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Skywatch for the week of September 7, 2020

Mon Sep 7, 2020           BRIDE OF MORNING STAR

The Blackfoot Indians often told the story of Soatsaki, the Feather Woman, who one day decided to marry the Morning Star – what we call the planet Venus. She saw him in the eastern sky before sunrise, as we can even now. One day, Morning Star stood before her on the river path. He said, “I have seen you gazing upward and will take you to the sky country.” He placed an eagle’s feather in her hair, and suddenly she was in the house of the Moon and the Sun, who called her their daughter. Morning Star and Feather Woman were married, and soon they had a son. But one day Soatsaki disobeyed the Moon and dug up the great turnip that grew beside the sky lodge, and she and her son became falling stars, sent back to earth through the hole that had been made. Their sky path became the Milky Way. Morning Star warned her not to let their son touch the earth for two weeks, but the boy did, and swiftly he went, back to the Sky Country. You can see him now as the North Star.


Tue Sep 8, 2020            STAR TREK

The first Star Trek TV episode aired on September 8, 1966. I saw that first episode, which was about an alien that would suck the salt out of you when you weren’t looking. So of course, like many young space enthusiasts, I was immediately captivated. I liked the show’s vision of a promising future (not counting the part where you get the salt sucked out of you,) and the portrayal of humans as daring explorers of the galaxy, curious about what they would find out there. The science and astronomy in it showcased the beauty and vastness of outer space – grand nebulas, lush planets, exotic moons. The writers built on the best of classic science fiction, and the science was, for the most part, well-researched. There were no intergalactic aliens in Star Trek (well, once or twice, like with the Kelvins, but they were from the nearby Andromeda galaxy, so that was kind of like getting to know the neighbors next door.) The writers understood that our Milky Way alone, was big enough to contain us. For now, anyway.


Wed Sep 9, 2020           SCUTUM

The fifth-smallest constellation in the sky is very difficult to see, but it has an interesting history. Scutum, the “shield of Sobieski,” has no bright, or even middling-bright stars within its borders, and as it’s wedged into the summertime Milky Way, between Aquila the Eagle, Sagittarius the Archer and the Serpent’s Tail, (Serpens Cauda,) finding it is more like a process of elimination than actual discovery. It was introduced to star charts by the astronomer Johannes Hevelius to commemorate the lifting of the siege of Vienna which had happened on September 12, 1683. King Jan Sobieski of Poland led his hussars and men gathered from England, France, Germany, Austria, and even a great many displaced Tatars who had settled in Poland, in an attack that routed the Turkish army, which had lain siege to Vienna. Scutum has a couple of open star clusters – M11 (the Wild Duck Cluster,) and M26; the globular star cluster NGC 6712, plus a planetary nebula, and even a pulsar.


Thu Sep 10, 2020          ELEVEN DAYS MISSING!

Did you know that here in America, there was no September 10th in the year 1752? There wasn’t an 11th either, or a 12th, or a 13th, or a 3rd through the 9th! It happened when the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian calendar. The Julian calendar, established by Julius Caesar seventeen hundred years earlier, was inaccurate; it was behind by ten days when Pope Gregory introduced the Gregorian calendar to Catholic countries in 1582. But England and its Protestant colonies ignored the papal edict, and kept using the old Julian calendar, until 1752, when, in order to fix the calendar, eleven days had to be chopped out. Riots broke out in London as landlords charged their renters a full month’s rent, even though the month was just 19 days long. “Give us back our eleven days!” they shouted. But in America, Ben Franklin counseled his readers not to “regret.. the loss of so much time,” but to give thanks that one might “lie down in Peace on the second of the month and not… awake till the morning of the 14th.”


Fri Sep 11, 2020                        MOON AND VENUS

The waning moon rises an hour or so after midnight tonight, depending on how clear a view you have to the eastern horizon. It’s above and to the left of Orion the Hunter, but within the borders of anther constellation, Gemini. The old crescent moon can be found just to the west of two bright stars, Castor and Pollux, which mark the twins’ heads. But there’s a much brighter star to the east of the moon, which will appear about an hour after moonrise. That brilliant star is actually the planet Venus, nestled among the stars of Cancer the Crab. As the earth rotates, it causes the moon, the planets and the stars to move across the sky, rising and setting like the sun, (also caused by the turning earth.) But while the stars keep their positions relative to each other the same, the moon and the planets move against this backdrop of stars over successive days and nights. Tomorrow night the moon will drift closer to Venus, and by Monday, before dawn, you’ll find it right alongside our sister planet – a pretty sight!