Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Time in a Bottle

12/31/06 – 1/6/06
by C. Zaitz

I’ve been thinking about time. I celebrated Christmas with my parents in Adams Basin, New York. Adams Basin is a little cross roads, but it has a tiny Post Office, a church, and a Little Red Schoolhouse. It is also recognized as the place where George Washington’s drummer boy was buried. In 1976 I was a little Brownie Girl Scout, marching in the Bicentennial parade, when America celebrated 200 years as a nation. We stopped at the little hill cemetery where the crooked slabs of marble poked out of the ground like broken teeth. People who had lived so long ago were buried there, their names long since erased by rain and wind. I grew up in an old house where the land was rich with buried bottles of different colors and shapes that would turn up every spring after roto-tilling. Every time we’d find a bottle, it was an exciting link to the past and the history of the little burg.

This past year I have learned a lot about time and different ways to think about it. Geology has taught me that time can be read like a mystery novel. Rock and dirt layers write the past in paragraphs of time, with overlapping plots and buried clues, like my bottles. Astronomy often depicts time as an arrow. The point of the arrow is in your brain, and the feathers are at the object whose light you are seeing. Locally, time’s arrow is straight and true, traveling only in one direction, from past to present to future. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is an expression of how we all feel about time- it tends to flow, like heat or energy, from concentrated to spread out, like light leaving the sun.

However, we have found that gravity and speed can change time, as Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity has stated. Traveling at nearly the speed of light can really slow down time for you. So can getting too close to the gravity of a black hole. If you were standing at a distance watching someone “fall in” to a black hole, they would appear to slow down and stop right at the edge, and you’d never actually see them fall in due to the stretching of time. Apparently time can be touched, time can be changed. Time is perceived.

My education courses reminded me that time must be used wisely, as teachers have a lot of work to do in a short period of time. Organization and planning must be the tools of an effective teacher, or an effective person. In this case, time is a commodity, and we are always trying to buy more. Sometimes we all need a mini black hole to slow down time for us.

On a personal note, this year has been one full of changes for me, from job loss to full time school and training, and now I will begin student teaching. I am grateful to those of you who have expressed support for the work I do in astronomy outreach, both by writing and by teaching in the planetarium. It is the one thing I hold on to through all the changes, and if I could keep the warm feelings I get from sharing astronomy in a bottle, I would, but since the only way to really “keep” moments of time is to share them, I will continue to do so as long as I can.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Circle of Stars

12/24/06 – 12/30/06
by C.Zaitz

What a lovely time of year to see the stars. It’s always been said that winter stargazing is the best stargazing of all. The sky is dark right after dinner, and is lazy to get bright again the next morning, giving us the longest nights of the year. With our mild winter so far, it’s not such a task to spend a few minutes looking heaven-ward.

What’s up there to see? Looking south, you’ll see the “wreath” - seven stars that form a ring in the winter sky. Some call it the “winter circle.” It’s so sparkly bright, I like to think of it as a wreath of candles sparkling all night long. Four of these seven stars are in the top ten list of bright stars of all time.

Let’s start with the Bull’s eye. Though it’s only the 13th brightest in the sky, it’s a noticeable star. Aldebaran is the name of the pink-tinged eye of Taurus, the Bull. Since we’re starting our circle with this star, let’s be sure we know which one it is. Use the three stars of Orion’s belt, from east to west, to make an arrow that points up to it. It’s the top star of a V-shape of stars, outlining the face of Taurus. From there, you can look back at Orion’s foot, a bright blue-white star called Rigel, from the Arabic ar-rijl, “the foot.” That’s one hot foot! Rigel is much hotter than our own sun, and the 7th brightest in the sky. Now we are going clockwise around the circle, and the next stop is the most serious one of all. It’s Sirius, the number one brightest star in the whole night sky. Sirius is also nick-named “the dog star” due to its position as the wet, shiny nose of Canis Major, the big dog. Now we are east of Orion, and can look up from Sirius to another bright star in a dog constellation. This time it’s the little dog, Canis Minor. The star’s name is Procyon, which means “before the dog” referring to the fact that Procyon rises slightly before Sirius, the dog star. It’s the 8th brightest star in the sky.

We are halfway around, and the next two stars are the Twins. Castor and Pollux, the twin boys of the god Zeus disguised as a swan, and Leda. The two stars are inseparable, just as the twins were during their life, so the stories go. At the top of the circle is a bright star called Capella. It’s very high up in the sky, and it is the 6th brightest star in the sky. Its name means “she-goat.” It is part of a constellation named “Auriga” which sounds a little like Orion, who is just below him. Auriga is a Charioteer, but he is holding baby goats in his arms, known as “the kids.” They are a cute little triangle of faint stars near Capella, who must then be the Momma goat.

And then there’s the famous star Betelgeuse, though it lies more toward the middle of the circle. It is the 10th brightest star in the sky. As the shoulder (or more literally, “armpit”) of Orion, it shouldn’t be forgotten in our winter stargazing.

I hope you enjoy the embracing wreath of winter stars, as you enjoy the embraces of family and friends this holiday. Joy and peace to you all!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Here's a website with a good depiction of the Winter Circle.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Light of the World

12/17/06 – 12/23/06
by C. Zaitz

I’ll admit it right now, I think I’m in the throes of SAD, the seasonal affect disorder, or at the very least, I’m pining after sunlight. Usually I love to see all the lights and decorations at this time of year. I have strings of “stars” hanging in my porch, twinkling on and off, and my neighbors have decorated with strings and strings of colored lights, wicker light-covered deer that appear to graze, and those blow-up Santas and snow-globe scenes. Perhaps I’ve grown cynical, but sometimes it all seems like too much.

Light can be good, but too much of anything can be bad. We live in a place where bigger seems to be better, where we want more of everything. I have a neighbor who has pretty much covered every square inch of her front yard with some glowing bit of plastic or twinkling light. Sure, it makes your mouth gape, but a little of the surprise and wonder is tinged with horror, as we remember the energy dials clicking and our hard earned money flying right up to the sky. So this year, I’m wondering if we can all spend a moment or two thinking about the ways we can avoid wasting resources. At the risk of sounding like Scrooge crossed with the Grinch, I wish we could tone down the outer displays and work on our inner lights, spreading around cheer and goodwill in a more personal way.

That’s a tall order, especially for someone like me who is pining for cheer and light. But think of the benefits of being able to walk out on your front porch with your kids and point to the Pleiades, that beautiful little cluster of stars that hangs on the edge of visibility in our light polluted skies. Or to be able to see Polaris, the North Star, and talk about who might be standing under the North Star at this time of year, working hard for all the good little girls and boys. Polaris is not a very bright star, and can be washed out by our street lights. It is the end star of the Little Dipper, but most of the stars of the Little Dipper are also washed out by light pollution.

I’m not suggesting we turn off all our lights; that would be sad. But perhaps we can resist the urge to “outdo” our neighbors and find other ways to show our Christmas spirit. Here’s something you can share with your neighbors as you are coming in from your long days of working, shopping, and surviving. See if you can find Orion’s belt in the sky, use a finger to draw a line up from the lowest star, straight across the three stars and beyond, until you find another bright star in a V-shaped group. This star is named Aldebaran. It’s the eye of Taurus, the Bull. On Taurus’ back ride the Pleiades (usually pronounced PLEE-a-dees), the little cluster of stars I mentioned. If you have a pair of binoculars, take the time to look through them. I predict you will be delighted. They are prettier than any diamonds in the jewelry store, and they have a lot of history and mythology associated with them. Sharing that with your family can be priceless!

I wish you all a very merry and cheery holiday season, with or without lights, but mostly I wish you peace and happiness.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Elusive Green Stars

12/10/06 – 12/16/06
by C. Zaitz

Stars come in different colors. We’ve all heard about “red giants” and “white dwarfs”, blue hot stars and orange cool stars. But what about green stars? Where are all the green stars? Our streets and houses are lit up this time of year with lights of red, blue, purple, green, orange and yellow. The stars come in those colors too, all but green. So what’s wrong with green stars?

Green is a great color. It's my mom’s favorite color, so I usually buy her clothes with green in them to make her happy. Green is the color of life, of plants and trees. Grass bleeds green when you cut it, and to me the color even "smells" like freshly cut grass. Green is the color of ”go” and avocados, girl scouts and money. Green is great. But not in stars. Our sun radiates energy mostly in the green part of the spectrum, so technically it would be a green star, if stars could look green. But they can’t. Why not?

Remember Roy G. Biv? Scientists have done away with color indigo for the most part, so it could be shortened to Roy Gbv, but that’s not as memorable, and hard to pronounce. Roy is the red end of the spectrum, and Biv is the blue end. Green is right in the middle of the light spectrum, and that is the problem. We can easily see when a star’s energy peaks in the red end of the spectrum. Most of the light we can see is reddish, so these cooler stars often appear red, even to the naked eye. The star Betelgeuse in the right shoulder of Orion is a classic red giant star. Very hot stars can peak in the blue end of the spectrum, giving them a bluish-white cast. The star diagonal from Betelgeuse in Orion’s left foot is called Rigel, and it is a very large, hot, bluish star. When you compare the tint of these two stars in the sky, it’s pretty easy to see the difference. However, since green is smack dab in the middle of the spectrum, when a star sends out most of its radiation in that wavelength, it is also sending out almost as much in the adjacent wavelengths. So all the colors- the reds, greens and blues- all mix together and make white. If we looked at our sun from above the atmosphere it would look white. In the sky it often appears yellow, or even red near the horizon. This is not because the sun has changed color. It is because the air is scattering blue light to make the sky blue, and the color that’s left when you take light blue out of white is yellow. Later on, as the light from the sun has to pass through a lot of atmosphere at sunset, most of the blue light has been scattered out of the sunlight, and only the long reddish wavelengths are left, giving us really rich sunsets.

