Keep Looking Up


Source: SkyView app for iPhone

The other night I stepped outside, just to the edge of the patio, away from the faint light cast from the window, and through the trees I could see a bright object. It was Jupiter, hanging high in the southeast in the constellation Sagittarius, with Saturn below and slightly to the east of it. Checking an astronomy app on my phone I could see that Pluto was there too. It’s too small to be seen without a telescope, but I thought it made an interesting addition: two planets and one ex-planet.

The boundaries of our solar system, and probably every other solar system, are fuzzy, and constantly changing. Even after Galileo proved Earth moved around the Sun and not the other way around Saturn was believed to be the most distant planet. And then came the discovery of Uranus in 1781, followed by Neptune in 1846, and Pluto was added in 1930, before being demoted to “dwarf planet” in 2006 because it’s one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Kuiper belt objects hanging out past the orbit of Neptune but still within the Sun’s grasp.

I went outside to check out the sky because I was looking for Mars. Like the Sun it was below the horizon, but still out there, out of sight but not out of mind. On July 30th, if all goes according to plan, NASA will launch the Perseverance rover, bound for Mars, due to arrive in February 2021, where it will search for life. That makes the name Perseverance especially fitting; scientists have been looking for and hoping to find life on Mars since, well, probably as long as it’s been understood that Mars was a planet like Earth. Scientists hoped and even expected to find at least vegetation on Mars until the probe Viking 1 sent back pictures in 1976 that showed what a cold, hostile place Mars is. And yet there’s also a persistent belief that, having landed humans on the Moon, Mars is our next big leap.

Mars also seems like an end. The distance from Earth to Mars is roughly less than seventy million miles. It’s about another three hundred and forty million from Mars to Jupiter, and what we’d face out there makes just crossing the distance look easy. Jupiter has no solid surface. Maybe we could land on one of its bigger moons, one of the four first spotted by Galileo, but Io is one giant volcano, Europa holds the possibility of life and we’d have to ask whether we could risk contaminating it, and Callisto and Ganymede are bathed in Jupiter’s intense magnetic field. The other gas giants aren’t much better as far as human exploration is concerned.

In fact, moving outward, Pluto, former planet, could be our best next step. Terrifyingly cold and more than four and a half billion miles from the Sun it’s a solid, rocky island rich with water, at what we used to think of as the edge of the solar system. It’s even less like Earth than Mars is, and yet Pluto is the New York of space exploration: if we can make it there we can make it almost anywhere.

Before I went back in I turned to look at the rest of the sky, as much of it as I could see, anyway, considering boundaries and limits, and how they constantly shift in a universe in motion.

Look Up Uranus.

Uranus and Neptune in the constellation Capricorn. Picture made with the SkyView app.

On March 13th, 1781 the composer, musician, and amateur astronomer William Herschel looked through his telescope and realized what he’d initially thought was a comet was, in fact, a previously unknown planet. It was the first planet discovered in modern times and, after a lot of discussion, would eventually be named Uranus, after the primordial Greek god of the sky. Although it had been observed since ancient times it was so distant and so difficult to see it was assumed to be a star. The discovery that it was a planet is why I think Uranus deserves special recognition. March 13th should be designated Uranus Day.

Uranus is distinctive in a lot of ways and, among the gas giants, can be easily overlooked. It’s not as big as Jupiter. It’s not as stormy as Neptune, although oddities in the orbit of Uranus provided clues that there was another planet beyond it, making Neptune the first planet discovered without direct observation. Although Uranus has rings they aren’t as spectacular as Saturn’s. In fact astronomers didn’t know it had rings until 1977 when, in an attempt to judge the exact size or Uranus, they watched it pass in front of a star and the star appeared to blink. With a radius of more than thirty-three thousand miles and a mass fourteen times greater than Earth you could fit a lot in Uranus.

Uranus has an axial tilt of 97.7 degrees so from Earth it appears that its rings go up and down rather than sideways. It also means that Uranus always has one pole pointed toward the sun. Astronomers think that at some point in the past a massive object slammed into Uranus, knocking it on its side. It takes Uranus eighty-four Earth years to orbit the sun, and yet Uranus spins so fast its day is just seventeen hours and fourteen minutes.

Uranus has a distinctive deep blue green color. This is because Uranus contains so much methane. Uranus has twenty-seven known moons, two of which, Titania and Oberon, are the eighth and ninth largest known moons in the solar system, and were discovered by Herschel. There’s a possibility that icy moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn harbor life. Could there be life orbiting Uranus? It’s unlikely but that’s one of many mysteries of Uranus.

Another mystery of Uranus is whether it has a solid or liquid core. Like the other gas giants Uranus doesn’t have a solid surface, but, unlike Jupiter and Saturn its gases are icy and cold. Uranus absorbs more energy from the sun than it generates. It’s 1.84 billion miles from the sun, and it takes sunlight two hours and forty minutes to reach Uranus.

In January 1986 when Voyager 2 passed Uranus astronomers thought it was a boring planet without much going on, but the spacecraft would discover ten new moons and provide a better understanding of the rings.

