Saturday, August 13, 2011


Christopher Reeve as Superman

           Up in the sky!

            It’s a bird!

            It’s a plane! It’s… 

No, not him.

            Because August is kind of a blah time on the ground, let’s raise our perspective. So… Look! Up in the sky!  It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s the Full Sturgeon Moon!

Full Sturgeon Moon rising
over Fishers Island, NY,
August 17, 2008
as taken by Sky-Guy 
            In Hindi, it’s called Narali Poornima or Raksha Bandhan. The Buddhists know it as Nikini Poya. Also known to Native Americans as the Green Corn, Grain, Red, Lightning and/or Dog Moon, the Sturgeon Moon is so called because Algonquian tribes found sturgeon in the Great Lakes easiest to catch at this time, presumably because they (the fish, not the Indians) were spawning. Regardless of what you call it, August’s full moon rose at 2:57 pm EDT today (August 13), just in time to spoil viewing of one of the best meteor showers of the year.

The Perseids over Stonehenge  
            The Perseid meteor shower brings back fond memories for Tim and me: we spent the end of our first date counting streaks of light raining down over Cascade Lake in the Adirondacks. Emanating from Earth’s annual pass through the debris stream of the Swift-Tuttle comet—which, in case you’re interested, orbits the sun every 133 years—the radiants (astronomer-speak for meteor “heads”) seem to originate from the constellation Perseus; hence the name. While probably the best-known of all recurring meteor shower events, the Perseids are only one of nine shows each year. I spent a good bit of this morning lost in the Science section of the online Christian Science Monitor. Follow the link to discover fascinating meteor shower lore.

            A factoid I just learned: a meteor shower becomes a meteor storm when the flaming projectiles blaze into view at more than 1000 per hour. Pretty cool, huh? If you’re not a satellite or in an orbiting spacecraft, obviously.

Comet Elenin
            Turns out comets are not the rare things I assumed them to be. Apparently inner space is chockablock with them. Why, in August alone, Comet Garrard was visible on the 2nd; Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova (say that three times, fast) streaks past on the 16th; and Comet Elenin, supposedly the agent of Earth’s destruction, will be visible to the naked eye by the end of the month as it passes three million miles wide of us. Too bad for all of you Mayan-calendar end-times conspiracy buffs out there.

The Celtic Wheel of the Seasons
            August always stirs my interest in the heavens because it’s a busy time, astronomically speaking. The month starts off with the cross-quarter holiday of Lammas. Cross-quarters are the celestial mid-points between the solstices and the equinoxes. The druids call it Lughnasadh (lew-NAH-sah), when pagans (and farmers) celebrate the first harvests of the growing season. “Dancing at Lughnasa,” a lovely slice-of-life movie of a rural family in 1930s Ireland, gives a flavor of the modern festival.

(For your edification, August 1 is the only cross-quarter day not co-opted by the Christian religion. The other three are:
·         February 1, pagan Imbolc (IM-bolk), the festival of fire. It became Candlemas, the feast of the presentation of the Christ-child at the Temple;
·         May 1, Beltane or May Day, a celebration of fertility and spring planting. This one morphed into Mary’s Day; and
·        November 1, Samhain (sew-EEN), the end-of-harvest party. The church celebrates All Hallows and All Souls instead, the days of the dead.       

Where to look for Jupiter
             Lest you worry that the crisp days and cool nights of autumn are upon us, fear not: the dead middle of meteorological summer fell on August 7. We have lots more miserable, hot, humid days to enjoy.

Besides the Sturgeon Moon, the Perseids and the comets, the August sky reveals additional celestial wonders to those in the Northern Hemisphere who know where and when to look. For most of August, Saturn sets in the southwest as evening twilight fades. If you have a telescope, you’ll get a good look at its rings and Titan, the planet’s largest moon. Saturn goes down just as the giant planet Jupiter rises in the east. The four largest of its 63 (and counting) moons—Callisto, Europa, Ganymeade and Io, collectively called the Galilean moons for Galileo, who first spotted them—should be visible with binoculars. On the 22nd, take your binocs with you to some dark venue for a shot at actually seeing Neptune, just winding up its first solar orbit since its discovery in 1846. It’ll appear only as a tiny blue dot, but think of the bragging rights! And Sky-Guy urges everyone not to miss the summertime Milky Way, running from northeast to southwest around midnight. Best viewing is after the moon’s last quarter on the 21st. “In particular,” he writes, “look for the ‘Great Rift’ that cleaves the galaxy in two from the center of the Summer Triangle down to the southern constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius… I can’t think of a more relaxing way to spend a clear summer evening than being lost in that immensity.”

The summertime Milky Way
with the Great Rift visible
(photo by Mike Hankey)
Where to look for Neptune

While taking in the celestial sights this month, consider this: in analyzing the composition of meteorites found in Australia and Antarctica, scientists found adenine and guanine, two of the nucleobases that make up terrestrial DNA. While they didn’t isolate any thymine or cytosine (the other pair of bases), they did discover two “nucleobase analogs” new to science. Read the linked Christian Science Monitor article, “Are We All Extraterrestrials? Scientists Discover Traces of DNA in Space” and ponder the immensity of that.

As the late Jack Horkheimer used to say, “Keep looking up!”

And thanks for dropping by.

        Kathy, Mr. Spock, and the Squeeze Toy Aliens from "Toy Story"  
"You have saved our lives.
We are eternally grateful."

"Live long and prosper."

P.S.--For more information, go to and                                                            

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