Romancing The Stars

The night sky has inspired romance, wonder, and art for thousands of years. Check out the story of Cepheus and Cassiopeia. He was the easy going king of Ethiopia and she was the vain queen, a “mirror, mirror on the wall” type. Poseidon sent a sea monster after Cassiopeia for insulting his wife. She survived that ordeal, only to then insult Hera, queen of the Greek gods. Hera dispatched Cassiopeia to the sky.  A heart broken Cepheus begged his buddy Zeus to send him to be with his beloved Cassiopeia. Now Cephus and Cassiopea permanently embrace in the heavens.

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Romantic Couple Stargazing

How would you like a romantic Valentine’s date that also contributes to science? Turn on the Globe at Night webbapp, bundle up your sweety, then go outside to look at the stars. As you cuddle, tell the app what you see, press submit, and become a citizen scientist! The app is easy to use. It shows you 6 versions of the night sky. You pick the one that looks most like what you see. If you are in the city, where only a few stars are visible, you can still participate. Just pick the image that only shows a few stars.

Globe at Night is an international citizen-science campaign to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to measure & submit their night sky brightness observations. It’s easy to get involved – all you need is computer or smart phone.

Scientists are asking ordinary citizens to help measure light pollution, so the scientist can determine how we are doing at protecting our night sky. You don’t need detailed knowledge about constellations or astronomy. All you need to do is find Orion’s Belt. For help with that, check out a previous Name a Star post.

To maximize your star gazing experience, buy a star from Name a Star to present to your sweety. Be prepared: pack a picnic, a blanket, and groundsheet if it is wet, a few cushions for extra comfort and plenty of warm clothes. For true romance a bottle of wine or flask of hot chocolate is a must. Learn which constellations are visible, so you can point them out and impress your date.

Stargazing together is deeply romantic, free, and Covid safe.  Reconnect with your loved one and let Mother Nature take your breath away.

 

 

Learn What Science Has To Say About The Star Of Bethlehem

Bethlehem Star with Three Wise Men

Bright stars top Christmas trees in homes around much of the world. The Star of Bethlehem or Christmas Star has appeared in art, literature, and science for over 2,000 years, but where is it and how can you see it?

The Star of Bethlehem is part of the nativity story in the Gospel of Matthew. Three “wise men from the East” (Magi) are inspired to follow the star to Bethlehem to bring gifts to the baby Jesus. The star moved across the sky, then stopped over a manger marking the location for the birth of Jesus. This is the only mention of the Star of Bethlehem in the Bible.

There is some controversy regarding the astronomical event described by Matthew. Many Christians believe the star was a miracle that fulfilled a prophecy.  Astronomers have made several attempts to link the star to unusual celestial events, such as a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, a comet, or a supernova.

Stars don’t move across the sky, then hover over a building, however what other astronomical event might have been interpreted as a miracle? Meteors streak across the sky and sometimes explode in a bright light, but they only last for seconds, so could not have led wise men across the desert.

As we learned in a previous Name a Star post, the Chinese recorded night sky events around the time of the birth of Jesus. One such event was a supernova visible in the sky for 2 months. It was in the constellation Capricornus, which is in the wrong section of the sky to lead the wise men to Bethlehem.

Giotto Painting Adoration of the Magi

The Chinese also recorded comets at the right time in history. Florentine painter Giotto di Bondone combined art and science in the painting Adoration of the Magi, where the Star of Bethlehem is depicted as a comet. Giotto observed Halley’s comet in 1301.

Science has not explained the Star of Bethlehem with certainty. For now the mystery of the Christmas Star will remain in the realm of faith. But although there may be no agreement on the nature of the star or even its actual sighting two millennia ago, all sides can agree on the message the Christmas Star heralded: “… on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14).

The Anatomy Of A Star – How Old Are They Really?

Youngest_Star

Youngest Star Hiding Behind Supernova Dust Cloud

How old are the stars? The short answer is “It’s complicated”, but we can have some fun with this question. For example did you know that there is a star that is older than the universe? That is right. Scientists estimate the age of the universe at 13.8 billion years, but they also believe there is a star that is 14.2 billion years old. This discrepancy is referred to as the “age paradox” and it pits cosmologists against astrophysicists. Now isn’t that fun?

Cosmologists measured cosmic microwave background radiation to derive the expansion rate of the universe. The expansion rate allowed them to extrapolate back to the Big Bang, a theory that there was once a state of hot denseness that exploded out, stretching space. Cosmologists also incorporate dark energy and gravitational waves into their estimates for the age of the universe. Researching dark energy feels like descending into a black hole. We will save that for another Name a Star blog.

