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!

Expecting the Unexpected

6/4/06 – 6/10/06

by C. Zaitz

Have you ever had those nights when you wake up for no apparent reason? I had one the other night, though I have my suspicions about certain pets helping me to consciousness. Once I was up, I wandered outside. The stars were magnificent. I sighed out a breath in awe. The Milky Way sparkled overhead, framed by the three bright stars of the Summer Triangle. Arcturus shone its bright orange light to the west.

I’ve seen this scene a hundred times before. Ever since I learned to recognize the constellations, I’ve known the summer sky. So what drew me out at 3 am to see it? It was the prospect of seeing something I hadn’t seen before. There’s so much to look at; the more you stare, the more you see. The summer sky is much richer than the sky at any other season because we are looking into the heart of the galaxy. Since we are about two thirds of the way from the center of the galaxy, we see the majority of stars as we look in toward the middle. They are so far away, however, that they look like a creamy, blurry swipe of light across the sky. There is also a lot of dust between stars which obscures part of the Milky Way, like dark islands in a sparkling river.

The more you look at the summer sky, the more your eyes play tricks on you. Sometimes I catch a streak of light out of the corner of my eye. Meteors are always an unexpected treat, especially when you happen to be looking at the right part of the sky to see them. The dazzling light is actually plasma, or hot glowing gas, created by the intense friction of falling space dust. The sun is made of plasma, as is lightning. Flames are not. Plasma is much hotter than a campfire; the stuff over which you toast your marshmallows is not in the same league as a plasma trail left by a meteor. It’s the plasma that allows a speck of dust from outer space to catch our eye.

Sometimes the steady motion of a satellite captures my attention as it tumbles across the sky. Invariably, I imagine that at any moment something completely bizarre and alien will come spiraling out of the heavens and prove once and for all that we are not alone. On any given night there are thousands of telescopes aimed at many places in the sky. If the galaxy was teaming with life, we probably would have seen it by now. I imagine aliens would be busily commuting from star to star, but we see no such traffic. Maybe the aliens are sneaky. Maybe they don't have lights on their spaceships.

So far I’ve never seen anything unusual or spooky, but the chance that it could happen, that some flying spaceship or spectacular fire ball could reveal itself to me, keeps me scanning the skies. I’m expecting the unexpected. That’s what draws me out at 3 am, and always has.

We may never find a flying saucer or glimpse an alien up close, but it never hurts to look, and you can watch Jupiter drift across your field of view all night long. If you see Venus in the East, you’ve stayed up all night and it’s time to go make the coffee.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!


5/28/06 – 6/3/06

by C. Zaitz

It’s hard to believe that the end of the school year is here. Graduation is upon us, and I’ll have to say goodbye and good luck to many graduating seniors I’ve known since I became the director of the Ensign Planetarium in 2001. Watching them grow and mature from the fun and silly freshman they were to the fun and more thoughtful young adults they are now has been an inspiration to me. I will miss them, but it is a joyous parting as they go explore their worlds and spread their wings. I wish my budding pilot, pastry cook, teacher, engineer etc. much luck and I hope their inspirations grow with their aspirations.

We all have muses- things or people that inspire us. My lovely sophomore friend Jaidaa inspired me to write about good people that come and go in our lives. Billy Joel wrote, “So many people in and out of your life, some will last, some will just be now and then. Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes, I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again.”

Five years ago Mr. Richard Ensign said goodbye to the planetarium he helped build and take care of for over three decades. He had earned his retirement through years of hard work and passion that he puts into everything he does. I am inspired by him and I am glad to welcome him back on June 7th at 7pm to talk about his favorite things. I’d like to invite the community to come to the Ensign Planetarium in Crestwood High School that night to be inspired by him yourself. I’d also like to invite the community to support your planetarium so that we may continue to educate and inspire future generations of pilots and cooks and teachers and engineers.

In Greek mythology, the Muses had the task of inspiring humanity in the arts and sciences. Urania is the Muse of Astronomy, but also of Astrology and Universal Love. She was also known as a philosopher, and directed men's thoughts skyward, to loftier regions. She is sometimes depicted wearing a billowing blue dress tied with a broad sash covered in constellations. Urania’s name means “heavenly one.” Her name is related to the name of the god of the sky, Ouranos, or heaven, from which the name of the constellation Orion may also be derived. I think it’s interesting that the Muse of Astronomy is also the Muse of Universal Love, because when I look at the sky it makes me breathless with its vast beauty. I think of our planet and of everybody living on it as a connected, beautiful community. I guess it inspires a kind of universal love. Even as we come and go in each other’s lives, there is an ongoing connection between us. Goodbye is just a delayed response to hello, and vice versa.

Meanwhile, the time between goodbye and hello of the sun is getting very short, so we have to stay up late to see the daring duo of Mars and Saturn before they set in the west. Jupiter is up all night, but only early birds will catch a glimpse of the goddess of love, Venus. She’ll be basking in the lovely sunrise as you look out your east facing window.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Rubble Piles

5/21/06 – 5/27/06

by C. Zaitz

I was in the hospital waiting for my husband to have his one-inch kidney stone removed when I saw a show about near Earth asteroids and the threat they pose to us. There are lots of asteroids out there in uncomfortably close orbits to Earth. Some of these miles-wide mountains could annihilate life on Earth if they collided with us. But not all asteroids are whole. Some are collections of smaller rocks held together by their flimsy gravity. It turns out that these are the most dangerous threats to us because of the difficulty of destroying or deflecting them.

I thought of the giant stone in my husband’s kidney. Doctors slid a tube into his kidney, used directed energy to break the stone up, collected the pulverized bits into a net and pulled it out of him. Those little fragments would have caused more pain passing in a few days than the whole stone had caused sitting in his kidney for the past few years. Then I thought about those rubble pile asteroids. They are like garage-sized buckshot and would possibly do even more damage than a lone asteroid. How can we prevent such a collection of rocks from hitting the Earth? We don’t have anything in place to deal with such a threat – no rockets ready to go explode or deflect the asteroids, and certainly no nets to collect the pieces of any giant rubble piles heading toward us.

The truth is that we haven’t even located all the near earth asteroids. So far only 60% of them have been mapped, and even known asteroids can change orbit or character. Over the past few weeks, astronomers have watched comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 disintegrate into more than 30 fragments as it flew by some 6 million miles from us. That’s about 30 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon. It was not a threat, but astronomers are convinced it’s a matter of time before another very large asteroid or comet finds us. I say “another” because it has happened in the past. The giant meteor crater in Arizona is proof that a falling rock can make a big hole in the Earth. About one hundred tons of interplanetary material fall onto the Earth on a daily basis.

It’s enough to give you the willies. NASA does have NEO, its Near Earth Object program. According to NASA’s website,, NASA has five different programs concentrating on looking for NEOs, and Japan and Italy are also keeping an eye on the sky. I didn’t get a warm cozy feeling from their website since they do not address any capability of stopping NEOs that might impact the Earth. Necessity is the mother of invention, and there has been no immediate threat to spur the invention of Earth-protecting programs. However, if we are to have a chance at destroying or deflecting large Earth-bound boulders in space, early detection and action is the key. I hope we don’t wait until we are between a rock and a hard place, excuse the pun.

If these thoughts keep you awake at night, you can pass the time by watching for lovely Venus and the thin waning crescent Moon before dawn on the 24th. After sunset you can find Mars, Saturn and Jupiter spangled across the sky from west to east.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Why is the Sky Dark at Night?

5/14/06 – 5/20/06
by C. Zaitz

Technically, the sky it isn’t all that dark, especially in the Metro Detroit area. But let’s think about that glorious silky black sky we remember from our summers up North or some other dark place we’ve been. These are rare places where city lights are so scarce that you can see the hazy arms of our Milky Way Galaxy. The haze represents hundreds of millions of stars, but they are so distant and numerous they appear to cut a luminescent swath across the summer sky.

If you tear your gaze away from that beauty, you will find other parts of the sky that can look quite dark and devoid of stars. How can this be? You might wonder how there could be any dark places in the night sky if there are an infinite number of stars in an infinite universe. Since the time of Kepler people have wondered about this seeming paradox; if there are an infinite number of stars in the sky, then no matter where you look, even out to infinity, eventually you should see the surface of a star. It’s called Olbers’ Paradox.

As stated, the paradox is true. If there are an infinite number of stars, then the entire sky should be lit up as bright as the surface of the sun by their combined light. But perhaps they are not distributed evenly throughout the universe. We know they collect into spirals and blobs known as galaxies. But even so, the infinite number of galaxies should fill up every degree of sky we can see. So why is the night sky dark?

