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The sky is parceled into named areas called constellations. A mistake many of us make is to presume that the constellations are supposed to be pictures because they bear the name of person, creatures, and objects. It was for ease of identification that grouped stars together. It was in or about the fifty century BC Babylonian astrologers conceptualized the change of earth’s ecliptic orbit and divided the sky into 12 segments each marked by a constellation. The names of many constellations and celestial bodies come from ancient languages or mythology. All but one, Libra, represents a real or imaginary creature.

 

Originally individual stars were named after fallen heroes in Greek mythology. As historians have since learned the Greeks simply changed the settings and names and took over the legends. By way of example, one of the oldest Babylonian myths describes a battle between Marduk and the dragon Tiamat. The Greeks were reminded of their hero Herakles (Roman Hercules) and assumed the legend and the constellation.

 

The star groups are placed in three regions: northern, zodiacal and southern. The word zodiac is a Greek term meaning “circle of animals.” This belt of the sky is where the sun, moon and bright planets are always found. It was during the reign of Caesar Augustus that the independent Egyptian star formations and conventional Greek included the pair of scales, or a balance was included, deemed Libra. It was after the collapse of the Greco-Roman civilizations; Babylonians, Indians, Greeks and Romans were among the first to name constellations visible to them in the Northern Hemisphere. It wasn’t until the second-century AD that the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy cataloged more than a thousand stars and 48 constellations in his work it was not until European navigators began exploring south of the equator in the 16th century that new cataloging was done.

 

Hipparchus of Bithynia compiled the first star catalogue, which listed the positions and the relative brightness of stars. Three centuries later Claudius Ptolemy incorporated Hipparchus work into his own and included the two major propertied we recognize when studying stars, brightness and surface temperature.

 

We are in the Northern Hemisphere the North Star, AKA Polaris, marks the North celestial pole. Polaris is probably the easiest star to locate, as it is the brightest star located on the handle of the Little Dipper. Polaris was not always the North Star however. Due to the gyration of the Earth’s axis the North celestial pole changes over the centuries. Ursa Minor was not recognized as a constellation until about 600 BC. Polaris is not a particularly bright star but is one of the most important especially to early mariners.

 

Roughly 10 – 20 billion years ago there was a huge explosion called the Big Bang. In the milliseconds following this explosion the universe was pure energy but some of that energy became matter. The matter condensed and eventually formed into gas, stars, dust, and galaxies. The universe is still expanding and galaxies are moving apart forever in motion.

 

Galaxies are billions and trillions of stars held together by mutual gravitation forces. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is quite sizable as galaxies go but it is difficult to view, an example given is looking at a plate from the side, it appears flat rather than circular hence our view is limited. Our sun and planets are orbiting the nucleus of the Milky Way, estimated time to complete an orbit 220 million years.

 

The creation of the planets within our solar system is thought to have originated from a supernova explosion four and a half billion years ago. There are two types of planets terrestrial and gas, giant, or Jovian, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are Jovian, consisting of rock in the center core and a dense atmosphere. Five of the planets are visible to the unaided eye. Venus is the most brilliant object in our night sky, besides the Moon. Often called the morning star, Phosphorous or evening star Hesperus. Visible during the day Venus is never far from the sun. To locate Venus it is best done in the early evening or dawn, and look to the area around the Moon. Due to its rotation and distance to the Sun, Venus is not visible during deep night. Venus is named after the Roman goddess of love and is the symbol for woman or the female sex.

 

The Moon

The Moon’s influence over man and the earth cannot be underestimated. We have given it reason for bizarre behavior, a timetable of when to do what in the garden. It is an overwhelming force to man, nature, earth and weather. The sphere that occupied the imagination of poets and lovers since the beginning of time. Months are marked in its honor. With the extraordinary power to move oceans and tides. Regardless of how much we know about the moon intellectually when it is so big and bright on the horizon it becomes a beautiful mystery all over again.