If you want to see pretty Betelgeuse and bright Rigel, wait a little while after sunset, and you will see the three bright stars of Orion’s Belt. They are, from east to west, Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. Betelgeuse is above Alnitak, and Rigel is below Mintaka. All three stars in the belt are white-blue stars, very hot and very big. You can look for a green star among the thousands up there, but unless you’re wearing green-tinted glasses, you won’t find one!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

What's on the Radio?

12/3/06 – 12/9/06
by C. Zaitz

We’ve all seen the dish. They have popped up like mushrooms all over the place. Even colleges and universities have them. However, some dishes that look like TV satellite dishes may actually be radio telescopes. They collect radio waves from the universe. I know that sounds funny, as if you could hear the universe on your radio, but I should clarify. Radio waves are very different from the sounds coming from your radio.

When we point big dishes up to the sky, even a satellite TV dish, we are collecting electromagnetic radiation in the form of radio waves. These are very long waves that can pass through our bodies without as much as a tingle. One wave can be as long as a city block, or as short as your shoe size. The radio station you listen to has to change electronic signals into carrier waves, which travel through the air. When these waves, which are flying all over the place harmlessly, get to the tuner in your radio, they are changed back into a signal that is amplified and modified. These signals produce vibrations on a speaker in your radio. It’s the sound pressure waves from the speaker going in and out quickly that reach your ear and your brain interprets as Mozart or Green Day. Pretty cool.

Sound waves cannot travel in space, since they need a medium (air) to vibrate in order to travel. The beauty of radio waves is that all they need is the original energy source that set them off. They can travel from one end of the universe to the other. Sure, they’ll lose some energy if they travel a long way, but we can still collect them if we have a big enough dish. That’s why we build giant radio dishes. One of the most famous ones was built in an old meteor crater in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Nature hollowed out a big hole for us, and we stuck a dish in it and collect radio waves from all sorts of interesting objects.

Another cool thing about radio waves is that they can penetrate clouds and dust. Many other wavelengths, like much of the infrared and ultraviolet waves, as well as gamma and X-rays, are blocked by our atmosphere. But radio waves can go through clouds, even clouds of dust in space. Light can’t do that, so our picture of the universe in radio waves can sometimes be clearer than optical images. So what do we look at in radio waves?

The sun is a great producer of radio waves. In radio wavelengths, we see sunspots and solar flares that we might not see in visible light. Beyond the sun, there are stars and galaxies that produce radio waves. In fact, some objects emit more energy in radio waves than in light, so radio astronomy has opened up a new window on the universe. Galaxies that emitted strongly in the radio spectrum were the first clues to finding black holes and quasars. The Cosmic Background Radiation, the lynchpin in the theory of the Big Bang, was discovered by radio technology back in the 1960’s. Radio astronomy is still going strong today, and since radio dishes are relatively inexpensive and easy to build, even some schools and amateur astronomy clubs have them. So the next time your hear about a radio telescope, you’ll know that they are looking at, not listening to, the universe!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

How’s the Weather?

11/26/06 – 12/2/06
by C. Zaitz

It’s the time of year when people start wondering about El Nino and what kind of winter we’re going to have. When I was younger, I would roll my eyes when my parents would ask, "how's the weather." Now, because I’m six hours due west of them, it’s fun to see how long it takes our weather to get to Rochester, New York. Weather tends to move from northwest to east in the United States. What Canada brings us, we send along to them, with a little Ontario “lake effect snow” for excitement.

If we lived on the western side of Michigan, we’d get lake effect snow as well. ”Lake effect” happens as air moves over a large body of water and picks up warmth and water vapor. As the air moves onto land, it cools off. Cooler air can’t hold as much humidity as warmer air, so it precipitates out and falls as snow. Our weather in Metro Detroit has to cross the whole Michigan Mitten before it reaches us, and by then it’s had time to dry out. Our snow fall is much more reasonable than snowfall in Traverse City, since it’s the lee shore of the lakes that gets the brunt of lake effect snow, sometimes spectacularly. I remember some awesome snowstorms and school closings growing up.

Nowadays there’s talk about El Nino. Simply put, it’s a combination of ocean and air changes that effect climate in a far-reaching area. If the Pacific Ocean has a higher than normal near-surface temperature for an extended period of time, it causes climate changes not only across North America, but around the globe. The combination of the warmer ocean along with changes it produces in air currents cause circulation to change, trade winds to alter, and weather reflects the changes.

The west coast may get more rain, and the Midwest can be drier during an El Nino period. But in Michigan, we get a milder winter. I’m not complaining. By now you’ve probably guessed I’m not a fan of snow, storms, or clouds. After growing up with lake effect snow and bad sinuses, I long for hot, dry and sunny. I’d be happy if I never had to blow my nose again. But it seems with El Nino and the effects of global warming, Michigan just might be the place to be. Folks in California may be under water, along with the east coast. The Midwest will be on fire, but in Michigan, we’re sitting pretty. Michigan may be the new Georgia.

I don’t mean to make light of a serious situation, but the more we learn about the earth’s climate systems, the more we should be ready for changes. We have already seen rising global temperatures over the past decade, and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere currently surpass any we’ve seen in the last 650,000 years. If a lot of volcanoes happen to erupt in the next decades, we’re sunk! It won’t be a giant asteroid that does us in, it will be our proclivity for spouting CO2 into the air. Google “Venus” if you want to see what happens next.

Speaking of Venus, she’s going to make her return to the evening twilight in December, so keep your eyes peeled for her bright orb to appear near the sunset as the month wears on.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

In the Twinkle of a Star

11/19/06 – 11/26/06
by C. Zaitz

Have you ever wondered why the stars twinkle? We all know the song by heart, but it never really tells us why they twinkle, twinkle. The song wonders what they are, the little twinkling stars. I don’t want to ruin the song for anyone, but there are answers to both questions.

We don’t have to go very far to study a star. There’s one about 8 minutes away (going at the speed of light, of course). Traveling 70 mph, it would take us 1,328,571 hours, or 55,357 days, or 152 years!

Luckily we don’t have to go there. We can collect information from the sun just by standing outside with a telescope or other device to collect its light. The information we gather tells us the story of the Sun. It’s a middle-aged star, fusing hydrogen atoms in its core to produce enough energy and light to keep its planets warm and cozy. Well, not all its planets, just the lucky closer ones.

All stars are giant collections of atoms, mostly hydrogen. Stars are so mammoth that the great pressures near their centers allow for normally repulsive forces to be overcome and for atoms to fuse into new elements like oxygen and carbon. In fact, without the stars’ atom-fusing abilities, we’d have been a pretty boring universe of hydrogen and helium with a sprinkling of lithium for spice. No mercury, gold or silver. They came later, from stars.

So when you look up at the stars, you can think of them as giant element-producing ovens, getting very hot from churning out planet-making elements like silicon and nitrogen, stuff that ends up as sand and air. Think of that next time you’re on the beach, looking at the pretty sunset. It all came from some star, ancestor to our own sun.

While we’re at the beach, we can also figure out why stars twinkle. Just look into the water. See how the pebbles on the bottom seem to jump and hop around as the waves wash over them? The water is the medium that the light must travel through to get to our eyes. Light likes to go straight in a vacuum, but will change speed or direction in thicker stuff, like air or water, especially if they are moving. The water at the beach is moving a lot, so the pebbles seem to jump around madly. The air is also moving and therefore “bending” light, but not as much, since it is much less dense than water.

However, there is much more air above us than below us. There is a veritable ocean of air above us, and we must look through this “ocean” to see the stars. The starlight may have been traveling in the vacuum of space for millions of years, steady and true, all the way to earth. But when it gets to our atmosphere, it gets jostled, nudged and pushed around by moving air currents. By the time we get to see it, starlight can be jumping around like a drop of water on a hot frying pan. In winter, the atmosphere is often more turbulent, so you will see lots of twinkling and winking of starlight. It’s annoying in a telescope, but can be very pretty to the naked eye. So while you’re humming the song, you can enjoy the very distant stars twinkling and making someone a new beach!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Games People Play

11/5/06 – 11/11/06
by C. Zaitz

I was out on a night hike last week with one of my classes. We did not use flashlights, but there was a half moon fading in and out of stratocumulus clouds. The focus of the evening was on screech owls, so the moon was just a big sky-flashlight. Unfortunately, the owls were not in the mood to return the melodic and persistent calls of our interpreter. We did hear the rumbles from the constant parade of planes flying into Metro Airport and the distant snarls of a raccoon squabble, but otherwise it was a pretty quiet and uneventful tramp.

So to amuse myself, I played a game which I call, “identify the star without any other reference but the moon.” Over the course of the walk, one or two stars at a time would shine through the clouds. My rules were that I had to figure out which star I was looking at out of the thousands of possibilities, with no constellation patterns to help, and no directions other than my knowledge of the time of night and the position of the moon.

Could you do it? Where would you start? I saw a bright star pretty high up in the sky. I thought of the brightest stars that are up after sunset in the autumn. There are less than a dozen, but they are scattered over the sky. I needed to know where I was looking, and though our path was constantly changing and twisting, I had a compass in the sky - the moon.