The answer has to do with the fact that universe is expanding, and that it isn’t infinitely old. That really means that it’s not infinite after all. Astronomers have figured out that the observable universe is about 13.7 billion years old. We can’t see anything that might lie beyond a radius of 13.7 billion light years away because the light just hasn’t had time to reach us yet.

The universe is also expanding. The light we get from very distant galaxies is dimmer than light from closer galaxies due to something called their redshift. Their light has traveled so far in something that is expanding on the way (space) that by the time it reaches us it’s pretty tired and weak (shifted toward the red end of the spectrum). The ultimate evidence of this is the Cosmic Background Radiation we find in everywhere in the universe. It is the radiation created in the Big Bang, but it is so weak and redshifted after traveling through expanding space that it is nearly invisible to us in any wavelength.

These are very short (incomplete) explanations to a question which is actually quite deep and somewhat interesting, so if you’d like to know more of the science behind Olbers’ Paradox, you can check out this website:'_paradox or Google “Olbers’ Paradox.” Meanwhile you can always enjoy the glorious rays of the planets shining down from east to west as the night progresses. Mars and Saturn chase the sun down to the northwestern horizon at sunset, and beautiful, radiant Venus entices the sun up in the northeast at sunrise, but steady, royal Jupiter, King of the Planets, stays out all night long.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Ich Spreche Kein Deutsch

5/7/06 – 5/13/06

By C. Zaitz

I usually pick up at least a FEW phrases of the language when I travel, but I couldn’t even get out “excuse me!” in German. “Entschuldigen Sie!” By the time I got my mouth wrapped around the syllables, the moment had passed. In Italian it’s “scusi” and can be said right on the spot, without preparation.

Perhaps “I speak no German” as the title indicates, but the beauty of a thin waxing moon needs no words. In Bebra, Germany overlooking a lovely view of rolling hills, sheep and the first night sky I've seen here, it is stunning. I've been waiting for a clear night so I could see the sky in this tiny little town tucked in the folds of Deutschland’s hilly terrain. I've experienced nearly every type of weather so far; der regen (rain), die wolke (cloud), der schnee (snow), der blitz (lightning), and even der hagel (hail). But no stern, mond, nor planet (star, moon or planet). I know why the german word for weather is “wetter.”

My clearest view of the sky was on the plane. At 39,000 feet I saw Jupiter so bright and bold he looked like a brilliant diamond. I saw Scorpius, Orion’s nemesis, stretched out luxuriously along the southern sky, and the teapot shape of Sagittarius the Archer right behind. As we flew into Frankfurt the morning sky was peach and rose and the tops of the clouds were glowing orange, with Jupiter beginning to wink goodnight in the west. It was the loveliest sight I've seen in a long time.

I sat next to an experienced pilot who was just shuttling back after an overseas flight. I asked him if he had ever seen anything strange in the sky. He said that pilots see things all the time, but they don't talk about it. He'd seen a fast-flying light once that he couldn’t explain. I asked him if pilots in general knew the stars or constellations, or were aware what planets they could see. He didn't think so. He didn’t know that the brightest “star” in view was really Jupiter. I was surprised, but I just assume other folks are as curious about the sky as I am. I spend a great deal of time looking at the sky compared to many people because of my job, but pilots must have to stare at the sky most of their working hours! He said the newer planes have big windows and when he flew across the North Pole he would see the northern lights. I was envious. I wanted to be a pilot after talking to him just for the perks- the great view of the sky!

My last evening in Bebra was pretty; the beautiful moon shone near Mars and Saturn, aglow in the orange-fringed azure sky. A few bright stars were scattered above high cirrus clouds as I had my usual repast of bread/beer, a cheese product, and coffee. (Being a vegetarian in the land of Bratwurst is not easy; every town sounded like a kind of hot dog.) But as I flew out of Frankfurt and began to get my six hours of earth's rotation back, I was happy to be above the clouds again.

It may seem funny to return from a wonderful trip to a foreign land and talk mostly about the flight there and back, but that is indeed where my view of the sky was best. And that’s where I learned the German word for “flying speed” – Reisegeschwindigkeit!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

The Alternator

4/30/06 –5/6/06

By C. Zaitz

My grandma just turned 90 and I drove to NY to help celebrate. I had a lovely time with family, but it was a short visit and a 7 hour rainy, gloomy, and otherwise dreary drive back across Canada to Michigan. I noticed when I slowed down the battery light came on in my car. Yikes. But when I sped up it disappeared. Hmm.

I was halfway through Canada when it got dark. Was I just tired or were my headlights flickering?

60 km from the Ambassador Bridge, I noticed the windshield wipers slowing and the console and head lights dimming. Hours before, my spider sense had told me to shut off the radio, giving me plenty of quiet time to listen to the symphony of knocks and pings from my aging Sunfire. Every few minutes I heard a “thwap” from under the hood. I told myself it was just the wind, but I knew something was afoot.

Around 10pm I saw a star; a brilliant blue-white star twinkling and snapping in an otherwise black and gloomy sky. I knew it had to be Sirius; no other star would be so bold on a night such as this. I was glad to see Sirius. I thought it meant that the rain would end and I wouldn’t have to use the battery-draining wipers anymore. No such luck. A convoy of semi trucks roared by me flinging greasy road spew onto my windshield. Sirius disappeared, rain squalls started, the wipers wiped furiously, and within 15 minutes the car was completely dead. I sat there contemplating things while sitting in a little truck pull-off. One kind truck driver looked under my hood, but we agreed there was little to be done. It was the alternator. So while I waited for the tow truck, I scanned the clearing skies over Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

It was well after 11pm and Sirius had already set, but Procyon twinkled at me instead. Procyon is the brightest star in Canis Minor, the Little Dog. The Gemini twins appeared nearby as did Saturn, and then I caught a glimpse of Regulus, the brightest star in Leo the Lion. Now there is an amazing star- it’s nearly 4 times bigger than the sun but it spins once every 16 hours. It spins so fast it’s flattened out like an egg. If it spun only 16% faster it would tear itself to shreds.

I thought about that as I sat in my little car. It was a dwarf among the giant trucks at the little pit stop and I felt rather nervous at times, but Jupiter crept up behind me from the east and made me smile when I saw him. He looked very bold and confident.

My knight in shining tow truck eventually arrived, took my car to a garage to await the morning, and very kindly chauffeured me to a motel where I did the same. The sky was once again socked in with clouds, but I am forever grateful for the comfort of the clear moments when I saw my old friends. And I’m also grateful to all the folks who are out there at the dead of night helping out other folks who need assistance.

The sun came out the next morning, the alternator was replaced and I crossed the Ambassador Bridge, happy to be back home. Now I journey to Germany but I will be back with more adventures, hopefully of a jollier nature.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Trockne Blumen

4/23/06 –4/29/06

By C. Zaitz

This week, in honor of my upcoming sojourn to Germany, I thought I would mention some Germans who throughout history have contributed to the science of astronomy. I’m sure when we think of German astrophysicists we all remember the image of crazy white hair and rumpled clothes- the inimitable Albert Einstein. He was only one of many great German astronomers, though one of a few not named “Johannes" or "Heinrich.” Here’s a short list: Johannes Bayer (1564-1617) first named stars by assigning them to constellations and giving them Greek letters in order of decreasing brightness. He also published a detailed star chart/catalog called the Uranometria in 1603. It’s a classic!

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was a clever mathematician who realized that the planets go around the sun in elliptical orbits though he hated to admit it. (He liked perfect circles.) He authored "Kepler's Three Laws of Planetary Motion” that mathematically describe the orbits of the planets. Everyone who has taken Astronomy 101 has heard of Kepler, and probably has cursed his name. (“I didn’t know we had to do math in astronomy!”)

Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687) was a wealthy brewer, but also owned a big telescope and published the first detailed moon map and a celestial atlas introducing many faint and hard to find constellations such as Canes Venatici (hunting dogs), Lacerta (lizard), Scutum (shield), and more. He just made them up, published them, and now they are part of the 88 official constellations. Thanks!

