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SKYWATCH with Jon Bell


Except for a few star patterns such as Orion the Hunter or Scorpius the scorpion, most constellations look nothing at all like what they're supposed to represent. Learning to recognize constellations is about as easy as memorizing wall paper patterns. The only advantage you've got is that constellations, unlike wall paper, won't be torn down or painted over in the forseeable future. Folks long ago who made up these constellations didn't necessarily see the pictures either. They'd just name a bright star or group of stars after a hero or admired animal – or monster - and use those stars to tell their children stories about their adventures - in that way, the stories were remembered as myths and legends centuries after they were first told. There are 88 official constellations today. In ancient Greece where many of the stories originated, there were less than 60 constellations, but they’re still among the ones we recognize today.


On March 13, 1781, the planet Uranus was discovered by William Herschel. Herschel was a church organist and music director in the city of Bath, England. But he dabbled in other pursuits, and astronomy was his passion. Using a telescope he had built himself, he became the first person in history to discover another planet too faint to be seen with the unaided eye. About a hundred and fifty years after Uranus was discovered, the Lowell Observatory in Arizona announced the discovery of another planet. It had been found by a young observatory assistant, Clyde Tombaugh, and was named Pluto. Several years ago an international group of astronomers who had nothing better to do with their time voted to demote Pluto to dwarf planet status, but the American Astronomical Society opposes the idea. In the summer of 2015 a space probe named New Horizons flew past Pluto and radioed back some incredible images of this distant world and its moons.

Wed Mar 14, 2018     ROBERT GODDARD’S ROCKET

Ninety-two years ago, the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket was launched, in Auburn, Massachusetts. The man who launched it was its inventor - Robert Goddard. Rockets had been around for a long time – the Chinese were using them eight hundred years ago. But all rockets up to March 16, 1926, were solid-fuel, using a kind of gunpowder as the propellant. The problem with those rockets was that once ignited, the rocket fuel continued to burn until it was used up – no off switch. With liquid fuel it was possible to start, stop, restart, throttle the engine up or down - in other words, liquid-fueled rockets were easier to control, and safer too. The folks in Massachusetts didn’t seem to appreciate this however, and he was branded a nuisance. And the New York Times back then said he was wrong, that rockets wouldn’t work in space. Evidently they were mistaken, because, thanks to Robert Goddard, we’ve sent rockets outward to the moon, to the planets, to the stars.


Today is the Ides of March, and it looks like this time around no Roman dictators will be killed. On March 15th in 44 BC Julius Caesar was assassinated, and many of us remember Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, in which he was warned to beware the Ides of March. What are the Ides? The Romans divided their calendar month into three parts, with three specific days serving as benchmarks, based on the phases of the moon. The first day of the month was marked by the new moon and was called the Kalends (from which we get the word calendar;) A week later came the Nones, marked by the first quarter moon – and you can tell we don’t use a lunar calendar anymore because the moon is a waning crescent today; and the middle of the month, the 13th day or in some cases the 15th, when the moon was full - that was the Ides. These terms are not familiar to us today, but they were well-known to the Romans, and also to Europeans in Shakespeare’s time.


Tomorrow is Saint Patrick’s Day, so let’s talk about Irish astronomy as it was practiced in the time of the Saint. In the fifth century the Irish made accurate observations, using stone circles that, like the famous Stonehenge of England, could predict sunrise and sunset positions and the beginnings of seasons. The Julian calendar of Rome was used in Ireland, and the Church relied on Irish astronomy to help establish the dates of Easter and other religious feasts, as witnessed by the Sixth century abbot, Mo-Sinu maccu Min of County Down. In the Seventh Century the monk Aibhistin suggested a connection between the tides and the phases of the moon. And then there are the Celtic constellations: Leo the lion which appears in the east after sunset, was An Corran, a sickle or reaping hook. The Irish saw Orion the Hunter as the hero Caomai, the Armed King. And the Milky Way was called Bealach na Bo Finne - the way of the white cow.