I saw half a moon in the sky. My first clue: half a moon seen in the early evening must mean a first quarter moon, waxing. I knew that its shiny side was facing the sun, and though the sun had already gone down, the moon was still pointing to it. I couldn’t see the glow from sunset due to the trees, but if I bisected the bright side of the moon, the line that I drew would point to the sun. Where that line met the horizon would be pretty close to west, since in the autumn the sun sets nearly due west. It’s not precise, but close enough for my game.

Once I knew that the bright star was high up in the west, I had arrived in the ballpark. I knew that my choices would be from the bright stars setting in the early evening, probably one from the Summer Triangle. Most likely Vega, the brightest of the three stars of the triangle. At this point it was a gut feeling, because it also might have been Deneb, but it just “felt” like Vega. Of course, when the clouds cleared enough for me to catch a glimpse of Deneb, I knew I was right. I sat under a cloud of smug for at least 30 seconds, until I went on to a different part of the sky. By the end of the tramp, the whole constellation of Pegasus was visible and so ended my game. Too easy!

Later I thought about how it might not have been such a game for people through history who were lost in the woods. I also remembered how eerie it can be in the dark with strange sounds and naught but the moon to illuminate your way. I was glad I had made friends with the sky a long time ago.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Music of the Spheres

10/29/06 – 11/4/06
C. Zaitz

It’s noisy out there in the solar system. The Moon is ringing like a giant basalt bell. Meteors and asteroids (and human-made spaceships) striking our cosmic companion cause its rigid mass to jiggle in waves that could be translated into sound, and if there was some air or other medium to bring those sound waves to our ears, we could hear the Moon ringing.

The Sun is also making noise, though from a very different cause. The end result is the same; both objects are oscillating in such a way that if we could hear the waves at those frequencies, we would hear them both “humming” like the high voltage lines that supply our homes with electricity. There are several websites that house the sounds of the sun as audio files. If you like watching snowy channels on TV, maybe you’d be interested in hearing the sun. Otherwise, I think it may be more interesting to note that if you were standing near the sun, you wouldn’t hear a thing. You’d also be vaporized.

Sound comes to our ear drums in pressure waves, transmitted through the air around us. Think of holding a slinky between your hands on a table, pushing your right hand toward and away from your left. You’ve made a wave formed by compressing and stretching the slinky, which is how a sound wave moves. Light waves are more like the sinusoidal wave you can make with the slinky if you move your right hand toward and away from your body. It’s a snake-like wave with crests and valleys. Light can travel through a vacuum like space, because it propagates itself. But sound needs a medium. That’s why we often say that there is no sound in space, because there is no air to transmit the sound waves.

However, that doesn’t mean that crafty humans can’t devise ways to “hear” all the energy waves in space. In fact, we are so clever at adapting information to our senses that we have been able to “see” and “hear” phenomenon like the ringing of the moon or the boiling of the sun. We play with the electromagnetic spectrum to see the universe in wavelengths beyond even what a snake or butterfly can see, and we stretch or compress the frequencies of space to hear beyond the range of even the perkiest Border Collie.

It’s true that the sound of the sun isn’t as exciting as Beethoven’s 9th, but we still get a lot of valuable information about the sun’s interior by watching and hearing it jiggle and vibrate. There’s a lot about the sun that we need to understand, so we keep our “ears on” when it comes to the sun. We also listen to empty space for any sign of non-natural activity, but so far, no alien top 40 lists have been heard in the frequencies we’re tuned into.

While you are listening to the sounds of space, don’t forget to look for comet Swan in the evening sky after sunset. Look to the west. If you see a bright star with a bit of an orange-y hue, you have spotted Arcturus. Look up from there for a little fuzzy spot. It’s possible you may see it even without a telescope or binoculars, but it’s always better to have a little optical help.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Solar sounds can be heard at:
Sounds of space:

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Simple Pleasures

10/22 - 10/28

C. Zaitz

Fall is the time of year when we often feel most rushed. Work, school, and family can drain us, while the weather reminds us that harshness is coming. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and to let stress get the better of us. But I notice that every glimpse of the sky I get, whether it’s on the way to let the dog out in the morning, or just coming home after 10 hours of school at night, gives me a rush of peace. I know that’s a strange phrase, “rush of peace,” but I don’t know how else to describe it.

Do you ever get that? In our stressful daily lives, it’s rare that we get to take a deep breath and be in the moment. Maybe a glimpse of something bigger and more beautiful than the blocked up freeway under construction at 9pm on a Tuesday gives me a temporary disconnect from the stress. To me that’s invaluable.

So I thought about how the sky can give us pleasure. Even our light-polluted night skies can remind us that there are wonderful things more amazing than any bizarre behavior we experience in our daily lives. Here’s a few beautiful, refreshing things to think about when we catch a glimpse of the sky as we go about our busy lives.

First of all, it’s interesting and not coincidental that blue is a color that tends to calm us, and that the daytime sky is blue. I think looking at a clear daytime sky gives us a better chance for having a good day. Not all planets have a blue sky. Mars comes the closest, but its thin and dusty atmosphere cannot give any potential Martians the deep blues and violets of a clear fall day here on Earth. Rusty red, pinkish-grey and pale grey-blue skies have been “seen” by the robots we’ve sent to Mars. The ruddy colors come from dust storms, not a pretty sunset, so there is little chance for calm in Martian skies. Venus is a washout. Its thick, harsh atmosphere would burn and crush us before we could even open our eyes to look at the sky. We’re lucky to have such a pretty sky, and since we are equipped to enjoy it, let us!

What about the moon? Seeing the bright moon in the sky can remind us that even though things change, even as the moon waxes and wanes, she still calmly orbits, shines with the sun’s light, and follows the inevitable laws of nature. That can be comforting. It’s probable that without the moon, there may have ever been life on our planet. Thanks, moon!

And the stars, the glorious stars. They live and die in such long cycles that our lifetimes are naught but a puff of wind in a hurricane. They are basically element-fusing machines, and we can owe our existence to their efforts. The long dead star that gave birth to our own solar system can be seen all around us in the gold, silver and lead that were all created in a supernova explosion. Our 4.5 billion year old solar system is a baby compared with the universe, which is about 13.7 billion years old. So as much as we feel that there is no time, the truth is that there is plenty of time to enjoy our lives, even if it’s in a “rush of peace.”

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Comet SWAN

10/17/06 – 10/23/06
by C. Zaitz

There’s a comet in the sky, and its name is SWAN. It’s time to dust off those binoculars and point them halfway between the bowl of the Big Dipper and the bright star Arcturus in the evening sky. If you want to find Arcturus, you can trace an arc off the handle of the Dipper and “arc to Arcturus.” Both Arcturus and the Big Dipper will be skimming the horizon, so if you happen to sport tall trees or a roof to the north, you might not spot the comet.

Many of us remember the comets of 1996-7, Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp. They were fabulous and awe-inspiring. I was living in Yonkers, NY at the time, and remember lying on the hood of my car in the chill Westchester air, feeling the warmth of the engine and seeing the comet streaking its enormous glowing tail across the sky. You might remember where you were when you saw the comets, too. It’s rare to have two such beautiful naked-eye comets in the sky within a year. Comet SWAN is not in the same league with those comets, but it’s always interesting to spot one in the sky.

It’s not hard to make a “comet.” We can start with something to represent the nucleus, or the heart of the comet. Spectral analysis has identified major ingredients in comets: Water, ammonia, organic molecules, and silicates. For silicates, we can use sand, dirt, or my favorite: kitty litter. Then add a little ammonia. A good squirt or two of Windex will do. For the organic molecules use whatever is handy; Karo syrup, sugar, or a leftover can of Coke. Pour all those ingredients together and what do you get? A mess, and a very warm comet. We forgot the ice! Comets are cold. They live in the outer regions of the solar system, so far from the sun that they have remained relatively untouched, unmelted and unsullied for the lifetime of the solar system, some 4.5 billion years.

So to make a comet, it’s handy to have a tank of liquid carbon dioxide. You could use regular ice, or you could get a chunk of dry ice from a local supplier, but the beauty of the pressurized tank of liquid CO2 is when it shoots out the nozzle, the pressure is released, it expands rapidly and gets very cold. It becomes dry ice snow, which is easier to play with than a chunk of dry ice. You can grab handfuls of it (wearing thick gloves, of course!) and smush it into your comet. A little water for sticking and mixing purposes, and you’ve got a pretty, dirty, cold and steamy comet. As it melts, the dry ice sublimates to gas and makes a bit of a comet tail. Perfect!

When you look at comet SWAN through binoculars, you will see a bright nucleus and perhaps the fuzzy tail. The comet has just journeyed around the sun, so its tail is prominent. By the way, comet SWAN is not just another pretty bird in the sky. Its name comes from the Solar Wind ANisotropy experiment which first discovered it. We’ve noticed that instead of being the same everywhere (isotropic) the wind behaves more like a plasma ball- the kind you see in a novelty store, with filaments and structure. You can think of the comet’s tail being swept back by that solar wind as you peer at it in the night sky.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Hot Pockets

10/10 - 10/16
by C. Zaitz

It was just announced that two Americans, John Mather and George Smoot, won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics. They were doing their part to confirm the theory that the universe began in a wild, hot expansion that started from nearly nothing and ended up as the present gigantic universe we see today.

