Our spring almanac 21.05.2010 – 27.05.2010

Shuttle mission continues at the ISS

The Atlantis Space Shuttle Astronauts are still working on the International Space Station.

Ten years ago, whilst the first astroclock project was under way during the year 2000, the ISS became permanently habitable with the installation of the station’s service module. This provides the main living quarters for resident crews, environmental systems and attitude & orbit control. The module also provides docking locations for Soyuz spacecraft, Progress spacecraft and the Automated Transfer Vehicle.

A famous deep sky object in Orion
Looking deep into Winklebury School’s constellation of Orion the Hubble telescope shows us one of the most beautiful astronomical views in our galaxy.

The Horsehead Nebula (also known as Barnard 33 in bright nebula IC 434) is a dark nebula in the constellation Orion, part of the much larger Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. It is approximately 1500 light years from Earth. It is one of the most identifiable nebulae because of the shape of its swirling cloud of dark dust and gases, which is similar to that of a horse’s head.

The shape was first noticed in 1888 by Williamina Fleming at the Harvard College Observatory. The red glow originates from hydrogen gas behind the nebula, ionized by the nearby bright star Sigma Orionis. The darkness of the Horsehead is caused mostly by thick dust, although the lower part of the Horsehead’s neck casts a shadow to the left. Streams of gas leaving the nebula are funneled by a strong magnetic field. Bright spots in the Horsehead Nebula’s base are young stars just in the process of forming.

The bright stars of Orion

Betelgeuse is a massive M-type red supergiant star nearing the end of its life. When it explodes it will even be visible during the day. It is the second brightest star in Orion, and is a semiregular variable star. It serves as the “right shoulder” of the hunter it represents and is the twelfth brightest star in the night sky.

Rigel, which is also known as Beta Orionis, is a B-type blue supergiant that is the sixth brightest star in the night sky. Similar to Betelguese, Rigel is fusing heavy elements in its core and will pass its supergiant stage soon, either collapsing in the case of a supernova or shedding its outer layers and turning into a white dwarf. It serves as the left foot of Orion, the hunter.

Bellatrix was designated Gamma Orionis by Johann Bayer, but is known colloquially as the “Amazon Star;” it is the twenty-second brightest star in the night sky. Bellatrix is considered a B-type blue giant, though it is too small to explode in a supernova. Bellatrix’s luminosity is derived from its high temperature rather than its radius. Bellatrix serves as Orion’s left shoulder.

Mintaka garnered the name Delta Orionis from Bayer, even though it is the faintest of the three stars in Orion’s Belt. It is a multiple star system, composed of a large B-type blue giant and a more massive O-type white star. The Mintaka system is an eclipsing binary variable star, where the eclipse of one star over the other creates a dip in brightness. Mintaka is the westernmost of the three stars in Orion’s Belt.

Alnilam was named Epsilon Orionis, a consequence of Bayer’s wish to name the three stars in Orion’s Belt (from north to south) in alphabetical order. Alnilam is a B-type blue supergiant, despite being nearly twice as far from the Sun as Mintaka and Alnitak, the other two belt stars, its luminosity makes it nearly equal in magnitude.

Alnitak was designated Zeta Orionis by Bayer, and is the easternmost star in Orion’s Belt. It is a triple star some 800 light years distant, with the primary star being a hot blue supergiant and the brightest class O star in the night sky.

Saiph was designated Kappa Orionis by Bayer, and serves as Orion’s right foot. It is of a similar distance and size to Rigel, but appears much fainter, as its hot surface temperature causes it to emit most of its light in the ultraviolet region of the spectrum.

Orion’s navigational stars
Betelgeuse, Rigel and Bellatrix are among the navigational stars.

Navigation by stars and birds
Polynesian navigation was a system of navigation used by Polynesians who have lived on the opposite side of the Earth from where we live for thousands of years. They found out how to make long voyages across thousands of miles of open ocean in the Pacific, traveling to small inhabited islands using only their own senses and knowledge passed down through the generations by oral tradition from navigator to apprentice, often in the form of song.

In order to locate directions at various times of day and year, navigators in Eastern Polynesia memorized important facts: the motion of specific stars, and where they would rise and set on the horizon of the ocean; weather; times of travel; wildlife species which come together at certain times and places; directions of swells on the ocean, and how the crew would feel their motion; colors of the sea and sky, especially how clouds would cluster at the locations of some islands; and angles for approaching harbors.

Scientists think that long-distance Polynesian voyaging followed the seasonal paths of birds. There are some references in their oral traditions to the flight of birds and some say that there were range marks onshore pointing to distant islands in line with these flyways.

