Go Stargazing! February Edition

Venus continues to dominate the western sky on February evenings.  Look west-southwest right as night falls for the brightest thing there except for the Moon, which is nearby at the end of the month.  Venus, on its faster orbit, is coming around to our side of the Sun (and will pass us in March).  Therefore Venus is about as bright as it can be this month. 

Saturn is now a late evening object, rising in the east by 9 p.m. now and by 7 p.m. at month’s end.  Early next month, it will be opposite the Sun in the sky and be visible all night long. 

Mars and Jupiter are lost in the Sun’s glare much of this month.  They form a close conjunction on the morning of February 17, but the pair rises right as the twilight begins to brighten the sky that morning.  Mercury joins them later in the month. 

Dazzling Orion rises in the east, reminding us that winter is here.  His belt points up to Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the Bull.  The Dog Stars Sirius and Procyon are below Orion in the east.  Sirius is the brightest star we ever see at night.  To Orion’s left as he rises are two stars of similar brightness less than five degrees apart.  These are Castor and Pollux, marking the heads of Gemini, the Twins. 

Moon
Creative Commons License photo credit: Fingerz


Moon Phases in February 2009:

1st Quarter             February 2, 5:12 pm
Full Moon               February 9, 8:49 pm
Last Quarter           February 16, 3:38 pm
New Moon             February 24, 7:35 pm

The Full Moon of February 9 almost enters the Earth’s shadow.  It does enter a region of space called the penumbra, in which the Earth partially blocks the Sun.  This event is thus called a penumbral eclipse.  However, it begins right as the Moon is about to set here in Houston.  What’s more, a penumbral eclipse is only a slight darkening of the Moon, barely noticeable in the darkest skies.  In the morning twilight of February 9, you won’t see much of any difference in the Moon as it sets.

IMG_0959
Creative Commons License photo credit: S1lvers Family


Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow on Groundhog Day, meaning six more weeks of winter.  What does this have to do with astronomy?  Well, Groundhog Day occurs about halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal (spring) equinox.  It therefore occurs near one of the cross-quarter days, called Imbolc by the Celts.  The other three are at the beginning of May, August, and November, and they represent points halfway between the quarter days, which are the equinoxes and solstices. 

Since we don’t want Phil to see his shadow, we clearly don’t want sunshine on February 2.  If this seems ‘backwards,’ consider that there is another day when we don’t want sunshine or warmth-Christmas. 

Houstonians still fondly recall our Christmas Eve snowstorm of 2004, while a similar snowfall on January 24 would have been much less romantic.  The French have the saying, “Christmas on the balcony, Easter by the fireplace.”  Early pagans considered the winter solstice and Imbolc symbols of winter itself.  If these days were appropriately wintry, with clouds and cold, then it was a sign that all was in order.  Winter, which was happening on time, would end on time.  However, if these days were not appropriately wintry, then something was wrong, and a ‘remedial’ winter would need to occur in springtime.  The traditions of the winter solstice and Imbolc were transferred to Christmas and Groundhog Day, respectively.  Thus, sunny weather (with shadows) is a bad omen on Groundhog Day, while cloudy weather (no shadows) is a good omen. 

A Trick or a Treat?

In less than a week, people all over the country, including right here at our museum, will be celebrating Halloween. Perhaps your workplaces and schools are already festooned with ghosts, skeletons, graveyards, and the like.  If you stop and think about it, you may wonder just how it is that we came to celebrate by trying to disguise ourselves or by trying to frighten people.  Is this a trick or a treat?

Picket fence and yellow trees
Creative Commons License photo credit: joiseyshowaa

The short answer as to why we celebrate this time of year with images of death is that we are in the middle of autumn, the season when nature itself is dying.  To fully understand why we celebrate Halloween when we do, we must fully understand the seasons.

Earth orbits the Sun with its axis pointed at the North Star, Polaris. As a result, its axis is tilted by about 23.5 degrees with respect to its orbital plane.  This tilt, combined with Earth’s revolution around the Sun, causes the seasons.  If the North Pole leans towards the Sun, the Sun is higher in our sky and we get more direct sunlight.  Also, daytime is longer than nighttime.  As the North Pole begins to tilt away fron the Sun, the Sun appears lower and lower across the sky, and daytime gets shorter and shorter.  Eventually, the slanted-in solar rays and short days bring about winter.  Very cold air masses form in the darkened Arctic and begin to move south, some of which can even reach Houston.