It’s been known since the 1920s is that the universe is expanding. Before that, we had the idea that the universe was a steady state place, where nothing really changed. But Edwin Hubble noticed that galaxies were rushing away from the Milky Way, and the farther away they were, the faster they were going. Either that meant that we were the center of the universe, or that the space between galaxies was growing. Since there was no reason to suppose the Milky Way was at the center of everything, we went with the second idea. We named the great expansion the Big Bang, and scientists got busy trying to find evidence of it. We looked and looked, but we couldn’t see the remnants of the Big Bang. Finally, in the 1960s, some one heard it.

It wasn’t very loud; it was just a bit of noise. Noise heard in a radio receiver meant for earthly communications. The noise couldn’t be accounted for from a terrestrial source, so eventually the sky was blamed. What the radio dish was picking up was the echo of a long ago, tremendous expansion of space and time. It sounded like mere static, but it was the ancient birth-scream of our universe, now spread out, tired and sore after a 13.7 billion year journey.

It was called the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, or the CMBR. Its discovery launched a whole cascade of modern cosmology, complete with satellites like COBE, the Cosmic Background Explorer. COBE was sent to map and probe the CMBR. Looking at the background radiation was like looking at the very young universe when it was about 3,000 degrees. In 1992, COBE measured the current temperature of the radiation. Over the past 13.7 billion years, it has cooled down to a mere 2.7 degrees above absolute zero. Even at that lowly temperature, we can read that radiation like a book. And it’s a pretty interesting story.

Interesting because what the scientists working on COBE found was small anisotropies in the CMBR. An anisotropy is a little weirdness. Little pockets of slightly hotter, slightly cooler areas in the CMBR to the tune of a hundredth of a thousandth of a degree. But even this small difference means something. We have long been wondering about galaxy formation. Star and planet birth is pretty well understood, but the formation of giant galaxies has been puzzling. These “hot pockets” may be a key to how they formed. Things get fascinating when we look at the anisotropies of the CMBR. Could they be frozen sound waves or harmonics from the beginning of the universe? Further studies from recent satellites like WMAP have given us a wealth of detail about the CMBR, and it has led us to the idea that the universe is not only expanding, but speeding up its expansion, for reasons known only to the universe as of yet. But we are hard on its heels, and in future years I predict more work on hot pockets in the CMBR and more discoveries about the origins of the universe. It’s an exciting time for all of us who wonder about the cosmos.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Welcome Back

10/3/06 – 10/9/06
by C. Zaitz

I walked out with the dog the other morning and WHAM! There he was, the eye-catching Orion, sparkling clearer and bolder than I’d remembered from last spring when he faded into the sunset. He’d survived the summer hiding behind the sun and had finally made it to the morning sky. With his usual bravado he stole the show – who can think of faint Perseus when Orion is there? His faithful dogs were yipping at his ankles as usual; the Great Dog Canis Major with the brightest star Sirius as his wet nose, and above him the Little Dog, Canis Minor, with the bright star Procyon marking his tiny head.

In a few more months we will see Orion in the evening sky. But now his early morning appearance heralds the oncoming season of dying. He sneaks a step or two toward the west every day. Every step westward he takes brings us closer to winter.

Of course, it’s really the earth stepping toward Orion, not the other way around. We are swinging to the part of our orbit where we northerners are tipping away from the sun, and to where the distant stars of winter can be seen. Think of the last time you were on a merry-go-round. Pretend you’re the earth and the sun is at the center of the ride. If you turn in the saddle, (assuming you’re sitting on a wild zebra or maybe a unicorn) you look out toward people watching you. As you go around, you can wave at your friends standing there. Further around you see only strangers, laughing and pointing at you. Just once per rotation do you see friendly faces. That’s like the earth and Orion, or any other group of stars. Though the earth travels faster than a merry-go-round, it has quite a bit more distance to cover, so we can see the same constellations for months at a time as we orbit the sun. But when we see some groups, like our friend Orion, that necessarily means we won’t be able to see others, especially the ones on the other side of the sun from us like the Scorpion. That’s why we say that most constellations are seasonal, and Orion is a constellation of the winter season.

I had mixed emotions seeing Orion in the sky. Though he is a very magnificent constellation, he reminds me what is coming. It’s almost as if he brings the cold harshness of winter with him. It wasn’t always like that. Orion and his companion, Sirius, used to be the heralds of the wet season, or the flooding of the Nile river. To the Egyptians of long ago, the flooding of the Nile meant good things like irrigation, food and survival. It was so important to them, they based their calendar on Sirius’ rising.

The time when you first see morning rising of Sirius has been called the “dog days of summer.” This is generally the hottest part of the summer, usually August. But it is difficult to see Sirius when it’s so close to the sun. Now is the time to see it best in the morning sky. Even as the sun begins to paint the morning twilight in colors, Sirius and Orion still can shine through. Their cheerful glitter reminds us that winter does provide the best viewing for stars! And that is something to look forward to.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Learning to Love It

9/26/06 – 10/2/06
By C. Zaitz

I’m taking a class called Environmental Interpretation. It’s like learning to be a guide at a park. We tramp around in the wet, dark woods of the Henry Ford Estate looking at plants, seeds, and berries. I consider myself an 8 on a scale of 1-10 for people who are curious about everything. The only reason I'm not a 9 or 10 is because of plants, seeds and berries. My challenge to myself is to see the beauty in ragweed, the artistry of a thistle and the genius of the black walnut. When I see a black walnut, all I can think of is how, as kids, we would collect black walnuts from the big trees in our yard and carefully place them in rows on the road. Bud the Driver would come lumbering down the street in the big yellow School Bus and run over the nuts with the giant bus tires. The squishy, popping sound delighted us, and the smelly, greasy black streak they made in the road created a glorious, terrible mess. Our hands were green and smelled like black walnuts for days. It was kid heaven.

Because of that experience, I always chuckle when I see a black walnut. But I don’t have any pleasant associations with ragweed or thistle. I don’t get a brain tickle when I think of marching through the wet grass to see it. I think about astronomy and how some people mentally yawn at the very thought of learning about the sky. The folks who are super-enthusiastic about plants must feel the same way I do about the stars. I find it hard to believe, but it must be true. Look how they get giddy talking about endozoochory seed dispersal. (That’s when a bird eats seeds and “disperses” them on your car.) Do I get that giddy when I talk about hydrostatic equilibrium, or the delicate balance in a star between gravity and radiation pressure? Egads, I believe I do!

On our latest march in the woods, we had the good fortune for the rain to stop long enough to see a lovely red-orange sunset in the west, paired with a Barbie-pink rainbow in the east. The sky was raging with color, the perfect antidote for my cold, wet soul. I’m a sky person. We all have our predilections, our tendency toward liking some things over others. I guess the key is to keep an open mind about subjects that don’t necessarily grab our fancy. Once I decided to enjoy the tramp, I was delighted by the wild orange impatiens, otherwise known as “touch me nots,” who’s spring-loaded seed pods exploded at a mere touch. I loved watching the huge heron glide over the pond in that glorious sunset, and marveled at the bats circling overhead in the enveloping dusk. I knew their little bat hearts were singing; there were so many mosquitoes, they could fill their bellies simply flying with their mouths open.

There was no chance of a moon or stars that evening. It was much too cloudy, but I imagined my friend Luna sailing high above us, and all the stars winking at me from behind the strato-nimbus curtain. I knew they’d still be there when I have more time to spend with them. Meanwhile I’m learning an important lesson: we can find things that interest us in just about everything if we are open to it. It’s a good lesson to learn.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Inconstant Moon

9/19/06 – 9/25/06
by C. Zaitz

I was in a class recently where we were given some questions on general science knowledge. One of the questions was, “explain why the moon has phases.” Inwardly I squealed with glee; I had trouble with two other quizzes I had taken that day, but I certainly can explain the moon’s phases.

It may seem like a general knowledge, but few people really know why the moon goes through phases. After twenty years of anecdotal experience in the planetarium, I have an opinion about why. Moon phases are taught in school at an age where it’s very difficult for kids to understand them. In third grade, most kids are still concrete learners and making the jump to an abstract view of the solar system is almost impossible. If they could hop on the Magic School Bus and go into space to watch the moon orbit the earth, they would have an accurate picture. But they cannot, and they have to rely on inadequate 2-D drawings and verbal explanations. Even 3-D models are not always helpful, since their inaccurate scales can introduce more misconceptions. In the absence of truly understanding these models, kids tend to make up their own explanations. Once these are made up, it’s very difficult in later life to counteract these ideas. So many adults still carry their childhood ideas about moon phases. Even some teachers!

I can tell you that moon phases are NOT caused by: 1. the earth’s shadow on the moon, 2. clouds covering part of the moon or 3. magic. The moon phases are caused by us seeing the illumination of the moon from different angles as it orbits us. Since the sun can only light half the moon at any given time, there are times when we look up at the moon and only see part of it illuminated. If it is opposite the sun from us, we can see the entire illuminated face. That’s Full Moon. But when the moon is in a different part of its orbit, we may see only a thin edge illuminated or an egg-shaped moon, not quite full. There are times when the moon lies somewhere between us and the sun. That is called New Moon; her illuminated side faces completely away from us. So where the moon is in its orbit around the earth determines what we see.

