. Time itself, though, is more of a mystery. Ever since Einstein we’ve known time and space are one thing, part of a continuum, and that matter affects space a time–an affect we can see in a picture of an eclipse, the sun’s gravity bending the light of other stars around it. The greater an object’s mass the slower time moves around it, and the faster an object moves the greater its mass, which is a thought I’ve been turning over in my head since I was seventeen. Is movement simply a way of marking time or are time and movement fundamentally linked? And does this have anything to do with temperature? Movement generates heat, whether it’s the energy released by stars knocking hydrogen atoms into each other or heat produced by the movement of molecules, movement that only stops at absolute zero. If you could stop all time around you but keep moving, like in a science fiction story, would you freeze because all the matter around you was no longer generating heat?

I shivered in my bathrobe. I’d lost track of how long I’d been standing there in the backyard staring at a solitary star as it dimmed in the growing light of a much closer star, so I walked to the door and wished I hadn’t locked myself out of the house.

There’s Something About Mercury.

Mercury, Venus, and Mars in Virgo. Picture made with the SkyView app.

I’ve only been able to see Mercury, a smudged disk, a few times. There are trees in my neighborhood and it sticks close to the horizon, and close to the sun, so it’s usually only visible at dawn or sunset. And that’s how the innermost planet earned its name. In mythology Mercury stuck close to, and sometimes tormented Apollo, but he was also elusive and a trickster. According to one legend Mercury, or Hermes as he was known to the Greeks, stole Apollo’s cattle and delivered them as a gift to Zeus, saying it was an offering to “the twelve gods of Olympos.”

“By my count there are only eleven gods of Olympos,” replied Zeus. “Who’s the twelfth?”

“At your service,” said Mercury.

You’ve gotta love a guy like that.

He had a dark side too. Hera was jealous of Zeus’s lover Io and turned her into a cow, which I still think is unfair. She was always going after Zeus’s lovers when the problem was, you know, Zeus. And knowing that turning a young girl into a cow would do udderly nothing to stop Zeus Hera also set the thousand-eyed monster Argus to watch over Io, even though it would have made more sense to, you know, set the thousand-eyed monster to watch over Zeus. That still didn’t stop him; he just sent Hermes to take care of the problem, and Hermes gleefully went along because he liked the chaos and disruption . Hermes played his pan pipes for Argus until the monster fell asleep and closed all thousand of his eyes. Here’s a really cool sculpture of Mercury about to slay Argus by Bertel Thorvaldsen.

Source: Thorvaldsen Museum

I love how he’s got his pipes in one hand and is slowly drawing out the sword with the other, careful not to wake the sleeper. Art and death go hand in hand, literally. It’s why I keep an eye out for Mercury.

 

Fire Signs.

The other night I noticed a fuzzy yellow object up in the sky and even without checking I knew what it was, since Jupiter is the fourth brightest object in the sky, after the sun, the moon, and Venus. The last time I spotted Jupiter—or rather the last time I wrote a blog post about Jupiter since I didn’t actually see it in broad daylight, I just knew it was there with the SkyView app, although it’s so bright you can sometimes see Jupiter during the day—it was also in, or near, the constellation Scorpius. That got me wondering if Jupiter always hangs out near the scorpion. That seems unlikely—planets move, after all, and after a bit of checking I found that Jupiter has been near Scorpius since some time in late 2018 and by January 2020 will move through Sagittarius, then Capricornus in January 2021, and into Aquarius in January 2022, which still seems unusually regular for a planet.

And even though I’m not really into astrology—which I know is so typical of a Sagittarius—I know Scorpios are supposed to be pretty intense characters, and if you don’t believe that a Scorpio is likely to ask if you want to make something of it, but that’s another story. The mythical Jupiter himself was a pretty intense character too, if you catch my drift. He, and his Greek predecessor, were known as “the father of the gods” for a reason. The planet has seventy-nine known moons, all of them named after lovers or children of the mythical Jupiter, and there were so many.

I would wonder if Jupiter’s presence were adding a little extra sting to Scorpios and if it would have an influence on the other constellations as it moves through the others—if I were into astrology. I’d even look forward to January 2020, but I’ll probably have completely forgotten this by then. You know how short the attention span of a Sagittarius is.

 

 

Failure To Launch.