The peoples of the Pacific, including Micronesians and Polynesians, developed navigating by the stars into a fine art. Polynesians imagined the heavens as the interior of a dome where a star proceeded along a path which passed over certain islands. They had names for over a hundred and fifty stars. A navigator would have known where and when a given star rose and set, as well as which islands it passed directly over. They would have then been able to sail toward the star they knew to be over their destination, and as it moved westward with time they would then set their course by the succeeding star which would have then moved over the target island.

Bird migration and navigation
It is not just human beings that navigate using astronomical observation and a sense of time. Birds, the descendants of dinosaurs, have been doing this for millions of years. The earliest recorded observations of bird migration were 3000 years ago, as noted by Hesiod, Homer, Herodotus, Aristotle and others. The Bible also notes migrations, as in the Book of Job (39:26), where the inquiry is made: “Doth the hawk fly by Thy wisdom and stretch her wings toward the south?” The author of Jeremiah (8:7) wrote: “The stork in the heavens knoweth her appointed time; and the turtledove, and the crane, and the swallow, observe the time of their coming.”

Aristotle noted that cranes traveled from the steppes of Scythia to marshes at the headwaters of the Nile.

Pliny the Elder, in his Historia Naturalis, repeats Aristotle’s observations. Aristotle however suggested that swallows and other birds hibernated. This belief persisted as late as 1878, when Elliott Coues listed the titles of no less than 182 papers dealing with the hibernation of swallows. It was not until early in the nineteenth century that migration as an explanation for the winter disappearance of birds from northern climes was accepted.

The primary physiological cue for migration are the changes in the day length. These changes, which are all to do with the seasons and the path of the sun in the sky, are also related to hormonal changes in the birds.

Navigation is based on a variety of senses. Many birds have been shown to use a sun compass. Using the sun for direction involves the need for making compensation based on the time. Navigation has also been shown to be based on a combination of other abilities including the ability to detect magnetic fields (magnetoception), use visual landmarks as well as their sense of smell (olfactory cues).

May 23 Pentecost

Pentecost takes place on the seventh Sunday after Easter, commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples and the birth of the Christian Church.

The first Pentecost
Pentecost comes from a Jewish harvest festival called Shavuot (see previous post).
The apostles were celebrating this festival when the Holy Spirit descended on them. It sounded like a very strong wind, and it looked like tongues of fire. The apostles then found themselves speaking in foreign languages, inspired by the Holy Spirit. People passing by at first thought that they must be drunk, but the apostle Peter told the crowd that the apostles were full of the Holy Spirit.

May 23 is also celebrated as the birthday of Guru Amar Das (Nanakshahi calendar). Guru Amar Das (1479-1574) was the third of the Sikh Gurus.

Atlantis Shuttle landing 26 May
The Atlantis shuttle landed at the Kennedy Space Center after what looks to have been its final mission. The vehicle touched down on runway 33 at the Florida spaceport at 0848 local time (1248 GMT).

Atlantis, with its six-person crew, has just delivered a Russian mini-module and spare equipment to the International Space Station (ISS). The orbiters are due to be retired this year, and just two more outings are planned – for Discovery and Endeavour.

May 27 Wesak, Vesākha or Buddha day
The most important of the Buddhist festivals. It celebrates the Buddha’s birthday, and, for some Buddhists, also marks his enlightenment and death.

Queen Maya riding horse carriage retreating to Lumbini to give birth to Prince Siddhartha Gautama.

Prince Siddhartha Gautama become an ascetic hermit.
Vesākha (Pali; Sanskrit: Vaiśākha वैशाख) is an annual holiday observed traditionally by Buddhists in the Indian subcontinent and South East Asian countries of Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Indonesia. Sometimes informally called “Buddha’s Birthday,” it actually encompasses the birth, enlightenment (nirvāɳa), and passing away (Parinirvāna) of Gautama Buddha.

A Vesak pandol or torana in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
The exact date of Vesākha varies according to the various lunar calendars used in different traditions. In Theravada countries following the Buddhist calendar, it falls on the full moon Uposatha day (typically the 5th or 6th lunar month). Vesākha Day in China is on the eighth of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. The date varies from year to year in the Western Gregorian calendar but falls in April or May. In 2010 the first full moon day is 27 May.

Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha (Pāli/Sanskrit “the awakened one”). The Buddha lived and taught in the northeastern Indian subcontinent sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. Estimates of the number of Buddhist followers in the world today range from 230 million to 500 million, with most around 350 million, making Buddhists the 4th largest religious group in the world. Not all traditions of Buddhism share the same philosophical outlook, but all accept the Buddha as their teacher. Buddhists generally classify themselves as belonging to one of the main schools of buddhism, either the Theravada school or the Mahayana school.

Winklebury 27.05.2010


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