A logical question might be, “if the moon were between the earth and the sun, wouldn’t that make a solar eclipse?” Yes, it would, if the moon were precisely between the earth and sun. But the moon’s orbit is inclined to ours by about five degrees, making exact alignment rare. So rare, in fact, that the next solar eclipse visible from anywhere near Michigan will be on August 21, 2017. If you have family or friends in northern Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, or South Carolina, now is a good time to secure their spare room. I anticipate a lot of excitement about a total solar eclipse in the heartland of the United States.

The dead, airless moon silently swings around the earth every month, completing its phases in 29.5 days. It waxes from the invisible New Moon to growing crescent, first quarter, bulging gibbous to Full Moon in about two weeks, and then it wanes through gibbous, last quarter, and finally crescent phase. The moon will be new on the 22nd, and every day after that you can begin to see the ever-so-lovely waxing crescent moon in the western sky at dusk.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Night Sky

You can now get your Night Sky in a variety of ways. You can read it here, as always, or tune into WHFR on Fridays from 10-11am to the WHFR Journal. The host, Mr. Jay Korinek, has invited me to read the column for the radio broadcast which will be turned to podcast or archived streamed broadcast, accessed through the website.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Expand Your Horizon

It's nearly autumn! It's the time of year when the scenery changes fairly quickly around us. Landscapes are mellowing and aging, turning different colors. Even the very stars in the sky are changing. Not only is the outdoor world changing, but things are changing inside, as well. Your local museums and planetaria have new programs to offer. Let’s take a look at what’s going on around us.

We’re beginning to notice the shortening length of day. The sun is sluggish rising, and before you know it, it’s fading off to the west to set. The summer triangle is still high overhead after sunset, but the constellations of autumn are seen at prime time- between 9pm and midnight. These are the constellations of Andromeda, Perseus and Pegasus.

Pegasus flies high across the southern sky, upside down and head first as always. Look for four stars high in the south in a great square shape, and you’ve most likely found Pegasus. The upper left hand star is a star called Alpheratz. Sometimes the star is also called “Sirrah.” The original Arabic name was “al-sirrah al-faras,” meaning “the navel of the horse.” The part that remains is “the horse” or al-faras (Alpheratz), but we all know it’s his belly button, Sirrah. It’s just funnier to remember. Andromeda looks like two long graceful antennae coming out of the bellybutton, which is an odd image, being that she’s a princess. In fact, if I were to verbally describe the constellations of fall to you, it would end up sounding quite strange. Perseus reminds me of a witch’s hat, and Cassiopeia the Queen looks like the letter “w” with a floppy leg on one end. Not a very graceful image for one of her stature. The king Cepheus is even worse; he looks like a miniature house ready to topple over.

The best way to learn the constellations is to visit your local planetarium. There you can not only learn about the stars, but also see pictures and hear stories that connect meaning to the star pictures. Plus you can meet other people who are interested in the world around them, and that is always a good adventure. The Vollbrecht Planetarium in Southfield offers day field trips as well as the excellent Friday night public show series by my colleague Mike Best, an expert entertainer -astronomer. His topics include neutron stars, black holes, asteroids, and the changing solar system. He’ll even talk about astrology and Pluto, poor Pluto. And you’ll always get Q&A time, handouts, and even door prizes. I will also be doing star shows there for schools and the public. Email me to book a show.

Cranbrook and the Detroit Science Center have excellent facilities, and you’ll always have fun there. But if you want a more personal tour of the sky, check out the smaller planetaria. The Henry Ford Community College Planetarium would be a great place to visit, and they will give shows for public and private groups. All these facilities can be found easily if you do a quick internet search for local planetaria, or even call 411 on your cell phone. I would love to get email from people interested in learning more about the night sky. This is a great time to try something new, to have a learning adventure, and to expand your horizon. Take advantage of the enthusiastic experts in your own neighborhood, take your kids or grandparents on an adventure, and maybe you’ll find out something new about the universe, or even better, about yourself!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

All in the Family

9/5/06 – 9/11/06
by C. Zaitz

By now the news has been out and talked about, maybe to death. “Poor Pluto,” people are saying, if they aren’t saying, “I haven’t thought Pluto was a planet for years!” or “Who cares?” I had an emotional reaction to the news as well, though mine took place well after everyone else’s due to being incommunicado for a week. The news hit me hard emotionally, but as usual, my skepticism (cynicism) took over. I’ve lost things before. But a whole planet?

People are sad, mad, or glad. Some don’t care, and a few haven’t even heard yet. Most of us will go our whole lives never seeing Pluto. Who has even thought much about it after third grade? No one even knew it existed until 1930. There are people alive who were born when there were only eight planets in the known solar system. Think how exciting it must have been to read in the paper that a new planet had been discovered!

It’s a sad contrast to reading that an elite group of folks decided that it wasn’t a planet after all, at least not a grown up planet. Dwarf planet sounds diminutive, and rightly so. Pluto surely could never compete with a Venus or a Uranus as far as size, but it does have three moons, or so we think. Yeah, its orbit is wacky, and yes, it’s most likely closely related to other objects being discovered as part of a distant “band” called the Trans-Neptunian objects. The other “dwarf planets” recently discovered also fall into this category. All this is true, and the whole point of trying to classify things was to get a better definition of a planet. I don’t know if this has been accomplished, but regardless, I can’t help thinking that there should have been some nod to the emotional side of science. Because there is one; I’m convinced of it, as cynical as I can be at times.

Why else would folks get so upset about an object that has absolutely no impact on their lives whatsoever, at least gravitationally? Astrologers, for one, refuse to give up Pluto, since it lends such a dark and interesting presence to their readings! But why do we feel like something was taken away from us by Pluto not being called a planet anymore? Nothing has really changed. Pluto hasn’t shrunk since before the vote, and all the other objects we haven’t yet discovered are still going about their business of orbiting, just like the earth. They don’t change when we discover them, but we do. I was enjoying our growing family. I was even ready to call Ceres, that tiny little asteroid, a planet if it meant adding to the family. I strongly disagree that the general public can’t handle having more planets, that it’s too confusing. I don’t get “confused” when more species of plants or animals are discovered, do you? I was psyched that Ceres and Charon were topics of conversation. It felt like growth, like learning. We seem to attach more importance to things when they are part of our circle, our family. Humans are tribal at heart, and Pluto was part of our tribe.

Well, I don’t know if any of this helps, but I can’t ignore it, and I don’t have any answers about how to cheer up disappointed third graders, but I can say that I’m still glad it was all in the news and is still talked about in some circles. We’re all learning.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Sometimes Bigger is Better

8/29/06 – 9/4/06
by C. Zaitz

For the past weeks I’ve mentioned that Jupiter is the only planet visible in the evening sky, and that you can “catch a glimpse” of it after sunset. However, that’s been rather lame advice. There’s much more fun to be had with a telescope. But telescopes are expensive, so this is a great time of year to find your local amateur astronomy club and attend an evening observing session, or “star party.” We are lucky to have several fine clubs in our area. The clubs are friendly, social, and have access to dark observing spots, plus they always bring big telescopes so you can enjoy the benefits of Aperture!

Aperture is what matters in a telescope. Even though the word means “opening,” it refers to the size of the light gathering mechanism within. In most popular telescopes, it’s a mirror. Originally it was a glass lens, but glass is heavy and fragile, prone to cracking and chipping. Mirrors are still glass, but not solid glass, and only one side has to be ground to perfection, rather than both sides of a lens. You can make mirrors pretty big, and the bigger the mirror, the better the telescope.

Why is bigger better? What are we trying to do with a telescope? Many people think that telescopes “magnify” light, but it might be better to say they “collect” light. Objects in the night sky are very far away. By the time light from a distant object reaches us, it’s pretty faint and spread out. When you collect rain water, you use a big tarp and funnel it into a barrel. The bigger the tarp, the more drops you can collect. With telescopes, the mirror is the tarp. The bigger the mirror, the more photons of light it collects, and the better you can funnel or focus the light to see distant objects. The cool thing is that if you double the aperture on a telescope, you quadruple the amount of light you can gather.

I have just come into some aperture. I have had a 4 inch Astroscan telescope that my parents bought when I was young. Recently they arrived for a week at the cottage bearing gifts. For my husband, a beautiful set of hand made saw horses. For me, an 8 inch LX90 Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. I was flabbergasted. I named it Carl.

Through the Astroscan, Jupiter looked like a big dot with four tiny specks around it. Through Carl, Jupiter looked like Jupiter with its four largest moons dancing around it. It was impressive. We had a family star party: we toasted marshmallows in the campfire and toured the night sky. We saw M13, the globular cluster in Hercules, the Ring Nebula in Lyra, and the Andromeda galaxy, over 2,000,000 light years away. It was very cool.

Sure there are bigger, more expensive telescopes out there, but Carl and I will have lots of fun together touring the dark skies of Port Austin. Everyone’s experience of the night sky is special, no matter if you own a really big ‘scope or just go out in the backyard with binoculars and locate Jupiter in the western sky. The key is to do it, to give yourself and anyone you can drag out with you the experience of remembering how big and beautiful the universe is. But if you can borrow someone’s aperture AND get a cool explanation of what you’re looking at, well, that’s a Star Party!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

“Plutonic” Relationships

8/20/06 – 8/26/06
by C. Zaitz

Well, it’s finally come out. The IAU’s definition of a planet! How exciting- we’ve all been on the edge of our seats waiting and wondering, “so what is a planet, really?” The International Astronomical Union is the world-wide collection of astronomers making up the body that has been the official arbiter of planetary and satellite nomenclature since 1919. And they don’t take bribes.