Johann Bode (1747 – 1826) popularized a relationship giving planetary distances from the Sun, which became known as “Bode's law.” He also predicted an undiscovered planet between Mars and Jupiter, where the asteroid belt was later found.
Heinrich Wilhelm Matthäus Olbers (1758-1840) was an astronomer and physician who published Olbers' paradox. The paradox asks, “why is the sky dark at night?” If space is infinite, then no matter where you look, you’ll eventually see a star. So why is the sky so dark? For the answer stay tuned for a future column! Heinrich Schwabe (1789 – 1875) was an amateur astronomer who discovered the 11-year sunspot cycle. He looked at the sun nearly every day for over 40 years. In an example of serendipity, he was actually looking for a planet near Mercury, but instead discovered a lot about sunspots and the solar cycle.

Karl Schwarzchild (1873-1916) was the first to solve Einstein's equations of general relativity and also made some of the first studies of black holes. He figured out that the sun would have to shrink down to a 3 km sphere to become a black hole. Don’t worry, it’s not going to happen.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was a German/American physicist. He revolutionized our conception of the universe with his theories of Special and General Relativity, also a topic for future discussion. He also has reached pop-icon status as no other scientist has done.

Because I also love music, I must mention the great German composers: Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Herr Bach and all the little Bachs, Strauss, Schoenberg, Wagner, Handel, and even the almost forgotten Hildegard Von Bingen, a brilliant musician and astronomer of her time (1098 – 1179). Schubert wrote the haunting and lovely song after which I entitled this week’s column. It means “Wilted Flowers.” I’ll report back on the German cathedral built out of rocks embedded with glass from a meteor impact after I see it with my own eyes.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Empty Glass

4/16/06 –4/22/06

By C. Zaitz

All my life I’ve looked at the Universe as if it were mostly empty. Blackness upon velvety blackness, interrupted by sprinkles of brilliant diamond stars, on and on with no end to the emptiness. I knew that the Milky Way alone contains hundreds of billions of stars and that it is one of billions of galaxies in the observable universe. It sounds pretty crowded, but the truth is that there is lots of room. One of our nearest neighbors, the Andromeda Galaxy, lies well over 2 million light years from us. Andromeda is home to massive numbers of stars, like the Milky Way, and furthermore, she is headed toward us. Scientists think that in no less than 3-4 billion years, our two galaxies will collide! But there is so much nothing in these galaxies that they can pass right through each other without a single star ever colliding. That’s what I mean by the universe being pretty empty – even the most densely packed regions, the galaxies, are generally made of nothing.

Now astronomers think that the nothing is actually something and that most of the universe is made of this something that looks and feels like nothing: dark matter and dark energy. Together these mysterious dark nothings add up to filling the universe. Though we aren’t clear about the nature of dark energy and dark matter, I’m sure we will figure it out soon. I feel like a paradigm shift is coming, as when people had to stop thinking of the earth as being the center of the universe and admit that we were orbiting a much larger star. Now instead of this vast empty universe, we are in fact apparently embedded in a rich and connected fabric of spacetime whose weft and warp are made of dark matter and energy.

Pete Townshend of the rock band The Who wrote a song called Empty Glass. He said it was an allusion to the fact that you can’t come to the Universal Bar with a full glass and expect to get something in it. You have to have an empty glass. I think he meant that if you want to gain some sort of knowledge or insight you have to have an open mind, not one full of preconceptions. Our conception of the Universe as being empty perhaps distracted us from the fact that it was full of stuff, only it was stuff we couldn’t see. Now astronomers are hard at work looking for the invisible. Some say that dark energy may be a kind of “quintessence” or a vacuum energy of empty space. Dark matter seems to be embedded in the galaxies themselves, giving them more heft and explaining why the spiral arms don’t wind themselves up after a few rotations of a galaxy. I am very much looking forward to the day that we have a better description and explanation for dark matter and dark energy. I’d like to know what the universal glass is full of.

Our evening sky will be peppered with the stars of spring and two evening planets. Mars is still the westerly member of the duet and Saturn hangs high in the south in the early evening. Jupiter rises later in the evening and is best seen starring opposite Venus in the morning sky.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Big Star

4/9/06 –4/15/06

By C. Zaitz

I’m not talking about the band from the 70’s, I’m talking about the sun! Lately it has come to my attention that the sun is not the same sun I grew up with. That sun was round and yellow, kind of dull and regular. It featured prominently in all my drawings, sporting long yellow fins and spikes. It came up in the morning and went down at night, though in my drawings it usually was hanging right over my house and smiling. Nobody paid too much attention to it, it was just the sun.

Lately the sun has turned into a big star. It’s in the news a lot, because scientists are increasingly turning to the sun to explain changes in the earth’s climate. We’ve learned that the sun goes through cycles of activity, usually lasting eleven years. 2006 marks the lowest amount of activity or solar minimum during the current cycle, known as cycle #23. Studies have correlated sunspot activity with temperature and climate changes on the earth. When the sun is regular and boring, going through its cycles of maximum and minimum activity, everything seems to be fine. But sometimes the sun stops acting like a big star and goes quiet. The most recent example is the Maunder Minimum, which occurred from 1645 to 1715. In a 30 year period during this solar anomaly, scientists observed 50 sunspots rather than the more usual 50,000. 93 million miles away, people of earth suffered the loss. The Maunder Minimum occurred during the middle and coldest part of what we call the Little Ice Age. Much of Europe and North America suffered brutally cold winters while glaciers advanced, crushing farms and villages. There was widespread crop failures and famine, plagues and death. Art and literature of the time reflect the harsh climate; the famous painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware depicts an ice-clogged river, which rarely happens nowadays that far south. In 1776 it seems the Delaware indeed was an icy river and the painting is correct.

While scientist agree that the earth’s climate is complicated and that volcanism and ocean currents also drive aspects of climate, it’s becoming more apparent that the sun is a rising star in studies of global warming and climate changes. You can keep an eye on the sun daily at Already we are seeing more and more spots and storms on the sun. Some say that the sun had its minimum early and therefore the solar maximum may come early and hard as well. Sometime between 2010 and 2012 we may have the strongest solar activity we’ve seen in 50 years. For stargazers, it means pretty aurorae (northern lights) but for all of us it may mean loss of cell phone signals, power outages and our TV satellites knocked out of orbit. Hopefully the sun will behave itself like a big star and not go quiet as it has done in the past.

When the sun goes down, you can look for Mars and Saturn in the southwestern evening sky. Jupiter rises around 10pm but is easier to see once it is higher in the sky. Try in the wee morning hours right before sunrise. Venus will also be up in the east, as Jupiter will have migrated to the west by morning.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Goodbye, Orion

4/2/06 –4/8/06

By C. Zaitz

This month we say goodbye to Orion, the mighty Hunter. He’s been with us for months, and he will be missed as the most famous star group of winter. Orion is one of the boldest constellations in the sky due to the seven bright stars outlining his body. Especially noticeable are the three stars of his belt, and the lack of stars in his head. Maybe his head is faint because he can’t see. He was said to have been blinded as a punishment for repeatedly getting into trouble over women. He wandered around blind for awhile until the Sun restored his vision. If that is true, Orion is now wandering toward the Sun to regain his sight. Each night you will see Orion take another step into the western sunset. Perhaps next fall when he once again rises in the morning his vision will be restored.

Crouched behind Orion is the constellation of Leo the Lion. He will take the place of Orion as the center of attention in the evening sky. The big cat’s head looks like a backward question mark and the rest of him is marked by three stars that make a triangle. Behind Leo toward the east is the bright star Arcturus. You can find this star by locating the Big Dipper, which is high in the northern sky. The handle of the dipper makes a curve or an arc, and if you follow that arc with your finger, it will gracefully swing down to Arcturus. “Arc to Arcturus,” then straight down from there to another star called Spica, the grain of wheat. Spica is the brightest star in the constellation of Virgo. It’s handy to use a good star map and/or visit your local friendly Ensign Planetarium! For star maps try

Constellations can be like old friends, once you get to know them. What are they but points of light in the sky, scattered through the galaxy? They would look completely different from some other distant solar system. Orion and Hercules, Virgo and Andromeda are only figments of our imaginations. But maybe they are something more, something deeper. Maybe when we see the stars of Orion disappear into the evening twilight we remember that time is passing, seasons are changing, and even the stars must flow with the current in the river of time. There is an old saying attributed to Heraclitus: you cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are ever flowing onto you. It is the same with the stars; though Orion will be back next fall, time will have passed and it will be a different sky, or perhaps a different you looking at it. That is an exciting and daunting thought.