 

The new moon is when we can’t wee it, it dark side faces earth. The crescent moon comes next, a waxing crescent, the bright side is the moon’s west, or the right side. Crescent means, “to grow.” The first quarter is half moon bright. The full moon is well, full and the illumination is fully visible to us. A last quarter moon is when it is beginning to wane, and the bright side is on the moon’s east or our left. Finally, a waning crescent, an oxymoron, but that is the way it is.

The best time to view the Moon is near full. The angle of sunlight shows the features in relief as opposed to the flattened features when directly full.

 

Lunar features are divided into three categories, seas, craters and mountains. The seas are darkened areas, which are actually lava plains. It was July 20 1969 when Apollo XI landed on the Sea of Tranquility. All names on the moon are Latin, given by astronomers about four centuries ago. Mountains are named after ranges on Earth and craters are named posthumously for famous astronomers, scientist or explorers.

 

Gardener’s have always paid great attention to the phases of the moon. If you plan on any great thinking or planning it should always be done in a waxing Moon. Anything that has to do with a crop, attention must also be paid to the zodiac, whether sowing, planting or harvesting is concerned it is best done under the most auspicious sign in relation to the particular plant.

 

Moon gardening is the belief that vegetables should be planted during specific phases of the moon for best growth and flavor. Vegetables that grow underground like potatoes should be planted in the new moon. Seed sowing should be done when the Moon is waxing, never waning, a proverb that has now been scientifically justified with the measurement of the earth’s magnetic field and lunar rhythms.

 

Water everywhere including that inside the tiniest organism, moves in tides so powerful is the Moon’s pull. Tides run in a daily and monthly cycle according to a lunar schedule. Plants that are largely water are said to be under greater influenced from the Moon and best planted and harvested when the Moon is closest to the Earth.

 

The Moon also affects the earth’s atmosphere so that statistically it is more likely to rain heavily after a new moon. These increases is the probability that meteoric dust passing close to the Earth will be captured and make its way down to the troposphere. The abundance of condensation nuclei assists cloud growth, hence rainfall.

 

Bottom line, ancient man noticed these phenomena and decided it was a good time to plant. Many sayings, proverbs and observations regarding the Moon have been nurtured and embellished from ancient times thought the Middle Ages.  It was the seventeenth century mariners who extended this commonsense lore enormously, significant to encounters around the globe with regard to weather and the Moon.

 

Haloes around the Moon also portent rain, good deduction as this indicates the presence of middle or high level clouds which often precedes advancing rain. Another myth buster is plants are most vulnerable to predators in the few days after germination, so planting at a phase of the moon when pests are active could reduce the yield. Many small rodent forage for food most actively at the new Moon when they are at least risk from owls, hence a bad time to plant corn.

Generally speaking there is a logical and scientific basis for lore surrounding the moon and its effects.

 

THE NIGHT SKY BY MONTH

January

There is a fine display of stars in the January sky. Looking due south we find Orion, the best of all star groups, marked by the unmistakable line of three stars, so evenly matched and so nicely spaced which form the belt of the Great Hunter. The red star Betelgeuse marks the right shoulder and Rigel his upraised left foot. The bright star Bellatrisx to the right of Betelgeuse is Orion's left shoulder. Orion carries a sword; the hilt is the little group of faint stars below the middle of the belt. To the right there is a curving line of faint stars indicating the shield of the lion's hide on Orion's upraised left arm. The small triangle of faint stars above Betelgeuse and Bellatrix is his head. Orion is probably the best-known constellation in the sky. Its bright stars have been identified as a person by civilizations worldwide for thousands of years. It is mentioned in poetry as early as the Odyssey and more recently by Longfellow, and is the present day logo of a film company. Orion was thought to be a harbinger of storms given its appearance in the early evening sky in late autumn. To ancient Arabs this constellation was known as Al Jabbar meaning "the giant" or "great." The belt was known as the "string of pearls." In Greco-Roman mythology, Orion was a famed hunter, but he was also boastful and went so far as to claim that no beast could kill him. To teach Orion a lesson, the spiteful goddess Hera sent a tiny scorpion to fatally sting him. All brawn no brains. 