Historically and etymologically, the word planet referred to the “wanderers” or the “stars” that moved as the year progressed. As the planets orbit the sun, they appear to move in front of the much more distant stars. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn have been known since people have looked up and noticed them. However, Uranus wasn’t discovered by telescope until 1781 by Sir William Herschel. Neptune was discovered in 1846 by Johann Galle, and Pluto is a mere baby, discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh.

Thanks to better ground-based and orbiting telescopes, we’ve recently discovered even more members of our solar system. Two more moons of Pluto have been discovered, as well as other small bodies like Sedna and Quaoar with eccentric orbits that can take well over 200 years to orbit the sun, beyond the orbit of Neptune. Pluto, by the way, is substantially smaller than our Moon. Controversy has raged about the definition of a planet, and much of it surrounded Pluto’s status. One of the more vocal opponents of Pluto’s planetary status was Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson of NYC’s Rose Center and Hayden Planetarium. His argument was that Pluto was too small to be a planet, and was most likely another Trans-Neptunian Body, such as those mentioned above. But who wants to deny that Pluto is a planet? It’s on all our placemats, mobiles and coloring books!

Here’s the quote: “The IAU therefore resolves that planets and other Solar System bodies be defined in the following way: 1. A planet is a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet.” Basically, if it’s round and goes ‘round the sun, it’s a planet. That means you, Mr. Pluto. However, small bodies like Ceres, traditionally called asteroids or minor planets, are technically now planets, but can be called “dwarf planets.” Pluto is now a double planet, joined at the gravitational hip with Charon, but is head of a new subclassification called “Plutons,” namely the Trans-Neptunian objects. 2003 UB313 would fall into the Pluton classification. That would make a grand total of 12 planets in the solar system, pending more discoveries.

As you can see, this is all getting a little more complex than it used to be, but a complex solution was called for. We ran out of names and ways to classify the new discoveries. Dr. Tyson wasn’t mad at Pluto, he was pushing for a clearer, more accurate classification scheme.

The vote on the new scheme takes place in Prague on the 24th of August. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, nary a planet can be found in our August sky. Jupiter can’t escape the oncoming blast of light from the Sun much longer, and soon will be lost in the glare of sunset. Catch a quick view right at evening twilight in the west. Early morning birds may catch a glimpse of Venus in the east, though she is low and her light will be washed away as the sun rises.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

For more from the IAU, try:

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Seeing is Believing

8/13/06 – 8/19/06
by C. Zaitz

Often we are torn between wanting to believe in something and knowing that things may not be just as we wish. I have been accused lately of being a “scientist.” Normally I’d be flattered, but when it’s said with a little grimace and a funny tone of voice, I figure it’s akin to a curse.

I grew up believing in lots of things from Santa to Prince Charming. I believed in Heaven and Hell, and I learned the doctrines and dogma that would get me to one place or the other. But when I realized that there were all sorts of good people who were never exposed to these doctrines and therefore were doomed, I began to reject certain ideas. Soon everything was under my skeptical scrutiny. The more I learned about the universe at large, and more importantly, the universe that each person perceives uniquely, the more I realized that the human brain is so complex and capable of such a gamut of perceptions that we really don’t need to go outside ourselves to find ghosts and myths and gods and devils. However, we prefer to have them externally located, present company included, so we keep looking for demons and angels out in the universe.

I listen with envy when people tell me about their fantastic experiences. I always try to relate, and my mind is always trying to understand and make sense of clues in the stories. I know I take a skeptical approach, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I listen to stories, but I don’t always buy them. I buy that the teller does, however, and it is never my intention to change anyone’s belief. I am guilty of trying to interject some skepticism into their thinking. Thus I get labeled “scientist.” If they only knew; a substantial part of my interest in their ghost stories is wonder. I wonder why no dead relative has made a nocturnal visit. Why haven’t any aliens abducted me? Am I so boring that no one wants to haunt me or capture my DNA for some future planet’s repopulation?

I want to believe. If some big-eyed alien crooked his three fingers at me and gestured me to go aboard his ship, I’d be up the ramp in a New York minute. I want to talk with dead people and see who I was in a past life. But I’m a “scientist” and I am not “open” to these possibilities, apparently. As my crop circle loving husband reminds me, it’s the “open-minded” scientists that make the big break-throughs. However, Kepler had to divest from his superstitious thinking to figure out that the planets don’t circle the sun, they travel in ellipses. Galileo, Newton, and even Einstein all had to distance themselves from dogmatic beliefs to look at the evidence. They key word for me is evidence. Without that, it’s not science. And while evidence can sometimes be subjective, scientific evidence is the best hope we have of ferreting out the mechanics of the universe. Cars don’t run on witchcraft.

Having an open mind is not a bad thing. Neither is checking to see if the latest chain email is a hoax. If something can be explained without resorting to aliens and ghosts, then why blame it on a ghost? I’m asking, ghosts…and I’m free for a haunting tonight!

While I’m waiting, we can all spy Jupiter as it fades into the sunset. The other planets are too near the sun’s light to be seen.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Dancing Stars

8/6/06 - 8/12/06

by C. Zaitz

I did a google search for “arabic stars” recently, and I landed at a bellydance site. Funny, I had just visited my dance teacher, Princess Madiha. She’s a real princess, living here in the Detroit Metropolitan Area. Madiha's mother was of the Awabdi family, originally a royal family in Syria. When Madiha's grandfather, Prince Halil Awabdi, died in a power struggle in the late 1800s, the family lost all their power and wealth. Her mother later married into a farming family. Both she and Madiha are entitled to retain the title of "Princess" in memory of their heritage.

Princess Madiha is one of those special people who enrich your life in ways it takes years to fully appreciate. She not only taught me how to dance, but how to express the beauty in a kind of music that was new to me. She always said she didn’t have blood in her veins, she had music instead. She always tells her students that until the music and movements are part of our vocabulary, we’d always dance with a foreign accent.

I had been researching Arabic star names. The majority of star names are of Arabic origin. This is a little known fact, since it’s assumed that the Greeks named everything in the sky. Greek civilization was intensely interested in constellations and myths. Most of the constellations familiar to us today are of Greek origin, but the Greeks weren’t as interested in individual stars. It was the Arabs, between perhaps the 6th – 12th centuries, that catalogued and named many stars. They used the stars for time keeping, so they needed to know when individual stars rose and set. Western pronunciation has mutilated some of the names. Ibt al-Jauza is the origin of the name Betelgeuse. Its meaning is clearer than its pronunciation. It means the “armpit of the central one.” Betelgeuse marks the right armpit of Orion, the mighty hunter. His foot is marked by a star named Rigel. In Arabic, “ar-rijl” means “the foot.” The names are to the point.

The names of the constellations and planets come from the language of the Romans, Latin. However, the Romans adopted and assimilated the vast pantheon of gods and goddesses, heroes and witches from Greek culture, which in turn had assimilated images and symbols from even older cultures. The ancient Sumerians and Babylonians were the first to write down their ideas, but I am pretty sure that folks made up star pictures even before there was writing. Humans have a strong impulse to recognize patterns in things, and the sky is a good example of this. I’ve always thought it interesting that someone looked up at the teardrop shape of stars in the summer sky and decided that it looked like an Eagle. Or that the teapot shape of Sagittarius reminded the ancients of a centaur, a creature half-horse, half-man. But we look at the constellations with a “modern, foreign accent” and are ignorant of the very heavy and important symbolism the constellations once carried to cultures who relied on the stars to tell them stories of life and of time.

When you look up into the sky, you see the same star patterns that people have seen since there have been people, but the planets are always in motion. Jupiter has been pretty much the same all summer, though he is creeping toward the western sunset as summer heads down to the finish line. The other planets are basking in the Sun’s glow, and won’t be seen for a few more months.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Friday, July 28, 2006


As hot as it will get here next week in southeast Michigan, it won't feel like it did this day of the Big Hike. Toasty, crispy warm with a breeze that drew the sweat right out of your skin. We hiked straight up the crumbling clay, down again and then marched along the open dry plain, watching for rattlers and cacti, wondering how long the hike really would be, and wondering if our spare water jugs would still be somewhere south of boiling in the minivans.

They weren't. This was the day Allison and I gave our paper on the K-T boundary. After the Hike. After the seeming endless trek into hot winds, dry grasses and astoundingly desolate landscape.

We managed to recover our wits in the five minute drive to the spot where we could see the K-T boundary. This is the famous edge of life, the time spanning the age of the Dinosaurs, ammonites and about 65% of other species on earth. Above the K-T boundary, there are no dinosaur bones. There are no ammonites, there are no psauropods. All gone.

So what do we find in the K-T boundary? Weird stuff, mixed with a more-than-normal amount of the rare element Iridium. Ir is related to platinum, and it's that rare. Not so rare in outer space, however, and it is most likely that the relatively copious amounts of that element found in the K-T boundary is from outer space. Aliens? No, asteroids. Is that what killed the dinosaurs? A giant wad of stone and dust from outer space? It's possible. Asteroid collisions do nasty things to the earth.

I love the earth!

The little white thing you see in the crumbling clay is a deer's butt.

Look what else the earth looks like!

Here's what it looks like on the inside!

It was nice and cool in the cave. Yes, that's me wearing a flannel shirt. I was glad I brought it to South Dakota in July. Though it was in the high 90s outside, it was in the 50s in Rushmore Cave. I prefer the 90s, but that's just me.

Later on...