Time has not yet dimmed the appearance of the lovely Venus in the eastern morning twilight. Jupiter also still can be seen in the early morning hours in the west. Mars and Saturn however need to be seen right at sunset. Mars is straddled between the horns of Taurus the Bull and Saturn looks like it is making the Gemini twins into triplets. For both planets look toward the south and southwest. The pretty waxing crescent moon will be growing into first quarter by mid week and then gibbous as it heads toward full phase on the 13th.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Till the Sun Falls From the Sky

3/26/06 –4/1/06

By C. Zaitz

Recently some first graders came to the planetarium to learn about the Earth, Sun and Moon. I asked the little ones to show me where the Sun would go during the day. They pointed first to the east, tracked their tiny fingers across the sky and ended up pointing to the west. I turned on the planetarium Sun and they saw for themselves what they had just predicted. Then as the Sun went down, they began to see the stars and planets. One little girl pointed to the dot that represented Saturn and said, “There’s the Sun!” I am usually not surprised by the things I hear students say when the stars come out; in fact I usually let them talk out loud so I can hear any misconceptions they may be harboring. But I hadn’t come across anyone thinking that the Sun was back in the sky disguised as a planet. My planetarium Sun may not be as bright as the real Sun, but it is pretty accurate in size. I had to ask my young guest why she thought the Sun had returned after she watched it go down. She said that sometimes the Sun falls out of the sky and then it switches and comes back up in the sky. I was momentarily speechless, but I decided to go over the spinning of the Earth once more.

In the absence of science, human imaginations can come up with very poetic explanations of every day phenomenon. I’ve always wondered what those crazy Greeks were thinking with their stories of Helios carrying the Sun across the sky in a chariot pulled by winged horses. But sitting face to face with a six year old trying to make her understand that the Sun wasn’t moving, that the Earth was actually spinning at 800 mph under her very feet made me feel like I was the crazy storyteller. Her explanation of the Sun falling down and magically coming back up made more sense than my ardent testimonial that the Earth was moving. Luckily first graders will remember what I said and generally regurgitate it accurately though it may be a few more years before developmentally they will be able to understand it.

On Wednesday, March 29th, the motion of the moon will be seen, if not felt. Lucky folks in parts of S. America, Africa and Asia will experience a rare and beautiful total solar eclipse. The Moon will pass directly in front of the Sun, blotting it out for a few minutes. Some might think that the Sun has fallen from the sky or that the event portends evil or upcoming joy. That evening you can come to the Ensign Planetarium and eat, drink and be merry with us. We will have internet footage of the eclipse from Turkey. Telescopes will view Saturn and Mars and we’ll have activities for the whole family. Admission is $3 adults and $2 students and seniors. Doors open at 6pm for open house and the show is at 7pm. I welcome everyone to come and see for yourselves if the Sun will fall from the sky. I predict it won’t. And we have something the Greeks didn’t have- pictures from space to prove it.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Let’s Talk About the Weather

3/19/06 –3/25/06

By C. Zaitz

Michigan’s turbulent spring weather means every day is a new adventure in expecting the unexpected. I’ve been keeping my eye on the evening planets Mars and Saturn, and the dog and I look for Venus and Jupiter in the morning, but often the view is obscured as the snain (my word for that cold harsh mix of snow and rain) falls in dense sheets from the skies.

Meanwhile, far away from the ever changing weather fronts of earth, planetary probes are busy exploring weather on other worlds. Both Mars and Saturn currently have spy ships from earth. Mars is used to the alien probes from his neighboring planet. The first whiff of foreign spaceship wafted into the atmosphere of Mars in 1971 with the arrival of Mariner 9. Mariners 4, 6 and 7 had all flown by back in 1965-9, but Mariner 9 orbited and first glimpsed the giant volcanoes and the grandest canyon of the solar system. The view was hard won; Mariner 9 circled for a month before raging dust storms cleared to reveal the wonders of Mars. Then in 1976 Vikings 1 and 2 successfully landed and now we can’t leave Mars alone.

Many flybys, orbiters and landers later, some of which have failed, we still are obsessed with our red neighbor. Our most current successes have been the long-lived and curious rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Opportunity in particular keeps discovering clues to Mars’ wet past. Not only has the probe found evidence of liquid water in the rock formations and salt deposits, it seems clear that parts of Mars has been washed over and over with watery ebbs and flows. Though parts on both rovers are wearing out, they have been “Energizer Bunny-ing” since 2004, leaving their impish round “footprints” as they drill into the rocks looking for signs of water and life. To see more, try:

There are currently four ships orbiting Mars as well as the two active Exploration Rovers. The latest robot to reach Mars is the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The MRO boasts the most powerful camera ever sent to another planet. Not only will the orbiter study the atmosphere and climate of Mars, it can actually peer below the ground to search for water. It will also provide a communications link for future missions to Mars, like the first Interplanetary Internet! Hmm… my new email address might be That’s far out, except for the 30 minutes average delay in getting the signal to Mars and back. Actually that’s speedier than my current provider at rush hour!

The mighty planet Saturn has also had visitors from its distant blue cousin. Saturn was first ogled by Pioneer 11 in 1973, but the most famous visitors to the ringed planet were the legendary Voyagers. After giving Jupiter the once over in 1979, the two probes sailed by Saturn in 1980. After a nearly two decade hiatus of probes, the recent arrival of the Cassini – Huygens has rewritten the books on Saturn’s complex systems of moons and rings. The Huygens probe showed us the first hazy landscape of a foreign moon. Cassini continues to swing around Saturn, snapping photos of the fabulous moons and making headlines with discoveries of water and smog. If you think Michigan is bad, check out the weather on Titan! It’s something to do until our own skies clear.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Changing Your Spots

3/12/06 –3/18/06

By C. Zaitz

There is an old saying that a leopard can’t change its spots, meaning that we are who we are and changing is very difficult, if not impossible. However, news about the planets may give us hope. The biggest cat of all, the giant planet Jupiter, is changing its spots. Jupiter has always been known for its famous Great Red Spot, the mammoth rusty red storm that could swallow a couple of earth-sized planets. Recent telescopic views of Jupiter have shown an entirely new spot which has formed from smaller merging spots. The new spot is about half the size of the Great Red and almost a perfect match in color. Astronomers call it Oval BA but it has been nicknamed Red Jr.

The Great Red Spot was first reported by an astronomer named Robert Hooke in 1664. Ever since then it has been a favorite target for large and small telescopes in countless backyards. It is a large hurricane-like storm in the clouds of Jupiter. The new spot seems to have been formed by the collision and subsequent merging of smaller white storms. Astronomers have been watching this process since 2000 and the new storm has remained white, but recently the color of the new spot changed into a dusty brown and now it nearly matches the red color of its larger neighbor. Scientists still aren’t sure what gives the Great Red Spot its color, though a favorite theory has storm dynamics dredging up material from deeper in the clouds to soar 8 km above the rest of Jupiter where sunlight changes the color to a blushing red. On Jupiter at least, spots can change, though the Great Red has been fairly stable since we’ve been watching it, for over 350 years. No one knows for sure how long Great Red has been going. And time will tell what will happen with Red Jr., but I bet it will be a great excuse for telescope upgrades for many an amateur astronomer!

Jupiter is going to be out all summer. It’s been hanging out in the morning skies for the past few months, but as spring turns to summer, the mighty giant will be easy to see in the evening. Currently Jupiter is easiest to see before sunrise. It is not quite as bright as the outstanding Venus who is hanging lower and nearer the sun, but Jupiter outshines any other object in the sky at that time of the morning. Don’t forget to spy on Mars and Saturn, still spinning ‘round the Sun and easy to spot in the evening dusk. Look southward around 8pm and you’ll see the peachy Mars to the west and yellowed Saturn to the east.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Wake up! Wake up!

3/5/06 –3/11/06

By C. Zaitz

That is the message I’ve been getting from Mr. Cardinal, the feisty red Lord of the Treetops who has been early-morning serenading any female within earshot for the past week or two. I wonder if he knows that even though I don’t have a crest on my head, I’m still very impressed with him and would like to get to know him better! I remember the first time I heard the song of the boy Cardinal and wondered who was making that pretty sound. It took me a while but I finally found out one day when I saw his crimson flash of feathers as he whistled down at me.

