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SKYWATCH with Jon Bell

Mon June 18, 2018      MOON AND LEO

Tonight the waxing crescent moon is near the star Regulus, in the constellation of Leo the lion. Regulus appears to the west of the moon. Other stars above the moon form a backwards question mark shape, with Regulus at the bottom of the question mark. This is the mane and head of the lion, while a small triangle of stars above and to the left of the moon form Leo's back and tail. Regulus itself marks the lion’s heart, and this star was probably named by the astronomer Copernicus back in the 16th century, derived from the Latin “rex” for “king” – kings are regal after all. In ancient Greek mythology, Leo was the Nemean lion, which had leaped from the moon down to Earth and terrorized the country. No arrow could pierce its hide, and sticks and clubs would splinter across its durable back. The hero Hercules had to fight this lion with his bare hands. After a long struggle, the lion was vanquished, and Hercules carried it back up into the sky.


Sir William Parsons was born on June 17th in the year 1800. Forty years later, he built the Irish Leviathan. At sixteen tons, and with a primary mirror six feet across, the Leviathan would remain the world’s largest telescope for the next seventy years. It was so big that it couldn’t be rotated, so by leaning the instrument east to west, Parsons could observe objects for over a half hour. The Irish Leviathan was so powerful that he could actually see individual stars in distant galaxies like M51, the Whirlpool, roughly 40 million light years away! A lot of the colorful descriptive names of nebulas and galaxies were made up by Parsons – the whirlpool galaxy, the crab nebula, the Saturn nebula. After Parsons died, his son continued his work, but his grandson had no interest in astronomy, and Leviathan was dismantled, its metal supports melted down for ammunition during the First World War. But it was rebuilt in 1999.

Wed June 20, 2018        ANCIENT SUN TEMPLES

Stonehenge was built over forty centuries ago; it’s one of over a thousand circles of standing stones that can be found throughout the British Isles and Europe. On the first day of summer, the sun rises over an outlying heelstone, as viewed through a central arch of stones. Other old observatories around the world mark the sun’s seasonal positions. In ancient Egypt, temples were built so that at the summer solstice, the sun’s rays shone through tall columns to sanctuaries within. At the Bighorn medicine wheel in Wyoming, piles of carefully placed stones pointed toward the summer sunrise. For hundreds of years in New Mexico, a slender ray of sunlight – the sun dagger of the Anasazi – sliced through a petroglyph spiral on the first day of summer. And there is the Sun Temple, built by the Incas at Machu Pichu – but of course Peru is south of the equator, and now it is the winter solstice sun that is framed in this ancient observatory’s window.

Thur June 21, 2018       FIRST DAY OF SUMMER

Summer officially begins today at 6:07 a.m., Eastern Daylight Savings time. It’s at this precise time that the sun can be found shining directly overhead at local noon, not here in Florida, but as seen from a point on the Tropic of Cancer at twenty-three and a half degrees North latitude, in northern Africa. When it’s local noon here, the sun will be as high in the sky as possible for our latitude. We’re at 27½ degrees North here, so at midday the sun will be about 4 degrees south of our zenith. Today is called the summer solstice, as the sun stops its northerly progression; sol stice – sun stop. It also marks the longest period of daylight and the shortest period of night in the year, at least in Earth’s northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, winter has begun. For the next six months the sun’s altitude at noon will drop and then we’ll be at the winter solstice.

Fri June 22, 2018      PLUTO AND ITS MOONS

On June 21st, 1978, Pluto's moon Charon was discovered by the American astronomer James Christy. In mythology, Pluto was god of the underworld. Charon was his ferryman, who transported souls across the river Styx to the other side. Styx is another, more recently discovered moon, along with three more – Hydra, Nix and Kerberos. Charon is the biggest one though, it’s about half the size of Pluto. So when it orbits this distant world, Charon's mass has a substantial effect on Pluto, pulling it first one way, and then the other. The two are often referred to as a double planet, because their common center of gravity lies between them. Three summers ago, a space probe flew past Pluto and Charon, and sent back incredible pictures and information – ice mountains two miles high, vast nitrogen ice plains, and mysterious dark patches on Pluto’s farside. If you visit the website NASA dot gov, and enter the word “Pluto” in the search box, you can see these pictures for yourself.

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Music Notes

Songs of Space and Time

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