Source: Nevada Museum Of Art

One night in mid-April 1981 I was out in my backyard and looked up and could see a small bright dot moving across the sky just overhead. It was the Space Shuttle Columbia on its first flight. It was staggering to think that it was in orbit, a tiny object above the atmosphere, but it could still be seen. It made all of space seem within reach.
I was reminded of that when I heard that the artist Trevor Paglan designed a completely nonfunctional satellite called “Orbital Reflector” that was then launched into orbit by Space X on December 3rd, 2018. Its long mylar blade was supposed to be inflated so it would reflect sunlight, making it visible from Earth, but that part of the project was put on hold by the U.S. government shutdown. Without government approval the reflector part still remains on hold. It’s not what the artist intended but it’s a fitting metaphor for the aspirations and failures of humanity. Also sometime in March it will fall back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere, whether its reflector is deployed or not, and that’s a fitting metaphor too. All of human history, and prehistory, wouldn’t add up to a single tick of the cosmic clock. Paglan’s work is also intended to challenge ideas of who owns space, and what it’s meant to be used for–or not used for, since his satellite is purely aesthetic.
And I can think of a lot of reasons why this is a really intriguing work of art, an interesting and challenging idea, but I can think of more reasons why it’s a really bad idea. Even within its short lifespan it’s junking up space around the Earth. The reason its final deployment was delayed by the shutdown, the reason the position of any satellite has to be carefully planned, is there’s a lot of stuff floating around the Earth, and that stuff is moving at really high speeds. It turns out nature doesn’t abhor a vacuum–only dogs don’t want the carpet cleaned, but that’s another story–and objects in orbit aren’t subject to terrestrial inertia. At those speeds collisions can be spectacular.
Even with its blade unfurled the Orbital Reflector would hardly be the only artificial object visible from the ground. Stand in the right place at the right time, and in an area away from enough light pollution, and you can see the International Space Station and other satellites–in particular the sixty-six Iridium satellites that are known to flare and disappear in a few seconds. They’re commercial satellites, providing communication services, which, if you see space as something that connects us all–we all look up at the same stars, watch the same Sun, Moon, and planets move through the sky and the exploration of space is a collective project–seems like a more fitting, and functional, metaphor.

 

 

The Biggest And The Brightest.

Source: SkyView App. I made this on my way to work.

It’s been rainy and overcast for several days now, but over the weekend the clouds finally broke up, the sun came out, and in the mornings Venus has been bright in the southeast. This morning I noticed something almost as bright underneath it: Jupiter. Jupiter is the fourth brightest object in the night sky, after the Sun, Moon, and Venus, which always makes me wonder, why did ancient astronomers call it Jupiter? How did they know it was the biggest planet in the solar system? Venus is brighter, and closer, which makes it appear closer. Jupiter is so large some astronomers think it’s really a failed star–which kind of makes sense since it’s really a big ball of mostly hydrogen and helium, with no solid surface, which seriously undermines the plot of Clifford D. Simak’s Desertion, although it does make sense that the climax of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 revolves around Jupiter becoming a second sun in our solar system even though in his novel 2001, unlike the movie, the ill-fated Discovery One heads to Saturn, but that’s another story.
Jupiter spins around the Sun taking almost twelve years at a time to make a full orbit. Ancient Chinese astronomers associated it with prosperity, and Babylonians associated it with their god Marduk who gradually rose to become top of the pantheon.
And it’s got that big swirling red spot, a hurricane so large Earth could fit into it three times, that was definitely first seen in 1831, but may have first been spotted in 1664 and there have been signs it might be clearing up but somehow it just keeps going. Then there are Jupiter’s moons–at least seventy-nine. The four largest, Europa, Ganymede, Io, and Callisto, were first seen by Galileo, who started the tradition of naming them after Jupiter’s lovers, and luckily for astronomers the Roman god, and his Greek counterpart, got around a lot, and more than five hundred years later we’re still learning new things about them. Europa’s ice may hide life, and just last month astronomers got pictures of a volcano erupting on Io, which is the most active moon in the solar system.
Anyway, after a lot of digging I could only figure that it was just dumb luck that the biggest planet in the solar system just happens to be named Jupiter. And in an interesting astronomical coincidence about twelve hours later, hanging in the same part of the sky, was Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.

Source: SkyView app. I made this one in the backyard in the dark so you can’t see anything except stars, or maybe pixels.

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