Mr. Cardinal’s spring song is music to my ears. I love the sounds of nature waking up. I’ve noticed that the sun is waking up earlier too! The change in the sun is very apparent this time of year. Not only is it rising earlier every day, but sunrise is creeping northward at a steady clip this month. That may sound funny; how can the sunrise move? But it does- you can see it every morning if you look out the window around 6am as the coffee is brewing. Right now the sun sets a bit south of east, but by the 20th it will rise due east and that day marks the first day of spring. Every day after that, the sun will rise more northward of east and the length of daylight will grow. At the other end of day, the sunset will also creep northward. This inevitable, steady “march” of the sun along the horizon is echoed in nature’s anticipated spring march towards new life and growth, though sometimes it seems more like a sprint than a march!

Speaking of sprinting, I nearly had to run the other morning to get outside before the sun blasted away the last signs of planets and starlight. I saw the bright orange glow of the sunrise and knew that I would still be able to see Venus burning clearly in the Eastern sky, but I wasn’t so sure about Jupiter. Luckily he was there as well, hanging midway up the sky in the south. My mad rush was caused by the fact that sunrise gets about 2-3 minutes earlier a day. That may not sound like a lot, but in the beginning of March sunrise was at 7:08 am and by the end of the month it will be at 6:17am. That’s nearly an hour earlier! This is one of the reasons why we really notice the change of season this month more than others. The changes in the sky, the changes in our surroundings, the greening of nature and songs of the birds all serve to remind us that spring is in the air. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be wary of Michigan’s curve snow-balls she always throws at us, but even the Great Lakes’ cold fingers of winter can’t postpone the onset of spring!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Colors of the Night

2/26/06 –3/4/06

By C. Zaitz

We live in an area that suffers from extreme light pollution. We generally don’t even notice it until we happen to be in a place where the sky isn’t washed out by the local All-Mart or our neighbor’s “security” hydrogen fusion back yard lights. When we get away from cities the glory of the sky can hit us like the shock of a fuse blowing on the stadium lights in the middle of a big night game.

The colors of the night around here usually resonate with the orange hazy sodium vapor glow from our street lighting. Amateur astronomers know the annoyance of street light glare and haze from the city lights, but it’s more than just annoyance. Our modern methods of lighting our cities and neighborhood leave a lot to be desired. Take a look down your street in the evening. Do you see the glare from the street lights? Do you see very bright and very dark shadowy places? We tend not to give much thought to our lighting schemes, but our oversight has led to wasteful and sometimes dangerous lighting practices. When light escapes sideways and upward from the lighting fixtures it signals wasted electricity. When you see glare from overhead lighting, it represents dangerous blinding light that can cause accidents and injury. Both problems are fixable, however.

There are many good solutions for lighting the streets and not the skies, but since light pollution is taken for granted (we’ve all grown up with it in one way or another) it is not given a priority in city or community planning. I would like to offer you a good website if you are interested in learning what you can do in our community to help be part of the solution and save money! Try for lots of information on light pollution, what it does to us, and what we can do to get rid of it.

I don’t mean to rant or anything, but a few nights ago I was searching for the stars in my front yard and only found a few. Orion the Hunter is mid sky in the early evening now, marking his final sprint towards the western horizon so he can rest all summer long in the glare of the Sun. The seven bright stars that mark his outline were visible, as was the dog star Sirius following behind him. I saw only the brightest of the winter stars and Mars and Saturn. I had to strain to see the Pleiades, though I knew them to be just west of Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull. And the arm of the Milky Way I knew was floating overhead was nowhere to be found. I sighed and waved to Orion, knowing that though I couldn’t see it, he was holding a brass club in one hand and a lion’s skin in the other and couldn’t wave back.

My backyard is equipped with motion sensor lights, which not only cut down on electricity, but alert the dog to any possible trespassers, and he in turn alerts me with his funny bark. But I happen to have a dog who adores light and shadows. Motion sensor lights, shielded lights and carefully aimed lights can help keep us safer, save money, and allow us to see the beauty of the night sky. Sounds like win-win-win to me. We can change the sky back from orange to black!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Star Clusters Punctuated by Planets!

2/19/06 – 2/25/06

By C. Zaitz

If you’ve been glancing up into the evening sky lately, you’ve probably noticed Mars and Saturn in the southeast after sunset. The two planets glare down from on high as the distant stars wink and glitter around them. This week each planet is near a famous star cluster. In our local skies, we are lucky to see the few stars we do see, though the planets are visible because they are so bright. But star clusters are fainter and somewhat hazy to the unaided eye. One of the most famous is the Pleiades, and the other is called the Beehive Cluster. Both clusters are fairly easy to spot in a reasonably dark sky. This week both have bright pointers to show them off.

Mars is the planet with the ruddy glow, and is the more westerly of the two planets in the early evening sky. Mars is underlining the Pleiades as it passes below the cluster all week. The Pleiades (commonly pronounced PLEE a dees) have also been called the Seven Sisters since historically there have been seven visible stars in the cluster. In modern times, one star has faded a bit and is not easily visible anymore, leaving six sisters in the lurch! The Japanese logo for Subaru cars reflects this fact. If you count the stars in the logo, you will see only six, but they are indeed the Pleiades or Subaru as they are called in Japan.

Saturn is trailing behind Mars all evening, as it lingers in the gentle hazy glow of its temporary companion, the Beehive Cluster. Both the Pleiades and the Beehive are collections of stars loosely hanging together in a gravitational huddle. These clusters are made of hundreds of stars that are born roughly about the same time and in the same region of space, so we can study them in unique ways to understand stellar life cycles and even determine distances more accurately. The Pleiades lie some 400 light years from earth, and the Beehive is even further away at 500 light years. That means that when we look at these beautiful clusters of stars, we are seeing them as they looked several hundred years ago. But stars live for millions and even billions of years, so 500 years won’t see much change in a star.

We shouldn’t neglect the beauty of the morning sky, because although the two morning planets aren’t flirting with star clusters, they are both attention-grabbers as they herald the coming of the morning dawn. Jupiter hangs low in the southeast but still flies higher above the brightly glowing Venus. The skies will lighten as you’re looking at the two planets, but if it were pitch black, you would see the busiest part of our galaxy in the stretch of sky between the planets. In that direction lie countless star clusters, nebulae and even the giant black hole located in the center of our galaxy. But our eyes will only see the brilliant pinks, oranges and blues of the coming daybreak.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Don’t Blame the Moon

2/12/06 – 2/18/06

By C. Zaitz

Overheard in Dearborn Heights: “I don't know if it's the phase of the Moon or what but this past week has been crazy.”
Overheard at U of M Dearborn: “It must be the full Moon; you can tell because people are acting crazy.” Overheard anywhere: “When the Moon is full everyone gets crazy! Police say they notice it, hospitals notice it, everyone knows it, it must be true!”

Here are some things we know about the Moon. The Full Moon is the brightest object in the night sky. The Moon looks full a day before and a day after it’s full. The Moon is 240,000 miles away, on average.

So what about the idea that the Moon phase affects crime rates and “lunacy” here on Earth. One might ask, “what is it about the Full Moon that would make people crazy.” Often people will say, “It's the Moon's gravity that affects us, just as it affects the oceans by making the tides.” But how much does gravity really affect us? It's true that the Moon affects the Earth, but gravity is a force that gets weaker with distance. The Earth has a great diameter, so the pull of the Moon’s gravity on the near side of the Earth is slightly stronger than on the far side of the Earth, causing the water in the oceans to be pulled toward the Moon when the Moon is over it. The difference is not great, but it’s enough to cause tides. The Moon also tugs on the land, but dirt and rocks are not as squishy as water, so we don’t notice land-tides. But humans are small, and the difference between the pull from the Moon on your front versus your back is almost zero. A fly landing on your arm has more gravitational effect on you than the Moon. And that’s not much! So gravity just doesn’t seem to be a good explanation.

Some folks look to female cycles and their apparent match to the lunar cycle as proof of the Moon's effect on us, but the Moon's cycle of phases is fixed at 29.5 days. Female human cycles can vary by up to a dozen days, not to mention that other species have very different cycles. Why wouldn't the Moon effect even larger animals such as bears or rhinos?

The fact is that scientists have studied hundreds of records of suicides, births, accidents and have found no correlation between the phase of the Moon and these events. So why is the “Full Moon – Lunacy” phenomenon so widespread? Some scientists think that it’s a psychological selection process. Much like many urban legends or myths, when we hear something interesting like, “the Moon causes craziness” we turn on our Moon radar and become more aware of it. The Full Moon is much brighter than the Moon in any other phase, and it’s always very noticeable. When you see the Full Moon, you might be more ready to connect its appearance with anything strange going on, more so than at other times of the Moon’s cycle. It’s good to notice the Moon, just don’t blame it!