So why do astrophysicists believe they found a star that is 14.2 years old? Astrophysicists focus on individual stars and star clusters, not the entire universe like cosmologists. Various methods and tools are involved in stellar age estimation, such as mass, color, and luminosity. No individual method is accurate for all stars and the estimates are just that, estimates. For example, the error range for the oldest star is 800 million years. That means its age is actually between 13.4 and 15.0 billion years old.

The official name of the oldest star is HD 140283, but its common name is Methuselah — named in reference to a biblical patriarch, who is said to have died at age 969, making him the longest lived of all the figures in the Bible. Scientist have long known that the star Methuselah was old, since the metal-poor subgiant is predominantly made of hydrogen and helium and contains very little iron. Its composition meant the star must have come into being before iron became commonplace in the universe. 

What about the youngest star? SN 1987A is a plucky young neutron star that survived a supernova first discovered in 1987. It is not actually visible because it is hiding behind a hot blob of stellar dust left over from the supernova. I told you this would be fun.

 

 

Let Orion Lead You On Winter Night Sky Tour

Even though it is cold, Winter can be the best time of year for stargazing, because low humidity brings clear skies. The sun goes down early too, so it gets plenty dark to take the kids out before bed time. Bundle up and go outside to see some of the brightest stars and popular constellations.

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Winter View of Orion

Let Orion be your guide to the winter night sky. The belt points to some of the brightest stars in the sky and Orion’s sword contains one of the best known and most photographed nebulae in the sky, the Orion Nebula (Messier 42). Follow the line formed by Orion’s Belt to the east to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Sirius is in Canis Major, so you have also found another constellation.

Go west of the belt and you will find Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus. It is the 13th brightest star in the sky. Taurus is also home to the star cluster Pleiades or Seven Sisters. To locate these stars, all you have to do is continue the line from Orion’s belt through Aldebaran, then curve it slightly downward. It looks like a tiny dipper. Pleiades is called Subaru in Japan.

The famous Crab Nebula is also in Taurus. It is the bright remnant of a historic supernova observed in 1054. It is directly overhead, but may be difficult to spot without binoculars. You may recall from previous Name a Star posts that both the ancient Chinese and Ancestral Puebloans recorded this supernova, which was brighter than a full moon..

Back to Orion, take a good look at Betelgeuse, the red star in the top left. It’s a supergiant star that is expected to turn into a supernova in the next 100,000 years.

As winter nears a close, there is still plenty to see in February. If you look high in the northwest, you will be able to see the zigzag row of five bright stars forming the constellation of Cassiopeia, the Queen. 

The constellation Leo, the Lion, also becomes visible in February. It is more of a spring constellation, but look closely and you will see Leo rising in the east shortly after dark. Look for six stars that form a backward question mark.

Keep Looking Up!

Best Mars Viewing In 32 Years Happens Tuesday

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Best Mars Viewing In The Next 32 Years

The fall is a great time to get outside and enjoy the night sky. Remember to bundle up and maybe fix a mug of hot chocolate. October started with a full moon, the Harvest Moon, and will end with a Halloween Blue Moon. A second full moon in the same calendar month only happens about once every 3 years, so don’t miss it.

Mars viewing will be at its best until 2052. The peak will be Tuesday, October 13, however viewing should be excellent until the end of October. Look directly due east one hour after sunset in the middle of Pisces. Mars looks like a bright, reddish-orange “star”. It will be 3 times brighter than the brightest star, Sirius.

Fall can be a fishy time in the sky. From west-to-east, we have a sea goat (Capricornus), a water carrier (Aquarius), a pair of fishes tied by their tails to a fishing line or ribbon (Pisces), yet another fish placed far to the south (Piscis Austrinus), a whale (Cetus) and a winding river (Eridanus). You don’t need galoshes, but binoculars might help you get a better look.

Cetus includes the star Mira, the first variable star to be discovered. Variable stars change apparent brightness. Dutch observer Johannes Holwarda noticed Mira going thru its phases in 1638. Mira is in a bright phase right now. Some variable stars are actually double stars, two stars close together. When one of the double stars moves in front of the other, the light is blocked and appears to dim. You can name a double star for a friend or loved one at Name a Star.

There are a couple of major meteor showers to thrill late night observers: the Leonids in November and  Geminids in December. The Geminids produce slow-moving, green, pink and purple meteors that are arguably the most spectacular of the year to watch. They’ll be most visible the nights of December 13 and 14th, which also marks the new moon. 

For fans of the constellation Orion, the hunter, he will return in December. No reason to mourn the fading of the summer Milky Way, fall skywatching has plenty to offer.

