Thursday, August 16, 2012

Lyra the Harp

This constellation represents the musical instrument invented by the messenger god Hermes. It has also been visualized as an Eagle or Vulture. Although small, Lyra holds many bright stars including the fifth brightest star in the sky, Vega.

Vega is the brightest star in the Summer Triangle and is high overhead during the fall evenings. This blueish star is only 25 light years away and will replace Polaris as our Pole Star in about 12,000 years. Vega will be our distant ancestors' new North Star. Vega is also the place where an alien message originated in the fiction movie and book Contact.
Also called the “Queen of the Summer Skies”
“Falling Vulture” (Arab)
“Spinning Maiden” (Chinese/Korean)
“King Arthur’s Harp” (Britons)
“Fiddle in the Sky” (Bohemia)
Worshipped by ancient Egypt as early as 6000 BC

The Greek Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice

Orpheus was a tremendous harp player. He was the best that ever walked the Earth. His music was so sweet and pure that even the trees bent over to listen. The river ceased flowing, wild beasts became tame, even mountains listened with pleasure when Orpheus played his magical music.

One day he met a beautiful nymph named Eurydice. She too was mesmerized by Orpheus’ music and they fell in love and got married. Unfortunately, soon after the marriage, Eurydice was bit on the heel by a serpent and died. Orpheus was deeply saddened by her death and vowed to never play music again.

Well, no one was happy by this. Not even the gods. So the gods came to Orpheus and told him how he could cross over through the gates of death and retrieve his love Eurydice. Orpheus jumped at the idea and made the journey to the Underworld.

But first he had to deal with Hades, god of departed spirits. Hades was never anxious to let anyone leave his realm. But Orpheus began to play his harp, and Hades was so moved by the music that he agreed to release Eurydice to him on one condition (there’s always a condition). Orpheus had to walk in front of Eurydice all the way back to the land of the living. He was not allowed to turn around and look at her until they crossed through the gates of death.

Of course, Orpheus, being so much in love with this woman, could barely contain himself. They walked out of the Underworld in single file, Orpheus constantly listening for his beloved's soft footsteps. Upward and upward he marched never sure if Eurydice was there behind him. And he saw the end of the tunnel ahead - he had almost reached the light of day. But then doubt entered his head. Eurydice’s footsteps fell silent. Was she really there? Was he tricked by Hades? And if he went outside could he ever come back? Orpheus finally couldn't take it any longer and turned to look at his beloved. There she was, as radiant as he remembered her. And in another moment, her smile faded, faded, and she vanished forever.

Lyra, Orpheus’ harp remains in the sky as a reminder of true love, love lost, and why death is so hard to cheat.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


Eclipses, Transits, Blue Moons, Supermoons - 2012 has it all.

Add an occultation to the list.  This is when the Moon or a planet goes in front of something else (a star, other planet).  I have only seen three of these in my life (compared to nine lunar eclipses).  So the rarity of these is way up there. 

On Monday August 13 the Moon will occult (go in front of) the planet Venus.  The good news is we'll see it from the Cincinnati area (and across the country west of us).  The bad news is that it will happen during the daytime.  The main event will be between 4:41-4:42 PM EDT.  That's all the time it will take for the Moon to cover Venus. 

To find it, look west at 4:15pm for the waning crescent moon.  You might just barely be able to make it out in the afternoon skyglow.  If you have eagle eyes, see if you can see a dot to the upper left of the Moon.  That's Venus.  In the spring I was able to find Venus in the daytime sky with the naked eye - when the Moon was nearby as a reference. 

Then at 4:30pm get out your telescopes and aim them at upper left part of the Moon.  You should be able to see Venus there as well.  It will look like a little half moon in a telescope (it goes through phases too).  In apparent size, Venus will be dwarfed by the huge-looking, much closer Moon.  Then watch as the Moon gets closer and closer until... occultation.

Unfortunately in Cincinnati we won't be able to see Venus pop out the other side because the Moon will have set by then.  So tell people on the west coast about it and they'll see both the entry and exit of Venus behind the Moon.

Enjoy the Lunar Occultation of Venus.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Cygnus the Swan

Cygnus the Swan is also known as the Northern Cross since it resembles, well, a cross. It is mostly a summer constellation but does appear standing up on Christmas evenings (as a symbol for the season).  Look for the Swan inside the Summer Triangle.

Deneb is one big star
The swan is located in a rich part of the Milky Way. In some cultures, they considered the Milky Way to be the river in the sky and the swan, a water bird, is naturally flying along it. The Milky Way appears to split near the brightest star Deneb which means “Tail” in Arabic.  Deneb is the farthest star you can see with the naked eye - around 3,000 light years away!

One Greek legend says that the big cheese himself, Zeus, fell in love with a mortal woman named Leda (This was a regular thing for the romantic Zeus. In fact Leda was his third mortal crush that week!). Anyway Zeus decided that sending Leda flowers would be too boring. She deserved a more creative approach. After all she was the Queen of Sparta. So Zeus disguised himself as a swan to gain Leda’s love. This swan would appear at Leda’s window everyday and she thought, “My, there is something strange about that swan. He’s certainly not like the other swans. He seems more dynamic."

Zeus was saying to himself, "Yeah, baby.  I'm a swan.  Check me out." 

Maybe it was the feathers or the way he threw thunderbolts, but as strange as it sounds, Leda fell in love with the swan. Much to her surprise the swan turned back into Zeus and they lived happily ever after - until Zeus met someone else that next week.