Keep Looking Up

I’m Not Sirius.

This is Sabik.

We’re into the Dog Days of August now with Canis Major just slightly ahead of sunrise, and it’s also the hottest time of summer when only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noontime sun, if you believe Noel Coward, and it’s also when I go out, usually to get the mail, although I’m neither a mad dog nor an Englishman though I was once spotted drinking a Pina Colada at Trader Vic’s, but that’s another story.

The Dog Days always remind me of something I once read in a book of folk beliefs: some people thought snakes went blind during the hottest part of summer. It’s one of those beliefs that can be reverse-engineered so that it actually makes sense even if it’s not true. Snakes get milky-eyed when they’re about to shed their skins and the end of a long summer of getting fat is when they’d be most likely to do that. So people probably found snakes with what looked like opaque eyes and might have thought the heat, or going out in the noontime sun, is what did it.

Sirius is the Dog Star, located in the constellation Canis Major, and the brightest star in the sky after the Sun, which makes it so distinctive, but it’s funny to me that, by sheer coincidence, my wife named one of our dogs Sabik, after a star in the constellation Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer, which, right now, is visible after sunset in the south—about where we’ll be able to see Canis Major in a few months when the weather starts to get colder. I know the snake-dog connection is really stretching it but the thing is if you reverse-engineer the connect-the-dot design of the constellations it’s only with our imaginations that we see dogs, bears, people, and even centaurs and unicorns in the night sky. Given how easily the eye moves from one star to the next, drawing lines, it’s amazing all the constellations aren’t snakes.

And anyway it’s amazing I can think enough to make any kind of connections given how hot it is and the fact that I’ve been out in the noonday sun.

I also found this cool interactive sky chart which helped me confirm all the constellations:

Looking Up.


Source: Wikipedia

Wishing on a star is one of those ancient traditions that probably sprung up in multiple cultures over time. The same goes for wishing on the first star spotted in the evening–the author of “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, wish I may, wish I might have the wish I wish tonight” is anonymous and it seems like such a simple, straightforward combination of rhymes it seems possible it was coined by more than one person even without any of them knowing each other. Then there’s Jiminy Cricket who sang “When You Wish Upon A Star” in the Disney version of Pinocchio. I prefer Collodi’s original in which he’s merely a talking cricket who warns Pinocchio not to be lazy, gets smashed with a hammer, and comes back as a ghost, but that’s another story.

Wishing on a falling star seems like it would be even luckier, since they’re rarer, but I think it must also be lucky to wish on a planet. Jupiter and Venus shine more brightly than any star in the night sky and, being closer, seem more likely to grant a wish, or at least have some influence over our world, even if it’s only an occasional gravitational nudge or errant burst of radiation.

These are all thoughts that ran through my head the other night when, looking roughly north by northeast, I saw the first star of the evening, which just happened to be Arcturus. Of course it was Arcturus. It’s the brightest star, with the exception of the sun, visible in the northern hemisphere. It’s just under thirty-seven light years away which makes it a pretty close neighbor. That, combined with being a red giant, is what makes it so bright. It also might have a planetary system.

Could there be life around Arcturus? Let’s say yes. This isn’t science fiction so much as science speculation. We haven’t found life anywhere else in the universe yet but there are a lot of places we haven’t looked, and given the size of the universe it would be strange if our little planet really is alone. Still Arcturus isn’t exactly the best candidate. It’s at least a couple of billion years older than our sun, not to mention the fact that it’s a very different kind of star, all of which means whatever life is out there is likely very different from anything we’re used to. And even if we can communicate the distance means just exchanging a couple of friendly hellos would take almost seventy-four years. A lot can happen in that time.

I’m sure I saw Arcturus a lot when I was a kid. Thinking back to all the summer nights I checked the sky, and assuming it was in roughly the same position then, which it probably was since the stars are pretty regular, it’s very likely that first bright star I saw at night that managed to not be obscured by the streetlight at the end of our cul-de-sac. Arcturus could shine even through light pollution.

And that’s why I see it so often now. It’s annoying, really, that I’ll see a bright star in the evening sky and, checking an astronomy app, I’ll confirm that it’s Arcturus. Again. And I’ll think how nice it would be if it could move over and let something else shine, The next morning I went out and in roughly the same position, bright enough to be seen in the early dawn sky, was Jupiter.

Wish granted.

Size Matters.

Asteroid 7335 (1989 JA), which made its closest pass by the Earth on May 27, 2022, has been described as being “the size of 350 giraffes”.


Asteroid 2017 VL2 which came within 70,000 miles of Earth on November 9, 2017, has been described as being “the size of a whale”.


Asteroid 2022 EB5 which landed in the North Atlantic between Norway and Iceland on March 14, 2022, has been described being “half the size of a giraffe”. And also “the size of a grand piano”.