America’s First Astronomers – Native Americans

 

Sun And Moon Pictograph

Did you know that the first astronomers in America were Native Americans? Although the original inhabitants of North America did not leave a written language, they did leave behind rock art, pottery, and architecture indicating that Native Americans were studying the night sky long before the voyage of Columbus. Some archaeologists believe that a star and crescent symbol on a panel near the Penasco Blanco ruin in Chaco Canyon represents the AD 1054 Crab supernova explosion. The ancient Chinese also recorded this same celestial event as reported in a previous Name a Star blog.

 

The Mimbres of New Mexico left behind a ceramic plate carbon-14 dated between 1050 and 1070 AD, which appears to depict the same Crab supernova . Its 23-rayed star probably represents the 23 days that the supernova shown as bright as a full moon.

 

Native Americans farmed, hunted, and gathered by the sky. Narragansettans of Rhode Island timed their seeding and cultivation of legumes by the moon and the rising of Pleiades. The Hopi Sun Chief kept a horizon calendar in the village of Walpi to plan ceremonies and agriculture cycles. Mississippi Valley Cahokians created a Sun Circle between AD 700 and 1200 that accurately predicts summer solstice, winter solstice, and the equinoxes. California’s Chumash counted the moon’s phases and recognized familiar patterns of stars, including the Big Dipper and the Belt of Orion.

 

Fajada Butte Observatory

Do you like learning about ancient cultures? Do you enjoy the night sky? How about adventure? Archeoastronomy, the field of scientific research that studies the astronomy of ancient cultures may be right for you. Climb to the top of Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon to see the Sun Dagger, a petroglyph crafted to mark the cycles of the sun (and possibly also the moon). Fajada Butte is one of the oldest observatories in North America.

 

But wait, there is more for you budding archeoastronomers. On an upper ledge in Chaco Canyon, the Ancestral Puebloans cut a notch in a cliff near Wijiji ruin. This notch lines up with a natural rock chimney on the other side of the canyon, which dramatically marks the winter solstice sunrise. Maybe that carved notch is the written language of our North American ancestors?

 

Ancient Chinese Dragon Bone Star Charts

 

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Ancient Chinese Dragon Bone Star Chart

The first star charts were inscribed on dragon bones by Chinese astronomers in the 14th century B.C.E. Actually, the bones were ox shoulder blades or tortoise shells. They were called Oracle Bones or Dragon Bones because diviners or fortune tellers would carve star patterns or symbols, then crack the bones with a hot poker. The cracks would be interpreted to tell the future.

NASA astronomers used fourteenth-century B.C.E oracle bones to help determine how much the earth’s rotation is slowing down. Based on analysis of the tortoiseshell inscriptions, astronomers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena reported they had fixed the exact date and path of a solar eclipse seen in China in 1302 B.C.E. This allowed them to determine that the length of a day is getting longer.

Our constellation names are of Greek origin, so we tend to think of the Greeks being the first astronomers. However ancient Chinese observers of the night sky were keeping astronomical records long before the Greeks. Most of the Chinese patterns or constellations were entirely different than those recognized by the Greeks. Of all the thousands of star patterns about a dozen were seen in the same way by both Chinese and Western astronomy. Great Bear and Orion; Auriga, Corona Australis, and Southern Cross.

The Greeks may have given us our modern nomenclature for the night sky, however the Chinese provided the way in which we reckon the precise positions of the stars. The Chinese invented the system used by astronomers today to precisely pinpoint a star’s location with Right Ascension and Declination. Your Name a Star certificate displays these same coordinates, so you can find your star in the heavens.

The famous Halley’s Comet is named after an English astronomer who predicted the next return of the comet in 1758 CE, yet the Chinese first recorded the comet over 2,000 years earlier in 467 B.C.E.  Modern astronomers have used ancient Chinese astronomy records to track comets and the birth of stars. Chinese astronomers even built the world’s first clock 600 years before the first Western clock.

From dragon bones to clocks, ancient Chinese astronomers played a key role in laying the foundation for modern skywatching and getting to work on time.

Astronomy Learning Resources

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Could Sharks Live In Space?

Most schools are distance learning. Some are doing it right. Some leave a bit to be desired. To supplement their curriculum, here at Name a Star we put together a helpful guide for your budding astronomer or scientist. There is still plenty of summer weather left to get outside to enjoy the night sky, so round up your kiddos and take them outside tonight to have fun learning something new!

Would you like to know if sharks could live in space? Of course you do. Discover this and more from The Discovery Channel on TV and online. There is also serious content about astronomy and space. 