And there’s still so much about Uranus we don’t know. At one time scientists thought the enormous pressures might turn carbon in Uranus’s atmosphere into giant diamonds. Now the thinking is that those pressures might produce diamonds but crush them, creating diamond rainfall. Still we don’t know whether this even happens. There’s so about Uranus to probe that I think it really is one of the most interesting planets there is, and Uranus Day is something we can all get behind.

To The Depths.

The bathyscaphe Trieste. Source: Wikipedia

There was a lot of celebration of the first Moon landing back in June 2019, but the anniversary of another major exploration event has come and gone a lot more quietly. On January 23rd, 1960 the bathyscaphe Trieste descended into the deepest part of the ocean, known as the Challenger Deep. The ultimate depth was almost eleven thousand meters or, to put that in American terms, almost 6.8 miles. Or, to put it other terms, if you cut off Mount Everest at its base and dropped it into the Challenger Deep the peak would be a mile underwater and there’d be a lot of angry Sherpas frantically learning to swim.

Two men, Jacques Piccard, who was the son of the Trieste’s designer, and U.S. Navy Lieutenant descended in the Trieste in a round trip of just over seven hours, not counting the twenty minutes they spent on the sea floor. During the descent one of the plexiglass windows cracked but they decided to keep going. They claim they saw flatfish at the bottom, before the ship touched the muddy bottom and stirred up a cloud of sand, but scientists now think what they saw were probably some form of sea cucumber. The amazing thing about anything living at that depth is that the pressure is so great the water can barely hold any oxygen but life is tenacious and always finds a way.

Going to the Moon in many ways was a more significant achievement, certainly more miles, and gave us a chance to look back at Earth from a perspective no human had ever seen before, but it’s strange that more of us have walked on the Moon than have seen the deepest part of the ocean with our own eyes. For humans to visit the Challenger Deep is to provide an even more important perspective. With every foray into space we can always go a little farther, but the bottom of the ocean is a record that can only be matched, never exceeded. The ocean is where we came from and we depend on it for our existence. There is no part of Earth that life hasn’t reached, and everything we do on this planet affects every other part of it in some way. Unless we leave Earth entirely we’re tethered to the ocean, and understanding it is the only chance we have for survival.

Here’s a poem I wrote years ago. I’ve never shown it to anyone before and after the fiftieth anniversary of the descent of the Trieste came and went I thought I never would, but I’m persistent.


Touch. The descent is finished and sand clouds

The splintered window.

Over me, where unseen monsters turned away,

Is a column of water seven miles high.

I’ve lost contact

With the world down here. I’ve always been drawn

To the desolate

Unfilled places.

There are no stars here to navigate by.

They aren’t needed. There’s one direction:

Back the way I came, but in

Reaching the end I

Can’t pass out of this small point. The window,

Fractured by pressure,

Won’t clear. The whiteness is a bed

I float on and walls

Where a television filled with static hisses.

Dots curl up and spin around

In wormy patterns and crackling flowers.

The desert rejects, cold

Turned to hard burning,

Molecules slowed to visible.

This place

Is so empty, so

Desperately barren. Even though what I see

Is affected by those cracks that crept in around

The third or fourth mile I can see

Between them where change is happening.

A sea cucumber

Flew away just before landing.

I’d like to walk after it, see

If I could find others. There must be

More down here, life I couldn’t take back,

But I brought light. I’ve already made this place

Different. I thought it would be different,

Like other stretches that teem with brittle stars,

Crinoids grasping at whatever comes,

Round urchins that never shatter,

Never able to change their depth,

And the long fishes that surface

Sometimes to die for reasons only they know,

And beds where giant oysters dream colors

Unknown in the night.

There’s nothing here

I can take back

With me that wouldn’t change into something else.

When whales die they must reach this depth,

But the sea’s cycle doesn’t end here.

As a child I imagined Heaven

Must be a place like this:

Colorless and flat,

And desire beyond the seen.

I believed in that place, believed death

Was just an exit

From one place and an entrance to another,

That I’d keep moving from one to the next,

But the dead don’t just slip through holes. To go

There means something else.

A voice says over and over, It’s time to go now.

When I was seven

I rode out into the middle of a lake,

Fascinated by

The reflections and how, up close,

I could see through them,

I could see through myself

To the weeds below and where they fell

Away from each other.

It’s time to go now.

The sentence is like a lead necklace.

Even the raptures

Here are impossible to touch, captured

By an iron bubble,

Held back from forces

That would crush a frail body

Denying strangeness to this world.

The descent was hard. Leaving

Will be harder.

Before I came the bell was sent unmanned

And a leak let in more water than it could hold.

When the hatch was opened to the air

The water leaped out like a ray of untamed light.

This water, this salt syrup,

Must have changed me but left enough me

To slip back and forth out of balance.

All along I’ve been living like a nautilus

In reverse, each chamber smaller than the one before,

But there’s an end beyond the end,

And the walls between worlds are porous.

This is what I’ll carry back.

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.



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