You can enjoy the Full Moon on the 13th, and watch it diminish each day thereafter. Mars and Saturn still rule the evening sky in the south west, but Jupiter and Venus make a formidable duo in the morning skies. Look to the southeast right before sunrise!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Catching a Comet

2/5/06 – 2/11/06

By C. Zaitz

Stardust. What a pretty name for a spaceship. Especially one that’s spent most of its life in deep dark outer space looking for little pebbles and debris left behind from the formation of the solar system. If you hadn’t caught it on your favorite media outlet, the news is that we’ve successfully brought little pieces of a comet back to earth! I know what you’re thinking. “What’s the big deal? Pieces of comets tumble to earth all the time. We call them meteors or shooting stars!” It’s true; meteors are actually often pieces of a comet that have been left in a trail in space as the comet melts or sublimates (goes from solid to gas). The earth plows through these dusty paths in its orbit around the sun, and the little particles come slamming through the air, heat up and create bright streaks in our night sky.

Sometimes a large chunk of comet debris will actually make it through the atmosphere unharmed and land on earth. It’s rare but sometimes folks will find these fragments of comet or asteroid and give them to museums, keep them or sell them for large amounts of cash to collectors. But these little bits of space rock aren’t very helpful to scientists. In their journey around the sun and their tumble to earth, the particles have been changed and contaminated. Once the meteor comes anywhere near earth’s atmosphere, all the creepy crawlies that live up there can embed themselves in the rock and fool us into thinking that there are critters in outer space. The only way to get a pristine sample of comet material is to go out into the near vacuum of space and collect the dust there. That was the mission of Stardust. It’s a desk-sized 770 pound spacecraft on a five year mission, and as of last month the mission ended successfully as its parachutes deployed to literally deposit Stardust gently on planet earth.

Stardust held the pristine particles of comet dust, as well as cosmic dust (yes, that darned stuff is everywhere, apparently) in a substance called Aerogel. Aerogel is a space-age highly porous substance (it’s about 97 % air!) that can capture little dust particles without changing their shape or contaminating them. I was able to see a little chunk of Aerogel at a workshop once. It looked like nothing I’d ever seen before. We weren’t allowed to handle it because the moisture from our hands would disintegrate it, yet you could put a propane torch to it and it wouldn’t even blink. Right now scientists are digging into the Aerogel to harvest the dust and particles, and once they retrieve enough they can begin to study, for the very first time, the elements that were present at the very birth of our solar system.

Some people conjecture that comets may be the couriers of water to planet earth. Some people think maybe carbon and sugars on comets may have implanted the building blocks of life on earth. Some people never give comets much thought. But in the coming months we will be studying our comet bits and trying to piece together those early days of solar system formation.

Meanwhile, our lovely solar system orbits Sol as usual. Mars still beams down at us from the early evening southern sky, and Saturn follows close on his heels. Jupiter won’t be seen until morning hours, but shines brightly to wake the sun earlier and earlier each morning! The moon grows fatter every evening and will be full on the 13th.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

The Bear Crawl

1/22/06 – 1/29/06

By C. Zaitz

Have you noticed the Big Dipper in the northern sky this winter? Look for seven bright stars in the shape of a pot with a long handle. Around 9 pm the Dipper is almost “standing” on its handle in the northwest. The Big Dipper is a well known collection of stars, though it is not an official constellation. The Big Dipper is the nickname for the group of stars that to us looks like a water dipper, but it reminded people living a long time ago of a great bear crawling around the sky. In a very dark sky when the dimmer stars are visible, you can trace the faint outline of an ursine being. Ursa Major is the Latin name given to the shape, and our English word “ursine” comes from the Latin word for bear; ursa. The entire constellation is much larger than the seven stars of the Big Dipper, but in our modern light-polluted skies, the Big Dipper stands out as the other stars of the constellations are washed out.

If you see the Big Dipper around 9pm, look for the two top stars- the two stars farthest from the handle of the dipper. These are nicknamed the “Pointer Stars.” Trace a line in the sky with your finger; begin with the eastern or right top star, pass through the star next to it on the left and keep going... the next star you find will be the North Star. Don’t be surprised if it looks faint to you- it is not a very bright star as seen by earthlings. But it does lie almost directly above the north pole of the earth, and therefore is famous for its helpfulness in finding north. Once you’ve found the North Star, you’ve found the end star in the handle of the Little Dipper, otherwise known as the Little Bear, Ursa Minor.

The cool part about the Big and Little Dippers is that they both dance around the North Star over the course of the evening and over the course of the year. The nightly motion is due to the rotation of the earth, which is what causes day and night. Over the course of one evening you can watch the Big and Little Dippers rotate part way around the North Star so that by morning the Big Dipper will be high up in the northern sky, on top of the Little Dipper, rather than beside it. The yearly motion is the crawl of the bear around the sky. If you went outside at 10pm every night you would notice over the course of a season that the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) would be crawling around the sky in slow motion. This motion is caused by the orbit of the earth around the sun. It’s almost like a giant clock in the sky, though the bear’s crawl is counterclockwise. Through the rest of the winter and into the spring, you can watch the bear climb higher in the sky night after night, until by nearly summer it will be high over the North Star at 10pm.

As long as you’re out stargazing, you can peek over at Mars and Saturn dancing across the early evening sky from east to west, and if you prefer to do your stargazing in the morning, you’ll see Jupiter shining in the pre-dawn sky in the southeast.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

One Endless Night

1/15/05 – 1/21/06

By C. Zaitz

I was standing on the beach in Port Austin looking north recently. Lake Huron was still and calm, and there were very few folks disturbing the quiet at the tip of Michigan’s Thumb. The sun was trying to burn through the clouds, but it was low in the sky. There was a pale cool light filtering onto the beach where I had been drenched in sunlight just months earlier. I looked out over the still water and imagined the lands further to the north. Places where the sun wasn’t even above the horizon. The lands of one endless night, when the sun sets on September 21st and doesn’t rise again until the Vernal Equinox in March. These are the places where darkness reigns twenty four hours a day. When I pondered this idea, I became grateful for the meager light reflecting off the snow near my feet.

I wondered how far would I have to walk to get to a place where the sun was always below the horizon. Would it be somewhere out in Lake Huron or near the North Pole? I would have to walk north to a latitude of about 64 degrees. (66.5 degrees on the solstice.) Here in Dearborn Heights we are at 42 degrees, but in Port Austin I was at 44 degrees. Each degree of latitude is roughly about 70 miles. I’d have to walk 20 degrees of latitude, or…1400 miles? Jeepers, I had my old boots on and just one Kleenex in my pocket- I’d never make it!

As the cold penetrated my boots, I thought about turning around and walking south. How far would I have to go until the sun would be directly over my head? This would seem to be a more worthwhile journey. But in the winter time, the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun and even at the equator the sun doesn’t get overhead at noon. I’d have to go south of the equator, to a latitude of about 20 degrees south. (23.5 degrees south on the solstice.) If a degree is 70 miles, then this journey is going to take awhile…let’s see, about 64 degrees of latitude to walk, that’s only…4480 miles. Hmm…perhaps I’d better fly!

Of course, I wouldn’t have to go all the way to Rio De Janeiro (23 degrees south) to feel warmer- I could stop off in Miami or Key West. At a latitude of about 25 degrees north, the sun would be nearly 20 degrees higher in the sky than in Port Austin. Right now the sun reaches its highest altitude at 24 degrees, but adding 20 degrees to that, we end up with an altitude of 44 degrees. That’s more like March than January. And with warm ocean breezes, I think I could live with that!

Then I remembered that I’m an astronomer and I should really head to the lands of the endless night, where I can gaze at the stars all night and all day. So I turned back to the north and looked once more, until my toes started to go numb and decided that perhaps the journey of a thousand miles begins with a cup of hot chocolate back at the cottage.

Later after the sun set, I saw Mars glowing in the southern sky and Saturn rising in the east, and in the morning as I let the dog out over some freshly fallen snow I caught a glimpse of Jupiter in the southeastern sky, nearly hidden by high clouds but still shining through.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the beautiful view!

Goodbye Venus

1/8/05 – 1/14/06

By C. Zaitz

Venus has been a bright evening beacon for months, but now we must say goodbye to her evening apparition as she ducks in front of the sun. Her orbit takes her between us and the sun for a few days, but she will reemerge on the morning side of things by the end of the month. She won’t appear back in the evening skies until nearly next year, but her shiny crescent will cheer us up in the dark winter mornings.