If you are a teacher or home schooling a child try this excellent web site to teach them about the solar system. You can find materials for all abilities and interests. NASA has a great website aimed at children ages 5 – 13.

For spectacular graphics and videos, check out National Geographic. You can go on a fun virtual tour of the solar system. Be careful. There are so many interesting links that you could get lost in the cosmos. Did you know that the first spacecraft to set mechanical feet on another planet landed on Venus. In the 1960s and ’70s, the former Soviet Union’s Venera probes plunged through the planet’s punishing atmosphere sending back data from its rocky surface. These early missions provided an important lesson: Venus, the brightest planet or star in the night sky, is like a massive pressure cooker on its surface.

The National Geographic site covers more than the solar system. You can also learn about black holes, galaxies, asteroids, and comets. Test yourself with a quiz too.

You can even boost your astronomy knowledge during your commute to and from work. Look for radio broadcasts from Earth Sky.

If you don’t have internet or cable, you can still learn about astronomy at home. All you need is an ordinary TV with an inexpensive antenna to pick up your local PBS station. The Nova programs will transport you to another world.

Have fun tonight and keep looking up!

Why Does Old Glory Have Stars And Stripes?

Tattered-September-11th-Flag

September 11th Flag

We were all taught the meaning of the American Flag design when we were in grade school, but do you remember? Here’s a quick refresher, plus some fun history you may not know.

The flag of the United States has 13 horizontal stripes, alternating red and white, which represent the original Thirteen Colonies. In the upper left corner is a field of blue with 50 white stars, which represent the 50 states. This is the 27th version of the US flag. It was ordered by President Eisenhower in 1959 after Alaska became the 50th state and adopted by Congress in 1960.

Do these stars have anything to do with astronomical stars in the sky? That answer is not clear. As a matter of fact, when the Declaration of Independence was signed by the Continental Congress in July 1776 no official flag was approved. The signers hoped to create a self-governing American colony loyal to the British Crown, while avoiding war. The unofficial first flag included 13 red and white stripes representing the 13 colonies and a small replica of the British flag where the stars are on today’s flag.

Historically stars on flags and banners represented the heavens and were used to depict territorial divisions. An example of stars representing territorial divisions predating the U.S. flag are those in the coat of arms of Valais, Switzerland of 1618, where seven stars stood for seven districts.

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution which stated: “Resolved, that the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” Notice that this Flag Resolution did not specify any particular arrangement for the stars. As a result, some US flags arranged the stars in a circle, while others used rows.

The colors of the flag are symbolic as well. Red symbolizes hardiness and valor, white symbolizes purity and innocence, and blue symbolizes perseverance, vigilance and justice. The blue area of the flag is called the canon and it contains a constellation of stars.

Some flags in the US and around the world depict actual constellations such as the Big Dipper on the State of the Alaska flag. The Flag of Brazil depicts several constellations including Crux and Canis Major.

Throughout history people have looked up to the stars in the sky for inspiration. Perhaps the founding fathers put stars on our flags to inspire us? You can inspire a friend or loved one by giving them their own star from Name a Star.

Why Stars Change With The Seasons

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Orion Constellation

Have you ever noticed that your favorite constellation is not always visible in the night sky? For example, the belt of Orion the Hunter is easy to spot in the winter, but nowhere to be seen in the summer. Where do the stars go? The short answer is that they are still out there shining during the day when you can’t see them.

To understand, remember that the earth rotates on its axis every day, while revolving around the sun every year and you can only see the constellations at night, when your part of the earth is facing away from the sun.

As the Earth orbits around the Sun, constellations move slowly to the west over the course of a year and we see different parts of the sky at night because, as the seasons change, we are looking in a different direction in space. From our spot on earth, the stars appear to rise in the east, cross the sky, then set in the west.

It is like riding on a merry-go-round that takes a year to complete one revolution. As you ride around, you see different parts of the amusement park (universe) pass before our eyes. The part of the universe that we can see depends on which direction the earth is facing at night and where we are in space as the earth orbits the sun.

You have to wait until late summer to see my favorite constellation Delphinus the Dolphin. Greek mythology states that a dolphin was sent by the sea god Poseidon to find Amphitrite, the mermaid he wanted to marry. Visit Name a Star to dedicate a star for a loved one in your favorite constellation.

As our earth whirls through space around the sun, its motions cause night and day and the four seasons. According to our clocks, there are 24 hours in a day, however the earth actually turns on its axis every 23 hours 56 minutes. That 4 minute difference causes the stars to rise and set 4 minutes earlier every night. After a year, we are back where we began 365 days earlier with the same stars returning for our next trip around the sun.