 

February

Winter stars are at their best in February. Directly overhead this time of year is the constellation Gemini marked by the bright stars Castor and Pollux. The lore surrounding these stars goes back into prehistory, and the constellation, part of the zodiac, is among the most familiar in the sky. According to classical mythology, Castor and Pollux were hatched from an egg borne by Leda after Zeus, disguised as a swan, seduced her. Castor and Pollux's sister was Helen of Troy. The twins were raised by the wise centaur Chiron and Sagittarius. The stars Castor and Pollux are sometimes considered the patrons of mariners and are associated with the meteorological phenomenon known as Saint Elmo's fire, a visible electrical discharge that sometimes appears around ships' masts during storms at sea. In China the two stars are associated with yin and yang, the dual forces of nature. The constellation is easy to find; just look for the two bright stars Castor and Pollux, lines of fainter stars extend from the two, sketching the bodies of the twins.

 

March

The March sky begins to give us a glimpse of the stars that will be prominent in the skies of spring, while our winter constellations are still visible. This is also the time to look precisely from the north to the south, at the Milky Way. Remembering that we view the Milky Way horizontally as we would look at a pocket watch from the side. Our sun is part of the galaxy located on the face of the watch. Because of the uneven distribution of stars, and great clouds of obscuring dust and gases, millions of other galaxies hide from view. Look for a mottled effect in the deep sky, over a vast expanse, often appearing reddish. That is the Milky Way, like a thunderstorm approaching from deep space.


Closer to home if you look high in the south try and spy Cancer, the Crab, a very open angle of four stars none of which are of note. In the southeast sky Ursa Major the Great Bear, whose hindquarters most of us recognize as the Big Dipper of which Polaris is the most dominate star.  To the southwest Gemini with Castor and Pollux. Personally, I found those very difficult to consistently identify and I am glad they are moving off.

 

April

The April night sky offers the Big Dipper directly overhead. Leo the Lion has come into view almost directly overhead in the southern night sky.  The head of Leo forms a sickle or backwards question mark made up of five stars the brightest being Regulus found at the base of the sickle. The star Denebola is the next major star to the left and represents the tuft at the end of Leo's tail. Three stars including Denebola form a perfect equilateral triangle marking the top of the back, tail and hindquarter of the lion. Let your eyes draw an imaginary line back to Regulus at the base of the sickle and there is Leo. This is one of the few constellations that look something like the characters for which they are named. Rather interesting information to pass along, Leo once had a longer tail but those stars now make up a different constellation. I am curious to know, just who decides that stuff?

 

May

The May night sky gives us a glimpse of one of the brightest stars Arcturus. Arcturus is part of the constellation Bootes, and he was the son of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. Arcturus is credited with inventing the plow and was placed in the sky to honor his invention that was of such immense importance to civilization. The name Arcturus comes from the Greek for "guardian of the bear" referring to Ursa Major; which is still dominant and overhead. The Bootes constellation is found a bit to the southeast and forms a kite or lopsided ice-cream cone with Arcturus at the bottom. Just to the left of Bootes is the Corona Borealis, or Ariadne's crown, a lovely circlet of seven stars. The very short version is was the wife of Bacchus, and when she died he placed the crown in the heavens where we find it these evenings. In May the Milky Way lies along the horizon, all the way around, and can be seen only if the observer is far from man's artificial lights.
All the planets are lined up in the evening sky and are visible, a rare treat. Easily spotted are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. To find them look almost directly overhead and to the right in the early evening. A key to finding the planets is that they don't twinkle.