On March 16th in the year 1699 William Chaloner was executed at Tyburn Tree in London. Before his gruesome death, he wrote a letter to Sir Isaac Newton, begging for his life. “O dear sir, no body can save me but you,” he wrote, “I shall be murdered unless you save me.” Newton, England’s greatest scientist, had recently become the warden of the mint, and was responsible for the coining of English currency. This included catching anyone who committed the high treason of counterfeiting. Chaloner had sent a pamphlet to Parliament, accusing Newton of incompetence and corruption. This did not please Newton, and he set out to catch the great counterfeiter. Like a 17th century Sherlock Holmes, Sir Isaac used informers and even went about in disguise to find out what Chaloner was up to. In this way, the man who gave us the laws of gravity and motion was able to gather enough evidence to send Chaloner to the gallows.

“O dear sir no body can save me but you O God my God I shall be murderd unless you save me O I hope God will move yor heart with mercy and pitty to do this thing for me…”

Tue Mar 20, 2018     SPRING BEGINS

The vernal equinox is today – that’s the fancy term for the beginning of spring. On Monday, March 20th, at 12:15 p.m., Eastern Daylight Saving Time, the sun will appear at the top of the sky as seen from the earth’s equator. You'd think seasons would start first thing in the morning, but it seldom works out that way. Astronomers plot the sun's position in the sky as it drifts past the background of distant stars due to earth’s revolution. When it reaches a certain spot where the sun's direct rays touch upon the earth's equator, they know that spring has begun. Today the sun is in the constellation Pisces, and it rises due east and sets due west; this is also one of the two times in the year when people pretty much all around the world have roughly equal amounts of daylight and darkness – about twelve hours each. The term equinox, from the Latin meaning "equal night", reflects this phenomenon.

Wed Mar 21, 2018     PLACES IN THE SKY - MARCH

Of the eighty-eight officially recognized constellations, can you identify the seventeenth largest one? It is bordered on the north by Auriga and Perseus, on the south by Eridanus, on the west by Aries, and on the east by Orion. Within its borders are such deep sky objects as the Crab nebula, the Hyades star cluster, and the better-known Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. This constellation’s brightest star is Aldebaran, a red giant forty times larger than the sun. One of the oldest star patterns, in mythology this animal is sometimes seen as a representation of Zeus, who carried the princess Europa across the sea to Crete; or as the seventh labor of Hercules. Tonight the waxing crescent moon forms the southwestern corner of a triangle made between it and Aldebaran and the Pleiades cluster. Can you name this star figure, the second constellation of the zodiac? The answer is Taurus the Bull, currently visible in the western evening sky.

Thu Mar 22, 2018       LIGHT SPEED ZOOM OUT

Traveling at the speed of light, 186,000 miles a second, is impossible. Too bad. The moon is only a quarter of a million miles away. At the speed of light, you could get there in less than a second and a half. The light from the sun takes eight minutes to travel the 93 million mile distance to earth. Pluto is about four and a half light hours away. Frozen comets at the edge of our solar system, perhaps a trillion miles out, are nearly ten weeks away at speed-of-light travel. After that we come to the star Alpha Centauri, a little over four light years distant – that’s 25 trillion miles. The farthest stars in our Milky Way are over a hundred thousand light years away – that’s about 600 thousand trillion miles - and the nearest big galaxy, Andromeda, is maybe fifteen million trillion miles out – 2 and a half million light years. And the most remote quasars are over 12 billion light years away – 90 billion trillion miles – far out!

Fri Mar 23, 2018       MOON IN ORION

The first quarter moon can be found high in the southern sky after sunset tonight. It appears above the head of the constellation of Orion the Hunter, who in Greek mythology, was the son of the sea god Poseidon. Orion loved Artemis, the goddess of the moon and also of the hunt. Now Artemis had a brother, Apollo, the sun god, and he didn’t like Orion – not good enough for his sister, he decided. One day while Orion was swimming in the ocean, Apollo found his sister and pointed to Orion, who appeared as just a little dark speck way out at sea. He bet Artemis she couldn’t hit such a small target. And so she shot the far-off target with an arrow, not realizing it was Orion’s head. But Orion was a hero, so he was given immortality as a constellation of the night.  Once a month the moon travels through this part of the sky, and to the storytellers this was a time when Artemis could visit with her old hunting companion.

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Songs of Space and Time

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