Here They Come!

Here They Come!

Perhaps you’ve been watching the amazing Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Cosmos television series? Last night, he touched on the fact that stars have long been used as a calendar, indicating when new seasons are around the bend [get planting, you!]. Certain constellations are tightly tied with seasons–such as Orion and Winter.

Less than 45 miles from Indianapolis, Brown County State Park is flooded with light pollution.

Less than 45 miles from Indianapolis, Brown County State Park is flooded with light pollution.

This winter, I’d been fussing about how slowly Orion moves. He’d climb over the eastern mountains, dangle over the Golden Gate Bridge [from the Marin Headlands, of course], and all and all, be a slow poke about his waltz across the sky. My impatience, stemming from the fact that I don’t usually look at the winter night sky, kept growing. It’s so difficult to live in a place where the temperature is mild year round [Ha! But I don’t ever feel warm.]. We made several trips up to Kneeland, a patch of human-created prairie where the astronomy club meets, this winter to stand in a forest of telescopes and gawk with like-minded folks and only encountered nippy conditions, but no frostbite.  To me, looking at the stars says very loudly SUMMER! My brain, in that warm, wind-swept prairie of South Dakota-mode, wondered why long underwear was necessary, and why the stars weren’t as familiar. Sirius? Isn’t that some form of radio?? Aldebaran? Don’t you mean Altair? And who is this Orion fellow anyway? Hercules! Hercules! [In my defense, my star gazing occurs between the hours of 9 and 12 pm–no early morning viewings for me, hence the missing the “other” part of the sky.]

So last night, after what feels like a long winter [probably since there was hardly any rain–hardly a winter!], the Big Dipper pointed to two bright stars [and one planet] creeping over the eastern mountains–Arcturus and Spica [and Mars–that’s a story for another day]! Summer stars, the stars I’m most familiar with, were shining and climbing. Soon they will be directly overhead, crowning the night skies of summer. Good Bye Orion! Good Bye Stars of Winter!

Orion sinks into the Pacific [center left], Sirius, the brightest star we see, glows in foggy conditions [left]. Taurus and the Pleiades follow to the right. All of these are topped by the Milky Way running horizontally across the top of the photo.  The orange glow of Eureka competes with the blue light from the Trinidad Head Lighthouse [on right].

Even with some light pollution but less-densely populated, we are lucky to live in such a dark area. Orion sinks into the Pacific [center left], Sirius, the brightest star we see, glows in foggy conditions [left]. Taurus and the Pleiades follow to the right. All of these are topped by the Milky Way running horizontally across the top of the photo. The orange glow of Eureka competes with the blue light from the Trinidad Head Lighthouse [on right].

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Looking Up at Stars [and Over at Wildfires]

Star photography produces interesting glimpses of our skies, almost like pulling back a thick, dark curtain from your eyes. My favorite way to think of long exposure photography is, instead of unrealistically portraying a scene, it shows a world in which we live, but don’t see due to our perception of time.

Fires are at our pace–quick to burn, their duration is measurable within our frame of reference. This fire in particular might burn until winter, but likely we will be able to mark the end on our calendars.

On the other hand, stars are not as measurable. They may burn out during our lifetime, but our perception of those events are delayed. When we look up at the sky, we are seeing the past, not perceiving the present moment. An example is the North Star, known also as Polaris [a group of five stars, actually!], that currently serves as a pole star, ‘around’ which the Earth’s axis of rotation currently spins. The star group is 323 light-years away, meaning the light from those stars is 323 years old by the time it reaches us. Not only is it old light, but its role as pole star has not always been so. In 100 years or so, the axis will shift to another star, as it has in the past. In fact, somewhere around 300 BC, the axis rotated around an area of space without visible stars!

It is amazing to think that, as a free natural resource that inspires wonder, awe, and provokes us to think about the possibility of life off of our planet, the night sky isn’t seen by nearly 80% of Americans due to light pollution from suburban areas! [from: http://www.darksky.org/assets/documents/Nightscape/NS89%20news%20high-res2.pdf] And on a more altruistic level, our light pollution affects many species of wildlife, from lightning bugs to sea turtles.