I was teaching everyone the "Happy George, Sad George" trick with a dollar bill. Luckily Jay had the whole gamut of bills in his wallet so we continued on in the same manner with Hamilton, Jackson, and Grant...what fun. It was even more fun watching Rachel laugh everytime we did it! Jay even had Ben Franklin! Go Jay- drinks all around!

Not fun: Dr. Murray handing me the van keys bright and early the next morning. First shift? Sweet.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing

7/30/06 – 8/5/06

By C. Zaitz

I looked at the Sun recently. I didn’t just glance, I stared at it. It wasn’t the mellow, orangey red, romantic looking sunset sun, it was the real deal. It was hot, bright, and burning high up in the noontime sky. I of all people should know better, but I couldn’t help myself. I was walking along the beach in Port Austin. There were high stratocirrus clouds covering the sky, but they were silky and see-through. They were transparent enough to create a gorgeous full circle or halo around the sun. I had sunglasses clipped over my regular glasses, but that’s no excuse. It’s just plain bad to look at the sun.

The sun halo was very striking. I looked as long as I could until my eyes started to water. Then I noticed a partial rainbow arc underneath the ring. I brushed the tears away and looked as much as I could. I began to notice people looking at me, and heard a whispered, “what’s she looking at?” I realized there were kids around and that I was setting a very bad example. But I kept looking up near the sun until things started to go pale. I knew I should stop, that I could be irreversibly damaging my eyes, but it was such an unusual sight that I kept sneaking looks.

I heard my mother’s voice in my head. “You’d better protect your eyes from the sun or you’ll end up with cataracts like your grandmother.” Yikes. To ease my conscience, I am now going to rant about protecting your eyes from the sun. I’m going to wallow in a hypocritical pool for one whole paragraph.

Eye damage is cumulative, like skin damage from UV rays. Eye lens cells are never replaced, so each time you expose them to the sun, you’re chipping away at your vision. You can’t see the damaging rays, and they don’t even hurt. When your eyes water, it’s more from the sheer amount of light trying to enter your eyes as your pupils try to shut down quickly. However, the damage really occurs when the ultraviolet rays enter your pupils. You can get cataracts and eye cancer from sun exposure, and it’s never too early to protect kids from the sun’s damage. Don’t be fooled by the kiddie sunglasses, either- make sure they have 100% UV protection. I most likely gave myself a bit of “sun blindness” or photokerititis from looking at or near the sun, and while the white-out effect goes away, the damage remains. I will most likely get cataracts, if I live long enough. No one will cry for me either, since I am admitting freely that I did a bad, bad thing.

That night, I looked up into the post-sun sky and saw three satellites overhead. They were moving at about the same speed like a small armada. Then I saw a meteor slash through the Summer Triangle. I was glad to have recovered my vision. I kicked myself for being so foolhardy with something so precious. I’ve had fairly bad vision my whole life, and you’d think I’d be more careful about protecting what I can. From now on I will. I promise, Mom.

Besides the distant stars, you can still see Jupiter in the evening. He is still King of the Evening, the brightest thing other than the Moon in the southern night sky. Venus can be seen around 5:30 am in the eastern sunrise.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Friday, July 21, 2006


I have an interview on WHFR, a local station this morning at 10:20-ish AM. You can stream it at I'll be talking about the planetarium and education. I have all sorts of thoughts about it. I hope they come out in English.
Update: you can listen to the podcast on their website.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Somewhere in Time

7/23/06 – 7/29/06

by C. Zaitz

A single glance at the night sky can transport you back in time. The stars are very far away, and their light takes time to travel to us. Even the bright, steady light from Jupiter takes about a half hour to reach us. Starlight can take hundreds or even thousands of years to reach us. I realize that on the scale of our galaxy, which is what we see when we look at the night sky, a human lifetime is pretty short. But my recent week-long foray into geology of the Badlands and the Black Hills of South Dakota and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming left me feeling downright ephemeral. I was looking at rock formations billions of years old. I use the word “billions” all the time when talking about numbers of stars or distances to far away galaxies. But touching rocks that had been buried for billions of years and are now exposed and blowing away in the wind was something different.

The Earth is old, about 4.5 billion years old. The Badlands aren’t quite that old. About 70 million years ago, the rising Rocky Mountains and Black Hills dusted the lands to the east with sediments and sands. Back then the whole middle part of North America was covered with a warm, shallow sea. The sea grew and shrank over time. Dead sea creatures and dust built up layers of limestone, sandstone and clay sediments. Then, a few million years ago, the area of the Badlands began to rise, exposing 70 million year old sediment layers to the wind and rain. Once the clay and sand layers were dissected by rivers, the erosion process took over and created the incredible display of “badlands” that we see today. Hidden in the soft clays are fossilized bones of creatures that used to roam the Earth, such as the gigantic-headed Triceratops and three-toed horses that were smaller than Great Danes.

The granite intrusions of the Black Hills and Devil’s Tower are even older. They are Pre-Cambrian, at least 570 million years old, most likely over a billion years old. But some of the oldest rocks I touched were in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The pink quartzite found there used to be sand 2 billion years ago. Time, tide and great pressure and heat formed the sand into rock. The rock was hidden for billions of years by layers of sediments, and now has been exposed to the elements through erosion.
Some of the quartzite ended up in the local roads, giving them a particularly curious deep pink color. Both the quartzite and the gas we were combusting in the mini van have been hidden deep in the earth for ages, but now we’re using these resources up in a matter of decades.

I touched some really old rocks, but the Moon showed us the most ancient rocks we can see. I was annoyed at Luna for spilling her light over the night sky all week long. She washed out any chance of seeing a dark star-lit sky. But the 4 billion year old surface of the Moon reminded me of how old things are, and how we are just here briefly, somewhere in a long continuum of time.

The class was taught by Dr. Murray of the University of Michigan at Dearborn. It was an excellent class, and has forever changed the way I look at rocks. And now I don’t feel so old anymore!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Close Knit Stars

7/9/06 – 7/15/06

I love to knit. I learned to knit at Mount Holyoke* College. If you say it fast, it sounds like “Mentally Ill College.” At least that’s what I thought when they called to accept me. I hesitated until I realized who it really was. Mt. Holyoke had a January term, where you could spend a month goofing off, learning to knit, or taking an internship somewhere like Nantucket Island at the Maria* Mitchell Observatory, plotting the light curves of a variable star called DL Cas in the constellation Cassiopeia. I chose the latter. I had already learned to knit watching Moonlighting on Thursday nights with the girls in Ham Hall.

On Nantucket I lived on hot dogs and sauerkraut, shivered along the frozen beaches of a deserted resort island, and studied glass photographic plates of a variable star. The big question I was there to solve: was the “light curve” (its dimming and brightening pattern) of this star changing or remaining stable. Plot after plot, I couldn’t conclude that the light curve was changing. How unsatisfactory. I read my article in the A.A.V.S.O. recently and I didn’t understand half the stuff I wrote. It sounded like a big non-issue.

But it is an issue. Many stars are somewhat variable for a few reasons. Supergiant stars sometimes get brighter and dimmer because they are huge and are shrinking or expanding, trying to survive by “burning” whatever they have left in them after hundreds of millions of years of hydrogen fusion, holding out against the inevitable crushing force of gravity. These are called Cepheid stars, and it has been found that the period of variability of these stars is directly related to how bright they are. Once you find a star’s period, you can figure out its distance by knowing its intrinsic brightness. Thus these stars act as celestial rulers in figuring out distances to objects.

Other stars have different excuses for being variable. Two stars can be knit together with gravity like those mittens held together by a cord. One star might be a medium sized star like the sun, but it might be in orbit with a massive star or a shrunken dwarf star. If it happens that a double star system is at the right angle, we can see the bright star dim for a few hours or even days as the companion star passes in front of it, blocking some of its light.

If you’d like to see a beautiful double star system, find the three stars of the Summer Triangle. The most northwestern star is called Deneb. If you look closely you can trace the shape of a cross, with Deneb at the top. The bottom of the cross is in the middle of the triangle, and is a “star” called Albireo. Through a small telescope, you’ll actually see two stars. One is a brilliant blueish star, and the other actually looks golden. Even though I didn’t go to U of M, I can appreciate the beauty of those two colors next to each other. (Sorry State alums, there are no green stars!) These close knit stars are one of the many beautiful sights to see this summer.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

(* - pronounced “Whole-Yoke”, and Maria rhymes with pariah. If the representative had pronounced Mt. Holyoke correctly, I wouldn’t have thought the funny farm was calling for me…)

Friday, June 30, 2006

Who Cares?

7/2/06 – 7/8/06

By C. Zaitz

My husband and I have a little motorboat called "Who Cares?" We bought it from an older gentleman who was suffering with Alzheimer’s Disease. By the time in life he was ready to sell the boat, his ongoing mantra was, “who cares?” We don’t have the heart to change it. But every time I see “Who Cares?” on the back of the boat, I wonder about that phrase. I suppose he was frustrated at the inevitability of things.

The Ensign Planetarium will be having Summer Astro Camp again this year. The junior camp, for grades k- 4, will go from 9am-12pm July 24-26. For grades 3-10, the camp runs July 31- August 4th. The younger campers will be hearing and seeing Native American stories and explanations of nature, along with our scientific views of how things work. We’ll look at the sky and tell stories and make lots of projects to take home. The second week of camp is all about our solar system, its planets and moons, and some crazy things that happen to them like volcanoes, earthquakes and asteroid collisions. We’ll have fun demonstrations and more great projects to take home.