 

June

In the June night sky the zodiacal constellations are wholly or in part visible, Gemini, Cancer Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpius and Sagittarius. Kite-shaped Libra is in the southern sky and just below that to the southeast stands Scorpius with the notable red star Antares. This constellation is supposed to be the tiny scorpion that killed Orion with its sting and placed in the sky to memorialize the event. Interestingly the scorpion’s claws are no longer part of the constellation but were given up to Libra. Despite the absence it looks more like its namesake than do most constellations. In the anatomically correct spot, the red star marks the "heart" of the scorpion. Antares is Greek and broken down means rival of Mars because of the deep red color of Antares rivals that of the red planet. Scorpius contains more than two-dozen star clusters appearing to us as one star. It also contains a few quite faint planetary nebulae. The best time for viewing this constellation is later in the evening.

 

July

The July night sky is one big story of good over evil. Overhead and to the north is the constellation Hercules, it looks like a backward K, crushing the life out of Draco the serpent, which looks like a small kite with a very long tail. While Ophiuchus, AKA Aesculapius, son of Apollo, who looks like a house depicted in stars, holds another serpent in his hand while stepping on Scorpius. Aesculapius was a pupil of Chiron, the centaur represented in Sagittarius, he became a great physician and was so successful in saving lives that Jupiter had to slay him in order to put and end to the complaints of Pluto, the ruler of Hades, because the flow of souls to the underworld was dwindling. The snake as an emblem of health was sacred to Aesculapius; the shedding of its skin represented the renewal of life. Because of this tale it became the official badge of medicine. In classic art the snake is entwined on a staff. Heavy stuff!

 

August

The August night sky presents one of the brightest stars Vega almost directly overhead. Vega is part of the constellation Lyra that includes four other stars beneath Vega, which form two parallel lines. This is a tale of true love, shortened and simplified. Lyra is the Lyre of Orpheus who was such a magnificent singer waterfalls and birds ceased to listen. Orpheus was in love with Eurydice until she stepped on a serpent and died. She went to the underworld and Orpheus followed in search. Much happens on the journey including a tangle with the three-headed dog and an encounter with Pluto himself. Orpheus sang for Pluto and so moved him he let Eurydice go but there was a condition he was not to look back during the trek or Eurydice would be dead forever. Orpheus didn't follow directions and Eurydice was snatched. Orpheus was then the woeful bachelor and was hustled by all the maidens trying to woo him from grief. Maidens scorned are not pretty. With the help of Bacchus they hurled missiles and stones. The quick thinking Orpheus began to sing stopping the action but then the maidens began to scream and drowned out the music and the stones took effect. His body was torn to pieces and thrown in the river Hebrus, but the groupies Muses gathered the fragments and gave him a proper burial. Orpheus' soul went to join Eurydice and the gods put the lyre in heaven as a symbol of music and love.
Check out the Northern Cross a bit to the east of Lyra.

 

September

The September night sky has the Northern Cross directly overhead. Basically what this constellation looks like is Notre Dame's touchdown Jesus in stars, or if you will the Pope's benediction. This constellation is also call Cygnus or The Swan. It is one of the largest constellations and takes up a huge area of sky with the brightest star Deneb acting as the head. Pegasus is to the east and the body of the mythical horse is known as The Great Square. No doubt you know why. Pegasus was born from the spilled blood of Medusa, which mixed with sea foam to become a winged horse. Pegasus and a young lad Bellerophon became a team, with the help of a golden bridle given by Minerva, they completed several very dangerous missions slaying wild mythical beasts of all types. Then Bellerophon became vane and boastful and tried to crash the very exclusive Gods party on Mount Olympus. Outraged, Zeus sent a gadfly to sting Pegasus who threw Bellerophon. As a result Bellerophon became lame and blind, was shunned by former friends and died miserably. In trying to locate the constellation Pegasus the belly of the horse presents itself first, the head will be to the left.