Keep in mind that the Earth’s axis does not tilt back and forth; it points at Polaris the whole time.  In June, the North Pole is leaning towards the Sun, but by December, the Earth’s motion has carried it to the other side of the Sun.  The North Pole, still tilting the same way, now leans away from the Sun.

A common misconception is that the Earth is closer to the Sun in summer and more distant in winter, and that is what causes our seasons.  In fact, Earth’s perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) occurs just after the new year (January 1-4), while aphelion (greatest distance from the Sun) occurs around the 4th of July.  Earth’s orbit is an ellipse, but the Earth-Sun distance does not change by enough to affect our seasons.

where are you?
Creative Commons License photo credit: shioshvili

In the cycle of seasons, there are four points of note.  At the March equinox, neither pole is tilted toward the Sun and the Sun is directly overhead at the equator.  The is the vernal (spring) equinox for us and the autumnal (fall) equinox for folks south of the equator.  At the June solstice, the North Pole is tilted as much as possible towards the Sun, and the Sun is overhead at 23.5 degrees North (the Tropic of Cancer).  This is the summer solstice for us and the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.  At the September equinox, once again neither pole tilts toward the Sun, and the Sun is again overhead at the equator.  This is our fall equinox and their spring equinox.  At the December solstice, the North Pole is tilted as much as possible away from the Sun, and the Sun is overhead at 23.5 degrees South (the Tropic of Capricorn).  This is the winter solstice for us and the summer solstice below the equator. 

We generally think of these points as the beginning of spring, summer, fall, and winter, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  After all, nothing magically happens with our weather on these dates.  We could just as well consider these points the midpoints of each season.  In that case, the seasons would begin and end at points roughly halfway between the equinoxes and solstices, in early February, May, August, and November.  If the equinoxes and solstices are ‘quarter days,’ the points halfway between them become the ‘cross-quarter days.’

The ancient Celts of Europe appear to have divided their year in precisely that way.  Gauls living in what is now France used a calendar of twelve lunar months with a 13th month added every 2.5 years (similar to the Hebrew calendar today).  Their two most significant months were Gamonios (lunar month corresponding to April/May ), which began the summer half of the year, and Samonios (lunar month corresponding to October/November) which began the winter half of the year.  Julius Caesar noted that daytime followed nighttime in Celtic days.  By extension, the dark (winter) half of the Celtic year preceded the light (summer) half, making Samonios the start of their new year.

The Celts in the British Isles (Irish and Scots) also had festivals aligned with the cross-quarter days.  In early February was Imbolc (or St. Brigid’s day).  Weather predicting traditions of this day are preserved in our current Groundhog Day.  Traditional May Day celebrations are similar to those of the Celtic BeltaneLughnasadh, in early August, marked the start of the harvest. 

'' The Sentiment of Light''
Creative Commons License photo credit: jdl_deleon

The most important, though, was Samhain (pronounced ’sah win’, not ‘Sam Hane’, due to rules of Gaelic spelling), in early November.  This three-day festival marked the beginning of the winter half of the year and the start of the whole year, like Gaulish Samonios.  It was the close of the harvest opened at Lughnasagh, and the time for culling excess livestock.  At this time, the veil between the living and the world of the dead was considered thinner than usual, and people looked forward to meeting and communing with ancestors and relatives who had died.  A ‘dumb supper‘ was set aside for departed relatives.  To scare away unwanted spirits, people dressed in frightening garb.  Note that these spirits were considered unpredictable and possibly mischievous because they were not the familiar ancestors–not because they were particularly evil.  Divination was also practiced at this time, as people sought to predict whom they would marry or how many children they would have. 

Doing the math, you’ve probably figured out that Halloween is not quite halfway from the equinox (September 22) to the solstice (December 21).  But remember, the Celts used a lunar calendar.  They celebrated their festivals on a certain phase of the Moon, possibly full moon, occurring nearest the cross-quarter day.  Upon the adoption of the Julian calendar, which was not strictly lunar, the festivals were moved to the beginning of February, May, August, and November, although this meant they were no longer exactly on the cross-quarter days. 