Asteroid 2021 GT2, which, at its closest, was 2.2 million miles from Earth, has been described as being “the size of three blue whales”.


Asteroid 2022 KP3 passed by Earth at a distance of a little over eight hundred thousand miles the week of June 1st and was described as “the size of an average male giraffe”.


Asteroid 2022 NF, which passed just 56,000 miles from the Earth on July 7th was described as being “the size of a bus”.


Asteroid 2019 NW5, which will make its closest pass of around 3.5 million miles on July 18, 2022, has been described as “bigger than the Statue of Liberty”. And also “airliner-sized”. And “bus-sized”.


Asteroid 418135 (2008 AG33) at its closest was about two million miles form Earth on April 28th, 2022 was described as “the size of two Empire State Buildings”.


Asteroid 7335 (1989 JA) which passed the Earth at a distance of about four million miles on May 27, 2022 was described as being “the size of a small island”.


Asteroid 7482 (1994 PC1) which passed by Earth at a little less than two million miles on January, 18, 2022, was described as being “four times the size of the Eiffel Tower”.


Asteroid 2020 QG which came within just 1,830 miles of Earth on August 16, 2022, was described as “car-sized”.


Asteroid 2007 UY1 which passed Earth at around 3.3 million miles on February 8, 2022, was described as being “the size of the London Eye” and also “football-field sized”.


Asteroid 469219 (2016 HO3), also known as Kamoʻoalewa, discovered in 2016 at the University of Hawaii, remains at least 9.1 million miles from Earth as it orbits the Sun and has been described as “comparable in size to the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy or the Cinderella Castle in Disney World”.


The asteroid that hit the Earth, creating the Chicxulub crater in the Yucatán Peninsula, and wiped out the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago, has been described as “mountain-sized” and also “the size of San Francisco”.

And finally…

“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”–Douglas Adams


Line ‘Em Up.

Source: Secrets Of The Universe

Unfortunately I slept through the great planetary alignment of 2022, or maybe fortunately because missing sleep can really throw me off, and also we live in a neighborhood with a lot of trees so I miss some opportunities to witness celestial events unless they happen in the winter, unless they’re due east in which case my view is blocked by woods, or if they’re almost directly overhead, or if I get up and drive somewhere with a low horizon and low light pollution, which is getting harder with each passing year.

Of course I do have a couple of astronomy apps on my iPad that allow me to see what’s in the sky regardless of what’s in the way which is why sometimes I’ll stand in the den and point it straight up at the ceiling and when my wife asks what I’m doing I can say, “Looking at Uranus,” but that’s another story.

In other words circumstances would have to line up in just the right way for me to see the great planetary alignment, but I’m okay with that. I remember when I was in second grade and there was supposed to be a solar eclipse that, while not total, would still be partly visible over Nashville. Of course it was cloudy that day. I’ve witnessed other eclipses since then, including the total one of 2017.

I’ve seen multiple lunar eclipses, most because I specifically planned my schedule around being somewhere where I could see them, and I’ve even gotten up in the middle of the night just to watch some.

One year my wife and I got up in the middle of the night and drove out to a farm where we watched the Perseid meteor shower which was supposed to be spectacular that year, and, lucky for us, it was. I’ve also seen meteors I wasn’t looking for; my eyes just happened to be in the right direction at the right time.

And then, Sunday afternoon, I fell asleep in front of the TV, because I hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before in spite of not getting up to see the great planetary alignment, with the Science Channel on, and I woke up just in time to hear an astronomer say, “Astronomy is a very serendipitous science!”

We can predict the movements of the planets—the next big one will happen September 8, 2040, but sometimes the best events are the ones that can’t be predicted.

Ring Around The Moon.

There was a ring around the moon.

We’d had snow then rain then more snow and periods of bitter cold and periods of cold that wasn’t bitter but wasn’t exactly sweet either, and I was really starting to hate going outside for anything, especially at night, especially on clear nights when the empty sky is cold, dark, and hungry, and just stepping outside meant pulling on heavy boots to avoid the risk of slipping on the frozen patio, or even on the frozen mud out in the yard. It wasn’t really a time for looking up, although when we had snow it did offer a nice view, especially at night when it was a luminous blue, like a seascape seen from a submarine.

I remember when I first learned about lunar rings. It was eighth grade and there was a whole chapter in my school science book about clouds and other meteorological phenomena. It also had a whole chapter entitled, “Will We Ever Reach The Moon?” which just reminded my friends and I how badly funded science education was, but that’s another story.