 

October

The October night sky is about transition. The stars of summer are almost gone and the east is beginning to fill up with the stars we view during winter. The most easily identified constellation is Cassiopeia, and depending on your view it looks like the number three, the letter M, the letter W, or a crude E. Cassiopeia is directly across from Polaris, the main star in the Big Dipper. According to myth, Cassiopeia and her husband Cepheus, a windblown house shaped constellation right next to Cassiopeia, were rulers of ancient AEthiopia, along with their daughter Andromeda. Cassiopeia was extremely boastful; a trait not tolerated among the gods, and claimed that she was even more beautiful than Nereids, the sea nymphs. Enraged by the dis Poseidon sent a sea monster to savage the coast of AEthiopia. Cepheus was instructed by an oracle to sacrifice Andromeda to the monster, but Perseus who was passing through on his way back from slaying the Gorgon Medusa saved her. Punishment was enforced on Queen Cassiopeia and she was chained to her throne for her boastfulness and placed in the sky to circle the North Star, at times hanging upside down in a most undignified position to serve forever as a warning to all.

 

November

The November night sky is all about the fleece. Aries is the Ram of the Golden Fleece, an unremarkable group of 4 stars giving the appearance of a soft comma or slightly drooping tail, located a bit east of the overhead point. As the story goes King Athamus of Thessaly was having a typical male mid-life crisis and began looking around as he was grew tired of Nephele his wife. The queen was afraid for her children and assisted by Mercury, who lent his ram with Golden Fleece, sent the daughter Helle and boy Phrixus far away. Unfortunately crossing the narrow straight that divides Europe from Asia Helle fell off into the sea. Since that unfortunate incident the strait has been called Hellespont. Phrixus made it to safety on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, the ram was sacrificed to Jupiter, but the fleece was put into a sacred grove guarded by a dragon. While back in another part of Thessaly all sorts of palace intrigue was taking place. The king surrendered the throne to his brother who was to rule as regent until the son Jason came to majority. Thinking of a way to rid himself of his unwanted nephew Jason the regent sent him on a quest to return the fleece. Jason called his buddies, noted warriors of the time namely, Hercules, Orpheus, Nestor and others to assist on the expedition sailing on the good ship Argo. They became known as Argonauts and after several high adventures they captured the Golden Fleece and returned home. The ship Argo and the fleece were dedicated to Neptune, who placed it in the sky.  Scholars believe this story to be the legendary recital of a very early maritime expedition, perhaps piratical in nature where rich spoils were obtained.

 

December

The December night sky is the story that makes any modern soap or any series currently on HBO look tame and it is all directly over our heads. Major players are Cassiopeia, an M shaped constellation north and a bit to the west. Andromeda, daughter of Cassiopeia, the constellation likened to breasts, if you will, just above The Great Square.   Perseus, hero involved in many a showdown with wretched evil rulers and powerful serpents. His constellation is a series of stars to the east of the overhead point with the star Perseus the brightest. Cepheus, the king whose constellation is the windblown house to the north of overhead and Cetus, the Sea Monster, a long bunch of stars with two triangles to the south.