Soon there will be a visitor to the planet Venus. The European Space Agency (ESA) has launched a probe called Venus Express and it will be arriving in April of this year. This probe was modeled on their Mars Express which arrived in Mars orbit in 2003. Mars Express is still there, sending back data on the atmosphere of Mars and even probing beneath the surface to look for water. These subsurface soundings are taken while the probe is 800 kilometers from the surface. The new Venus Express is modeled on the Mars mission, and many of the technologies that were developed for Mars are used for Venus Express. These Express Probes were meant to be efficient and quick to build and launch. Venus Express accomplished these goals – it was the cheapest probe of its kind. Even though it has the same design as the Mars Express, the ESA was able to modify the design to send it to a vastly different planet.

There hasn’t been a probe at Venus since the Magellan Mission of 1989. Magellan was designed to map the surface of the planet by using microwaves to penetrate her thick clouds to make images of flattened volcanoes and lava flows. Venus Express will study the planet’s atmosphere more than the surface. One of the reasons we’re so interested in Venus and her toxic cloak of atmosphere is that she is very similar to earth in size and composition. But it is clear that the history of Venus is very different than that of earth, since the average temperature on her hazy surface is around 900 degrees. Some scientists compare what we know about Venus to the earth, and some even worry that earth is susceptible to the same factors that made Venus so hot and uninhabitable. This is one of the reasons we send probes to study her atmosphere and surface. If we can learn more about Venus, hopefully we can avoid the same problems here on earth, since it’s clear that planets change, especially when their inhabitants help it along.

From here on earth, Venus still looks lovely when she rules the sunrise. While we’re waiting for her entry into the morning, we can still enjoy Mars and Saturn in the southern evening sky, and Jupiter shines in the south east in the morning.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the beautiful view!

Grey is a Color Too!

1/1/05 – 1/7/06

By C. Zaitz

I was looking at the bottoms of clouds again today thinking, “what on earth can I talk about in the sky?” I was uninspired by the endless days of grey we’ve had. All the beautiful sights of planets, constellations and the moon have been blocked by the Michigan Wall of Clouds. But as I was driving in the car one day, I noticed that there were so many colors in that sky of grey. I detected some pink, blue and even a little violet. All of a sudden I wasn’t bored by the clouds anymore. They were full of color and variation, and though I’d have given a lot to see the sun to peek through, I still amused myself by imagining where it was in the sky behind the clouds.

The good news is that the sun has made it through the solstice. (Thanks to all of you who did a solstice dance or lit a candle so that the sun would come back to the northern hemisphere- it seems to have worked!) Of course I’m kidding, but every day the sun will be getting slightly higher in the sky and will be with us about a minute longer each day! Every little bit helps.

There are some excellent websites to peruse while waiting for the skies to clear. NASA has which will show you some very cool satellite images of cloud cover. It’s a fun site to explore. Here’s a website where you can find sky conditions all over Michigan, And of course, if you’re curious to see what the sun looks like behind the clouds, you can always surf over to

Clouds will come and go in the long Michigan winter, but during the clear sky moments, there’s much to behold in the cold January sky. Even though she is in a slim crescent phase, Venus still shines brightly in the western twilight sky. She’s sinking lower every day, however, so don’t miss the opportunity to catch a glimpse this week. Mars will be shining his pale peach light just northeast of the tiny cluster of stars called the Pleiades. If you see Mars, look nearby for the “Seven Sisters” glowing like tiny diamonds in the sky. Saturn rises around 7pm and will be in the sky all night long. However, you’ll only find Jupiter, the king of the planets, in the morning sky. Look to the east before sunrise and you’ll see his steady beacon.

And if you wake up and see those grey skies, you can look for colors and shapes in them and think of all the beauty awaiting you behind their curtain.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the beautiful view!

The Wall of Air

12/25/05 – 12/31/05

By C. Zaitz

During the holidays we often think of loved ones that can’t be with us, due to distance, death or other circumstances. Recently as I was talking to a group of third graders about the International Space Station, I remembered the two astronauts who are currently residing in the Space Station, Bill and Valery. Bill McArthur is American and Valery Tokarev is Russian. I was thinking how they must have some pangs at this time of year as they look down to their home planet and know that though they are only 250 miles away, they are separated from their loved ones by the invisible wall of Earth’s atmosphere. It might seem strange to think of air as a wall, but really it’s even more daunting than a brick wall- it’s like a wall of fire! Once the astronauts are up in orbit, the only way they can get back is to slowly and carefully ease back into the atmosphere. They must be careful not to go too fast lest the intense friction tear the spacecraft into fireballs as we saw when the Space Shuttle Columbia reentered the atmosphere nearly three years ago. On a physical level, you could think of all the energy the rockets expend getting the astronauts up into orbit could all be unleashed in moments were they to fall back to earth. So the astronauts are up there until they catch a safe ride back to earth.

The two residents of Space Station Freedom will be getting a holiday re-supply visit from the Russian Progress spacecraft. Progress will be loaded with good things to eat like fresh fruit and vegetables, mementos and gifts from home and other supplies that the astronauts need. These crafts are launched with computers to rendezvous with the Station orbiting some 250 nautical miles above earth. Apparently the astronauts shared a typical American Thanksgiving meal of turkey and stuffing back in November, so they are set to enjoy Russian fare of borsht, rye bread and other traditional Russian fare for this holiday! Of course, all of their food is rehydrated, irradiated and/or thermostabilized. But I’m sure they will enjoy it no matter what.

I’m sure as they circle the earth every hour and a half, they will take some time to look out at our little blue and green and white planet and remember all the people living and breathing and toiling and celebrating on the oasis of life in our solar system. I’m betting the change of perspective must inspire such thoughts. And I think it’s good for us earth-bound creatures to look up into the sky once in awhile to remember those who may be separated from us maybe not by walls of fire like the astronauts, but by walls of anger or misunderstanding, of different customs and languages, or even of distance and time. Remember the astronauts silently circling the earth overhead, looking down at us as one whole and complete planet, with everyone that ever lived or ever will live walking the same paths, drinking the same water, and breathing the same air that ever was here on earth.

I hope we all get the opportunity during the holidays to enjoy delightful and inspirational night sky, with Venus and Mars in the sunset sky, and Saturn high overhead through the night. Jupiter will shine in the morning twilight off toward the east.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

The Sun Stands Still

12/18/05 – 12/24/05

By C. Zaitz

Winter has come to stay, it seems. The cold weather has frozen the remainder of the autumn leaves into their last position before the snowfall smothered them. We are near the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. The winter solstice falls on December 21, 1:35 pm this year. A solstice is not quite as popular as an equinox, perhaps because it is a time of stagnation, whereas the equinox marks the rapid changing of the season. Both words are from Latin, but solstice means “sun stands still.” During the equinox, both fall and spring, the sun’s altitude is rapidly changing in the sky, but during the solstice, the altitude of the sun seems constant for weeks. Right now it’s stuck on “low” which means weak sunlight, short hours of daylight, and cold long dark nights. Is it any wonder we try to light up the night with pretty colored lights?

Long ago people had celebrations and ceremonies during the solstice. They might not have been so sure that the sun would ever warm them again, or make their crops grow, so sacrifices and offerings were made to Sol, the sun. Nowadays we have many different celebrations at this time of year, but most are focused on bringing light and cheer to this gloomy and poorly lit season in the northern hemisphere.

I don’t know if you have ever read the poetry of Robert W. Service, but this is the time of year that makes me think of the poem, The Cremation of Sam Mcgee. Here are two random verses that make me think of winter’s chill:

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold;The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, but the queerest they ever did seeWas that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge I cremated Sam McGee.

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail.If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see;It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.”

It’s an amusing poem, and the images of ice and cold go right through my bones. The land of the midnight sun refers to the arctic zone where the sun never makes it above the horizon. Here in Michigan the sun makes a weak attempt at rising, but it never does get more than a third of the way up to the zenith, even at noon at this time of year. The path it makes across the sky is short, shallow, and pretty ineffective, as we have noticed the lack of warmth!

One interesting thing you may notice is the colors and patterns you see in the sky. Sunrises can be glorious reflecting off icy clouds, and sunsets streak the cold cirrus-strewn sky with vibrant tints. Venus and Mars will be the early evening bright points in the sky, Venus will be closest to the setting sun, and in the morning Saturn will be high in the sky as Jupiter rises in the east just before the sun, almost lost in its glow.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the beautiful view!