Sadly, Astro Camp will be the last program here at the Ensign Planetarium. The district is feeling the effects of Michigan’s economy and the lack of support for education that districts all over the state have been feeling for several years now. The loss of my job effects me and my family, but the loss of the Ensign Planetarium affects not only the district, but a far wider community of Metro Detroit and Windsor including pre-k through college students and everyone else who has ever been inspired by the view of something larger and grander than we see on an everyday basis, namely, the Cosmos.

The year 2008 would have marked the 40th year of operation for the planetarium. In 1968, when the planetarium opened, our nation cared very much about finding ways to inspire children to go into math, engineering and space sciences. We were in a fierce race with the Soviet Union to get to the Moon. The National Defense Education Act was passed in 1958 for the direct purpose of aiding schools in their quest toward educating youth, and the money that built this place came from those funds and that quest. We did get to the Moon first, and we have become the most powerful and technological nation on the planet. While that does not guarantee our survival, I do think that inspiring kids to be engineers, scientists, designers and thinkers can only help our nation stay strong. I am sorry that the demise of the Ensign Planetarium is just one event in a continuum of changing values in education. As we homogenize and standardize our children’s education, sometimes we leave out room for creative thought, for different ways of learning, and most importantly, we find we have no room left for the inspirations that lead children to be lifelong learners. In short, we no longer value wonderful, special places like a planetarium.

I would like to thank everyone in the community who has ever come to a show or listened to their kids talk about their trip to the planetarium. I hope that some time in the future the planetarium will once again live and breathe, and inspire future generations to be educated and wonder about their universe. Because I do care, very, very much.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view! (And send the wee ones to Astro Camp!)

Dive In!

6/25/06 – 7/1/06

by C. Zaitz

We've passed the Summer Solstice, so now it's official. Let the brief Michigan summer begin! Hurry- we've only got about 14 weeks before we have to start bringing in the lawn furniture again. So find a lake and dive in!

People who don't live around the Great Lakes probably don't know that they are like freshwater oceans. You cannot see the other side, as you do in most inland lakes. You can travel for miles and miles and never see a bit of land. They are huge. They can be deep. And you can certainly get lost in them.

I recently bought a snorkeling set from Target. I wanted to see what was at the bottom of the lake. It's like a whole universe I hadn't explored yet. I was very excited to try them out- the mask, the breathing tube, and the flippers for the feet. I'm sure there's a technical term for them, but it amuses me to call them flippers. I had been cautioned by a friend not to put them all on at once, so I started with the mask. Ah!

Have you ever looked through a telescope? The first time you do, if it's aimed at something cool like Saturn or Jupiter, you get little chills and a jolt to the brain. It's really a planet, not just a bright point of light. It's a planet whose features you can see through the miracle of a telescope. When I first saw the Andromeda Galaxy through a small telescope, the idea that I was looking at a galaxy over two million light years from my eye blew me away. That telescope cost $300. The snorkel set cost $30. But I had a similar chill. It's beautiful under water.

I didn't see a single fish, nor any shells, but the sand was beautifully rippled and there were some interesting looking rocks and a Petosky stone. It was no Caribbean dive trip, but just the idea that I could see this underwater universe was a thrill. Then I tried the flippers, and I felt like James Bond sneaking up to the Disco Volante in Thunderball. The last piece was the breathing tube. Hearing myself breathe was another little jolt. How fragile life is.

How fragile indeed. When I looked into the midnight sky later that eve, I remembered the new universe that had opened up to me earlier, and the older, more familiar one that was above. Yet it was so vast and elusive that one could never really know it in a thousand lifetimes. How many sets of eyes have looked at those stars, at those constellations? In how many tongues had people told each other the stories made up in bursts of inspired tale-telling?

Twelve years ago, Jupiter was in the same spot as it is tonight. That is how long it takes the giant planet to orbit its star. When you see it, because you are bound to see it shining brightly in the early evening, think of the giant planet whose girth could engulf over 1300 earths. It holds enough gravity to shepherd 63 moons and counting, but you'll never really appreciate this giant globe of gas until you see it through a telescope. You'll see its largest faithful moons orbiting, and you may even see some stormy features of this incredible planet. Grab a telescope and dive in.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

The Great Dying

6/18/06 – 6/24/06

by C. Zaitz

Some scientists would rather look down at the ground rather than up at the sky. I’ve never been one to dwell among the dust and rocks, but lately I’ve grown an appreciation for the science of dirt. Here’s why.

Sometimes the sky comes down to earth. A crater found near the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico indicates that a 6 mile wide asteroid or comet hit the earth about 65 million years ago, and not long after, lots of plants and animals died. This was the K-T extinction (Cretaceous (K) and Tertiary (T) periods of geologic history), where about 75% of the world’s species were snuffed out, including the poster-critters of the time, the Dinosaurs.

But there was an even worse extinction in the distant past. About 250 million years ago, nearly 90% of all life on earth was extinguished by some mechanism. The so-called “Great Dying” is also known as the Permian -Triassic (P -T) extinction. When 90% of all life on earth dies, scientists want to know why. Until now, there was no smoking gun, other than the usual suspects of volcanism, plate tectonics, changing climate, etc.

The latest news in “astro-geology” is that the location of the impact of a giant asteroid has just been found. Now we see the smoking gun, and it looks like the bullet was about 30 miles wide! Unfortunately the gun isn’t really smoking anymore- it has had 250 million years to cool. The crater left by the impact is hard to see. Over hundreds of millions of years, the ocean floor has subducted (slid underneath a continent). New ocean floor is created by the upwelling of lava. Therefore, not much of the original impact is left. A 300 mile wide land mass was discovered in East Antarctica by measuring the difference in gravity from one spot to another. Scientists overlaid radar maps of the area and the huge land mass fit inside a circular ridge. There are other suspects, however; massive volcanic eruptions also took place around the P-T boundary. But now geologists can compare and contrast these major extinctions and the factors that may have caused them. It’s pretty safe to say that when giant rocks fall from the sky, things go badly here on earth.

In July I will be heading west to study geology with a small group of college students. We will drive to Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Wyoming: The Badlands, The Black Hills, and Mt. Rushmore. I will be able to see the actual K-T boundary. It’s a visible line in the rocks. There is a high amount of the element iridium in this layer. High amounts of iridium indicate asteroid collision, since normal rocks from earth don’t have as much. Finding high levels of iridium is another smoking gun in the killer-asteroid scenario, and makes a good case for finding ways to prevent space rocks from hitting the earth in the future.

Knowing that rock-scientists don’t have much time to look up, I have elected myself “official night sky guide.” I’m anticipating dark skies so I’m brushing up on the harder-to-find constellations. Maybe we’ll see some meteors. I’ve heard that when you’re out in the wilderness, you can almost hear them burn up. I hope they do burn up. I’ll dig into the earth to see the rocks from space, but I don’t want to be under one when it hits!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Dead Reckoning

6/11/06 – 6/17/06

C. Zaitz

When I was a teenager I read the entire series of books by C. S. Forester about a 19th century British naval adventurer named Horatio Hornblower. In one story, Horatio had to go for his lieutenant exam and was cramming all the necessary navigation mathematics and trigonometry in his head. Unfortunately, he froze during the examination and was failing. As he stammered out his response, he caught a glimpse of a fire ship- a wooden ship set intentionally on fire to destroy other wooden ships. On instinct he abandoned the exam and valiantly dove into the water, swam to the fiery ship, climbed aboard and steered it to safety, away from the British fleet lying helpless in the harbor. He eventually did make it to lieutenant, and even Admiral, some 10 volumes later.

I have since learned more of the complex navigation about which Horatio was examined. Finding latitude has always been a snap, as long as you can see the North Star, Polaris and have a sextant or angle measuring device handy. It happens that the altitude of Polaris in the sky is equal to your latitude on earth. That is because Polaris lies almost directly over the north pole of the earth. You can prove this to be true with a diagram and a little knowledge of trigonometry. In Dearborn Heights, the height of Polaris in the sky is about 42.3 degrees, and we know that our latitude is 42.3 N. You can get out your sextant tonight and check it out!

However, finding one’s longitude at sea was never an easy feat. To find it you must find the time of your local noon, or when the sun crosses your meridian, and compare it to Greenwich Mean Time. Of course, if you don’t have a watch or a cell phone, neither of which Horatio had, this is difficult. Before the invention of an accurate chronometer in the 1750s, sailors used a technique called Dead Reckoning to find their positions. It was basically a process of extrapolation. If you know how far you’ve gone since your last accurate position, or at least know how fast you’ve traveled and in what direction, you can figure out where you are now or will be in the future. Of course you must correct for wind and waves and human error along the way. Is it any wonder that Columbus’ voyage was a bit hairy?

Nowadays we use satellites in space to accurately find our positions, whether we are out on a boat in Lake Huron or driving from The Heights to Livonia. The Global Positioning System, developed and maintained by the US Department of Defense, uses more than two dozen satellites to send radio signals to anyone with a GPS receiver.

Modern day navigators often use old and new methods to maintain their courses. It’s always handy to have a working knowledge of at least ten or so bright stars in the night sky. All three stars of the summer triangle are considered navigational stars. Planets like Jupiter, though they are bright and easy to find, are not used for navigation, since their position changes noticeably over the course of weeks and months. You can watch Jupiter in Libra all summer, however. His large distance from the sun makes him appear to move slowly in the sky. We can enjoy his bright glow until mid August.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!