The shortened version of the tale is Cassiopeia, a queen of Ethiopia, had little interest in life other than spending hours in front of a reflection combing her hair by the sea. As women will do at the hairdresser she boastfully gossiped that she was even more fetching than the sea nymphs. The sea nymphs were beyond ticked and ravaged the coast with storms and a terrible sea monster. Cepheus, the king who was at his wits end with bad weather and fisherman complaints went to an oracle for advice. It probably wasn't a great oracle as he was told to take his daughter Andromeda, chain her to rocks to be devoured by the sea monster and maybe things would ease a bit. Enter the dashing Perseus who had come to manhood, and was sent on a quest to slay Medusa, once another boastful beautiful maiden who dared to compare herself to Minerva. The jealous goddess Minerva put a spell on Medusa hence a lifetime of perpetually bad hair, which as any woman knows can totally undo a good attitude, and if that weren't enough, any one who gazed upon her turned to stone. No girlfriends, bad hair, the combination made Medusa a horrible woman.  Perseus was aided my Minerva who lent him a brightly burnished shield, and then Mercury helped him with a loan of winged sandals. Thus equipped he found Medusa sleeping and with one quick stroke of his weapon, while gazing off the refection of the shield, severed the head of Medusa.  Atlas waylays our conquering hero and as gods and heroes will do they got into it. The quick thinking Perseus pulled out the head of Medusa and turned the monarch into stone. Finally Perseus makes his way home and made like a proper hero fought and slew the Sea Monster and by the by saves Andromeda. A banquet then followed and in walks Phineus who had his eye on Andromeda too. Perseus is a bit put out by the Johnny-come-lately Phineus once again exposed the head of Medusa thus ending any further discussion by turning everyone to stone. In the end Perseus gave the head of Medusa to Minerva, who affixed it to the center of her shield. Reproductions of Minerva are often shown with the shield and the horrible face of Medusa can be seen. 

 

CLOUDS AND WEATHER

Before the Weather Channel, Doppler or even the Farmers Almanac, people watched clouds in anticipation of weather on the way. There are three levels of cloud height, low, medium and high. A very simple explanation is Cirrus for high followed by the type of cloud: cirrocumulus for example. Alto for medium height followed by the cloud description, altocumulus. Low clouds are stratus. Knowing these beginner classifications we can then go on to combinations and knowing what they mean we can predict the weather from clouds.

 

The single most important factor to consider with weather is pressure. Atmospheric pressure is the weight of the air in units called millibars and the instrument used for measurement is the barometer.

The isobars on the weather maps measure the surface friction and the distribution of pressure.  The closer the isobars and the more direction of change the greater the friction or resulting wind.  Differing temperature, humidity and pressure, form waves, where it is strong it forms the jet stream in the tropopause. Warm air, strong equatorial masses meeting polar cold, frontal systems line up and intermingle or overlap. Atmospheric layers and temperatures in a seasonal flux, throw in the rotation of the earth and angle to the sun, a perfect recipe for wind events. Wind variations in the different levels of the atmosphere differ too. This is most evident when the upper air clouds are moving less quickly than the lower, alto clouds or visa versa.

Wind shear is where the wind velocity changes sharply over a very small distance. Wind shear pops, it is intense in velocity and a dangerous wind effect.

 

Active weather patterns converge and organize along a line of instability known as a squall line. A single squall line can be hundreds of miles long and is created by the strong opposing air currents at the base of cumulonimbus clouds. High pressure builds in front of the system while behind the storm a low-pressure system. The result is an impressive display of cloud formations, especially the threatening anvil shaped cumulonimbus clouds. These can reach upwards of 35,000 feet and be visible from 200 miles.

High humidity, extreme instability and marked surface air convergence, low and falling pressure, are the conditions that are the initial signal of a tornado warning. Hundreds of tornadoes can be spawned along an active squall line. There are two signs to look for when assessing whether a storm is severe enough to generate tornadoes. The first is the "overshoot" phenomenon, where the normally flat top of the storm's anvil displays an ominous bulge. This indicates the upward rush of air near the center of the storm is so powerful that it has "punched" through the tropopause, bubbling up into the stratosphere. The second feature is extensive mammatus cloud formation.  Mammatus is one of the most spectacular and distinctive of all cloud formations. It consists of pendulous globules of cloud; mamma is Latin for breast, within the storm system.  Tornadoes die down when the violent up-currents within the parent cloud subside, usually when the sun leaves the sky. Tornadoes occur in the middle latitudes with Oklahoma having the dubious distinction of experiencing more than any other location on Earth.  Without question they are the most intense and destructive phenomena in weather. Waterspouts, sand devils, and water devils are generally localized horizontal wind shear that starts rotating. No kin to a tornado.

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