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SKYWATCH with Jon Bell



Mon Jan 15, 2018     RIDDLES IN THE DARK

J.R.R. Tolkien was born on January 3rd, 1892. In his fantasy story, “The Hobbit,” the hero Bilbo meets a strange creature named Smeagol down in a deep cave, and the two play a game called, “riddles in the dark.” One of the riddles is this: “It cannot be seen, cannot be felt Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt. It lies behind stars and under hills And empty holes it fills.” And the answer is, “darkness.” Now, here’s an astronomy riddle I made up: “At weddings they appear; and at front doors it’s them we hear. They’re found on Elven hands and soda cans; ‘Round Saturn they appear.” And the answer is, “rings.” Let’s try another astronomy riddle. “It’s always on, and never off. It’s more when nearby, and less when far off; It keeps the sun from spilling out. And in the end, it stops us going up and about.” The answer is “gravity.” If you want to hear these riddles again, go to WQCS dot org, and you’ll find this podcast and a transcript.


In the southeastern sky after sunset there are three stars close together in a row that form the belt of Orion the Hunter.  Two stars above the belt mark Orion's shoulders, and two stars below the belt are his legs. Between Orion's belt and his legs there are a few faint stars which form the Hunter's sword.  If skies are dark enough, you can see that the star near the bottom of the sword looks fuzzy - a little out-of-focus.  To the Sik’si’ka or Blackfoot Indians of Montana, Alberta and Saskatchewan, this was "smoking star," and it represented a hero who saved his parents from injustice and rid the world of monsters. When you look at “smoking star” with binoculars, you will see it as a fuzzy object. Use a telescope with a little more magnification, and you can see the outlines of a large cloud, trillions of miles across. It is the Great Orion Nebula, which is lit up by bright stars within the cloud, which make it glow in the darkness of outer space.


231 years ago the astronomer William Herschel discovered Uranus' moons Titania and Oberon. Herschel was a self-taught astronomer and telescope maker; but his day job was as church organist in Bath, England. Herschel composed music, and was the first to conduct Handel’s oratorio, “Messiah,” in Bath. But like many educated people, he dabbled in other pursuits, and astronomy was his passion. He built his own telescopes, and was so good at it that colleagues were amazed to find that his handmade instruments were far superior to the ones commercially available at the time.  It was with just such a telescope that he became the first person in history to discover another planet telescopically, in 1781. He suggested naming it George, after the king of England. But eventually it became known as Uranus. And six years later, on January 11th, 1787, his improved observations led to the discovery of its two largest moons.

Thu Jan 18, 2018     THE PLEIADES

Near the top of the sky this early evening, you’ll find a small, distinctive group of stars known as the Seven Sisters. Even with street lights shining, you can find them, although the serious light pollution problems we experience here reduces the Seven Sisters down to just two or three, or possibly they may look like a little smudge overhead. But if you can get away from the bright lights, you’ll see between six to eight stars here, arranged in a very tiny dipper shape. In Greek mythology, the Seven Sisters were the Pleiades, the daughters of Atlas, on whose shoulders the world rested. To the Seneca Indians, they were seven dancing sisters, who would not gather in food during the harvest, and so were carried in the arms of the West Wind, who placed them in the heavens where they became stars. But the Maya called these stars Itzab, the tail of the rattlesnake. Binoculars aimed at the Pleiades will reveal over a dozen stars, and astronomers have counted hundreds of stars in this open cluster.

Fri Jan 19, 2018     JOHANNE BODE AND BODE’S LAW

Today is Johanne Bode’s 271st birthday. In 1772 he advanced a mathematical theory which suggested the presence of additional planets in our solar system, beyond the seven that were known of at that time. Start at zero, then skip to 3, then 6, and now keep on doubling the number. Then add 4 to each of those numbers and finally, divide by ten, giving you .4, .7, 1, 1.6, 2.4, 4.8, and 9.6. Those are roughly the spacings between the planets, expressed as astronomical units, the average earth-sun distance. This theory, called Bode’s Law, is quasi-scientific. It doesn’t work every time, and it’s not particularly exact, but it did point to a gap between the orbits of Mars, which is 1.6 astronomical units, or au’s, out, and Jupiter, at 4.8 au’s. The gap is between Mars and Jupiter, at 2.4 au’s. Astronomers began the search for the proposed missing planet, and on January 1st, 1801, the Sicilian astronomer Father Giuseppe Piazzi used a telescope to discover 500 mile-wide Ceres, the largest rock in the asteroid belt.


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Songs of Space and Time

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