There was a picture of a three-quarter moon, like an opal, with a ring around it, and an explanation that sometimes ice crystals high up in the atmosphere would cause the moon to shine like a gem. Somehow I’d never seen this, although it must have happened—and in fact that very winter I’d see my first lunar ring, and understood why I might never have noticed one before. Unlike the one pictured in my science book the one I saw was enormous, stretched out almost to the horizon. It was unusual, but I suppose I never noticed rings around the moon before because, as much as I liked to look at the night sky, I must have been focused on the moon itself. Other times I’d see rings that were indistinct. Like the Pleiades on certain nights some lunar rings couldn’t be observed directly; they were elusive and couldn’t be seen if I looked directly at the moon. They only existed at the edge of my vision when I looked somewhere else.

According to folklore a ring around the moon means bad weather is coming: rain or snow, which makes sense. Since a ring around the moon is caused by ice crystals, or, more specifically, flossy clouds, it’s a sign of moisture in the atmosphere. I can’t understand why something so amazingly beautiful would be considered a sign of bad luck. I was glad to be outside to see it.

Light Up The Sky.

Aurora borealis seen from space. Source: NASA

I have friends in the Pacific Northwest who’ve been making me jealous with their pictures of the recent aurora borealis, apparently generated by a large solar storm that may or may not have affected power grids and other communications. My wifi has gone out a couple of times but that’s pretty typical—in fact a couple of weeks go it went down right in the middle of a conversation with my boss and when it came back we talked about how wifi tends to go out when it’s too sunny. Or too cloudy. Or dark. Or if it’s too hot. Or too cold. Or if temperatures are too average.

There have been a few times when the aurora borealis has been intense enough that it’s been visible from Nashville. I’ve never seen it at those times–mainly it seems to have only been spotted from places like the Dyer Observatory, but one of these days I hope to see it in person. Or the aurora australis which would be equally cool–maybe even cooler since Antarctic temperatures dip even lower. Until then, though, I’ll have to make do with pictures.

And they always made me think about our little planet’s place in the solar system, and the greater galaxy and the universe beyond, something I also think about on cool nights when the stars shine with a crystalline brightness. Auroras are a phenomenon we know isn’t unique to Earth, although we have to go all the way out to the gas giants to find others. Yes, there may even be auroras at either end of Uranus, but that’s another story.

At this time of year I also usually reread Wallace Steven’s poem The Auroras Of Autumn, which makes me feel connected not just to the galaxy beyond but to this little world we stand on too.

Lord Of The Rings.

Source: SkyView app

The Moon and Jupiter are very prominent in the southern sky right now in the early evening, but my eye is also drawn to a less luminous object between them. It’s Saturn, which, back in the days when astronomers thought the heavens were composed of crystal spheres, must have been the weirdest of all the wanderers, being the slowest—it takes nearly three times as long to orbit the Sun as Jupiter, although in those days astronomers also believed everything revolved around the Earth. Saturn was also, for most of human history, the edge of the solar system. Things got even weirder when Galileo turned his telescope to it. He’d already discovered that Jupiter had four moons of its own—and those would be followed by dozens more—and Saturn at first looked to him like a planet with two very large moons, but he couldn’t figure out why they sometimes disappeared. Once they were recognized as rings, and that those rings are held in place by the influence of some of Saturn’s moons, it made sense. We see Saturn at an angle and the rings are so thin that when they’re flat from our perspective they’re practically invisible.

Maybe it was because of its distance that Saturn got its name. The other planets were all named after Olympian gods, but Saturn, mythologically speaking, was the father of the Olympians, the one who swallowed all of his children except Jupiter, and who was defeated, sent down to a second-tier position but kept some of his original glory, becoming the scythe-wielding god of the harvest and time, and through the Dark Ages and Renaissance people who were born under Saturn were believed to be moody and cynical, but also ambitious—most artists were believed to be influenced by Saturn’s position at their birth.

I’m a skeptic when it comes to astrology, mostly, but I do think it’s possible planetary movements have some influence over our lives, and who we become as we move through time. The Earth isn’t a closed sphere; our little planet is affected by the Moon and the Sun, and it’s not unreasonable to think the powerful tug of other planets plays a part too. There’s even the idea that regular meteor impacts on the Earth—the most famous being the one that wiped out the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago—could be the result of where our solar system happens to be as it moves around in its outside arm of the Milky Way. If the universe beyond our solar system can affect, even destroy, life on Earth imagine what effects our closest neighbors might have.

And, looking up at Saturn, I remember one fall night when I was a kid and I was talking to a girl who lived across the street. Neither of us knew enough about astronomy to identify anything other than the Moon, and she said, “You know what would be cool? If all the planets were close enough or big enough that we could see them all clearly.”

That would be pretty cool but, with the way gravity works, I’m sure having every planet crammed in so close would have some powerful effects.

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