Saint
Creative Commons License photo credit:
The Wandering Angel

In the eighth century AD, Pope Gregory III moved the church’s commemoration of the souls in heaven (All Saints’ Day) from May 13 to November 1.  Another name for All Saints’ Day is All Hallows Day.  (’Hallow’ is an older term for ’sanctify’ or ‘make holy.’  Think of ‘…hallowed be thy name’ from the Lord’s Prayer).  The next day became All Souls’ Day.  The day before All Hallows Day or All Saints’ Day is All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.  The traditions of Samhain, with its similar focus on honoring the dearly departed, were a natural fit for All Hallows Day and All Hallows Eve.

Halloween, then, is ultimately just one expression of the human need to come to terms with death as a natural occurence and to honor those who have gone before.  In the season of the fall of the leaf, with the Sun taking a slightly lower path across the sky each day, the natural world is going through its own ‘death,’ providing a perfect context for our own activities.  We can therefore think of Halloween itself as a treat, not a trick.

I wish everyone a Happy Halloween, with many more treats than tricks.

Terra Cotta Warriors: An army frozen in time

All eyes have been on China for the last few weeks as Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and many other Olympians have been shattering world records at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Media coverage was intense – but this particular video on the Terra Cotta Warriors caught our eye, because we’re eagerly anticipating May 18, 2009 – opening day for Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardian’s of China’s First Emperor at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Here, Dirk gives us more context on these extraordinary treasures.
Dateline: 240 BC
Mighty Celtic tribes, far from being barbarians, rule over most of what is Western Europe today. Engaged in long distance trade with the Mediterranean, they will soon fall under the sway of an upstart from that region: Rome. Across the water on the northern shores of Africa another mighty empire blossoms: Carthage. It too will eventually fall under the sway of Rome. Further east, Egypt had long faded from its glory days and is ruled by descendants of a Macedonian general who served under Alexander the Great. The famous library in Alexandria is either in the planning stages or has just opened. Meanwhile, more than 7600 miles away, on a windswept hill in Oaxaca, traders from the city of Monte Alban set off to visit the big metropolis further north, Teotihuacan, to strengthen trade ties between these two cities.
China - Great Wall
Creative Commons License photo credit: mckaysavage

All of these cultures and all of these nascent empires are small fry, however, compared with what is happening in the Far East. There, in China, In 240 B.C. Ying Zheng, ruler of the Qin Kingdom, rose to power. He proclaimed himself First Emperor of the Qin, or Qin Shihuangdi.

Under Qin Shihuangdi’s rule, Chinese script was standardized, as were its currency and system of measurements. The territory was expanded into Vietnam. A huge central bureaucracy directed military and civil officials throughout the empire. This system of government remained virtually unchanged until the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911.
Qin Shihuangdi was obsessed with longevity. He sent emissaries to find an elixir of youth to ensure that he would live forever. Unfortunately, death caught up with him in 210 BC while he was traveling far away from the capital. His mortal remains were brought to his tombs, a trip which required his entourage to engage in a number of subterfuges to mask the smell of death in the convoy. It is said that a cart of rotting fish was pulled right behind the imperial sedan chair, to mask the decaying remains of the emperor.
In death, as in life, the emperor remains an imposing figure, leaving us with an incredible and imposing legacy. His tomb (for this link, hit cancel to start the video) has been located, but not yet excavated. According to historical sources, the emperor’s tomb was laid out in such a way to represent the entire empire, with huge pools of mercury representing rivers, lakes and seas. Gemstones set in the tomb’s ceiling represent the night sky. As was becoming a man of his rank, he was accompanied in his tomb by an army of servants and soldiers.
Soldiers
Creative Commons License photo credit:
SmokingPermitted

In 1974, the same year in which Lucy was discovered, a peasant working the fields in the shadow of the imperial tomb, found fragments of a terracotta statue. This chance discovery led to one of the most magnificent archaeological discoveries of the 20th century; the army of terracotta soldiers. Approximately 8000 terracotta statues have been uncovered thus far. All of these require restoration and preservation, with some of these requiring up to one year’s worth of work before they can be displayed.

Until May 17, 2009, you will have to travel 8300 miles from Houston to go see these famous terracotta warriors in their Xi’an museum. However, starting May 18, there will be 20 statues in your own backyard. The Houston Museum of Natural Science will be hosting them until October 16, 2009. More information can be found here.