Astarte’s Bediamonded Crescent

12/11/05 – 12/17/05

By C. Zaitz

Edgar Allan Poe wrote a poem called Ulalume. In it are these lines:

And now, as the night was senescent
And star-dials pointed to morn--
As the star-dials hinted of morn--
At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn--
Astarte's bediamonded crescent
Distinct with its duplicate horn.

The image of Astarte’s bediamonded crescent has been with me ever since I first read this poem, and every time I see the crescent moon, especially in the morning, I think of this image. I did have to look up “senescent” - it means growing old. The night was growing old, the “Star dials” or constellations pointed to morning. The crescent moon was a liquescent and nebulous luster. Wow. Who knew there were such beautiful English words, especially ones that rhymed with crescent? I love poetry- it’s one of the few places you can actually use such words!

Astarte was the old Phoenician deity of fertility and was seen as either the moon or sometimes as Venus. This week, both apparitions of Astarte will be in the sky. Venus is still shining as brightly as she can in the low southwest at evening twilight, and the moon grows full this week, rising close to sunset as it arrives at full phase on the 15th. This month the full moon is called the Moon before Yule or the Long Night Moon. We all have noticed the long nights of December, when the sun makes its lowest path in the sky and is barely up for more than nine hours. Yule is the old pagan celebration of the winter solstice. The solstice is the day that the sun “stands still” (sol = sun, stice = stand still) and ceases its southward trek in our sky. The winter solstice falls on December 21st this year. So this full moon is the moon of the longest nights of the year, and indeed is the moon before the solstice, or yule.

When you see the full, bright moon, you can remember Astarte’s bediamonded crescent and the beautiful words of Poe. Within two weeks, the moon will be in its waning crescent phase, seen in the early morning hours before dawn. That will be Astarte.

If you want to know more about the moon, stars and constellations of the season, come to the Ensign Planetarium on Wednesday, December 14th at 7pm. The show is called The Colors of the Night, and we will light up the night sky with colors and stories of the sky. No reservations needed.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

All Through the Night

12/04/05 – 1210/05

By C. Zaitz

This is a great month for finding planets in the night sky. Through the light polluted skies of Dearborn Heights, planets are one of the easiest things to find, since they boldly shine through the haze of the sodium vapor street lights. From the moment the sun sets to moments before it rises the next morning, the sky will have planets to delight and entertain us.

Sunset brings the bright shine of Venus, still hovering in the southwest at twilight, outshining even some of the frequent planes flying overhead into Metro Airport. I sometimes wonder if folks in those planes ever look out their windows and catch a glimpse of her. The pilots must surely see her during their southwestern descent into Metro. In fact Venus has often been mistaken for UFO sightings, even by pilots.

From the ground, it’s easy to spot fiery Mars rising higher in the southeast, though he grows slightly dimmer with each passing day. Recently a group of girl scouts braved the cold winds as they looked through the 6 inch telescope at the Ensign Planetarium and beheld its peachy disk of light. Sometimes on calm nights Mars’ storms and ice caps are visible through the telescope.

Later on, after midnight, the great planet Saturn will be in the middle of the southern sky, shining down with his rings at a good angle for earthlings to see, ready to be spotted by any telescope aimed at them. Saturn rises at 9pm, but is best seen when he has had time to loft into the sky higher and less obscured by the atmosphere and earthly obstructions. Saturn will be up the rest of the night for you late owls, and even early risers can see Saturn as the sunrise begins to soften the glow of his reflected light.

Three hours before sunrise, look to the east and you will see the king of the planets rising; the mighty Jupiter. Binoculars will reveal some of his progeny - four of his largest moons circling him, noticeably moving from morning to morning. He will be low in the east, but you can see him naked-eye, especially just before twilight overtakes his glow. But the show is not over yet. Little Mercury will put in a brief appearance hovering near the eastern horizon, tucked below Jupiter, but still visible if you have a decent view of the horizon. Always hugging the sun, Mercury is the most difficult planet to spot, but after seeing the other four planets, it will be a feather in your cap to get a glimpse of the last of the naked-eye planets. Unless you have super powers, you’ll need a telescope to see the other planets.

December nights are the longest of the year, so there will be plenty of opportunity for us to see our planetary neighbors hanging silently above us as we hustle and bustle our way through the month.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

The Rubaiyat

11/13/05 – 11/19/05

By C. Zaitz

A long time ago there lived a poet-astronomer named Omar Khayyam. He was born in Persia (present day Iran) in 1048. His list of accomplishments were long since he was a scientist, astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and poet. He made a new calendar that was better than the Julian and almost as good as the Gregorian calendar. He made contributions to algebra and astronomy, but he is famous for his poetry, especially the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. I wanted to share a few verses of this beautiful poem with you. Rubaiyat is a word that means “quatrains” referring to the four line verses of the poem. The rubaiyat were most famously translated by a 19th century scholar/poet named Edward Fitzgerald, and it’s his version I’m quoting. You might be familiar with this one:
“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough-
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”
How romantic! This is how the rubaiyat begins:
“Wake! For the Sun who scatter’d into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night
Drives Night along with them from Heav’n, and strikes
The Sultans Turret with a Shaft of Light.” What a beautiful image of the sunrise scattering the starlight away and the first sunbeam striking the turret with its light. Here’s my favorite:
"And that Inverted Bowl they call the Sky
Whereunder crawling coop’d we live and die
Lift not your hands to It for help
for It - as impotently moves as you or I.”
Omar Khayyam seems to be reminding us not to wail to the stars for help- they just slowly roll by, winking and twinkling at us.

When you are outside this week, you can imagine the stars winking at you, but the planets will not seem to wink at all. Bright Venus watches us unblinkingly from her perch in the western sky at dusk, and Mars boldly stares down from his more eastern high ruddy throne in the sky. The planets give us steady light because the twinkling of starlight caused by the movement of earth’s atmosphere doesn’t bother the stronger light we get from our neighbors Venus and Mars. They are much closer to us than any star in the night sky, and therefore they give us more light, though it is only reflected from the sun.
I like to think that when we look at that inverted bowl we call the sky, we can all be poet/astronomers! All it takes is a little appreciation of its beauty, and with such a view of planets and stars, it’s easy!
Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Pretty Skies, Family Ties

11/20/05 – 11/26/05

By C. Zaitz

This is the time of year when families and friends get together. It’s also the time of year when skies get dark early and the planets and stars are out at the same time we are. This year, I will be sharing Thanksgiving with family in a place with very dark skies, and I’m hoping to have some moments to look at the sky with them. If you have the opportunity to do the same thing, here are some things to look for. You don’t really need a telescope- but if you want to dust off a pair of the binoculars, it’s worth it.

It seems Mars has never looked so bright and red-faced and Venus looks like someone is shining a spotlight down to make sure we’re OK before it really gets dark. Both these objects are very noticeable to the naked eye, and you really don’t need anything other than confidence to point them out. Venus has been brilliant low in the western evening skies all month. Mars is the rusty-colored bright object that will be higher in the sky towards the east in early evening, but moving toward west as the night wears on.

One the prettiest things to see later in the evening, especially if you have the binoculars handy, is a little group of sparkly stars known as the Pleiades. Commonly known as the seven sisters, these stars are very far away from us, and the eye can usually only detect the six brightest. It is said that long ago seven sky sisters came to earth in a basket to dance and play, but would leave if anyone from earth saw them. One day a young man approached the shy sisters and they ran to their basket to return to the sky. But one sister had wandered off and didn’t hear the others calling for her, so she was left behind. That is why only six are visible to the naked eye. The seventh is still here on Earth- still wandering and looking for her sky sisters. The magic comes when you look through the binoculars. The other sisters dance into view. More than even seven can be visible- they remind me of a handful of the most brilliant diamonds against the velvet of the night sky. You can find the sisters huddled on the shoulder of Taurus the Bull toward the east around 9-10pm. The stars of Taurus rather look like the letter “v” to the right of the mighty Orion the Hunter. I try to find Orion first- he’s easy with his bold, bright stars and the famous trio of Orion’s Belt. He will be closest to the eastern horizon. Use the three stars of his belt to point you up to the bright eye of the bull- a star named Aldebaran. It is perched on the upper left part of the “v” and looks like an eye staring right at Orion. Further to the right of the “v” is that special little cluster of faint sister stars. It’s a beautiful little scene that will be with us all winter.

I hope we all get the opportunity during the holidays to enjoy delightful and inspirational night sky, and the warmth and connection of our loved ones.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!