What’s Up in the Sky August, 2008
By Peter Burkey
Much fascinating lore surrounds the Milky Way, the faint, cloudy-white band of light that stretches from the southern to northern horizon, passing nearly overhead this time of year. In fact, the term “galaxy” is from the Greek gala or galactos which simply means “milk”.
In the mythology of many ancient cultures the Milky Way is a heavenly river, a great path to distant worlds and a cosmic bridge between Earth and Heaven. In the first book of the Metamorphoses, Ovid describes the Milky Way as the “Road of the Gods”.
The Milky Way appears in various Chinese writings where it is referred to as the “River of Heaven” or the “Celestial River”. In one legend it is regarded as the source of the Yellow River of central China. Another involves a maiden and a shepherd, separated by the vast river except for one night of the year when a bridge of birds spans it, allowing the Heavenly lovers to meet.
In many Native American legends the Milky Way is the path to the hereafter. The Iroquois and Algonquins saw the bright stars along the way as the campfires of departed warriors. This tradition was shared by the Norsemen who saw the Milky Way as the path of slain warriors on their way to Valhalla.
The actual composition of the Milky Way was first contemplated by the ancient Greeks and pondered by many including Sir Francis Bacon in Shakespearean times. It wasn’t until Galileo made his first telescopic observations that the matter was laid to rest. He described the Milky Way as being composed of “innumerable stars grouped together in clusters”.
Today we know that our galaxy is composed of several hundred billion stars, including our sun. If you imagine two sunny-side-up fried eggs back to back, you get an idea of its shape. We see it as a band of light when we look out towards its edge.
Like the ancients, I also see it as a bridge, not between Heaven and Earth but between cultures separated by time. The quest to understand it is common to every human who, through the ages, has pondered what’s up in the sky.
This month in history:
August 3: First space shuttle repair in-flight – 2005
August 7: Viking 1 orbiter (Mars) ceases operation – 1980
August 11: Deimos, moon of Mars, discovered by Asaph Hall – 1877
August 17: Distance to Voyager 1 is 100 times the distance to the sun – 2006
August 20: First Redstone rocket launched – 1953
August 22: World altitude record for a winged aircraft (354,000 ft) set by X-15 – 1963
Here are this month’s viewing highlights:
Planets this month: Jupiter continues to dominate the southern sky. Watch gathering of Venus, Mercury and Saturn near western horizon at dusk mid-month (use binoculars).
August 1: New Moon. Solar eclipse (not visible from North America).
August 8: First quarter Moon.
August 12: Perseid meteor shower.
August 16: Full Moon.
August 23: Last-quarter Moon.
August 30: New Moon