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SKYWATCH with Jon Bell

Mon Apr 23, 2018       DEATH OF MARK TWAIN

Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, died on April 21st, 1910. Twain was born in 1835, the same year that Halley’s Comet made an appearance in the heavens. In 1909 he wrote, “I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet.” The comet’s orbit brings it close to the sun every seventy-six years on average, and it was visible at the time of his birth in the fall of 1835; but wasn’t actually visible again to most folks until a week or so after his death in 1910. But there was a brighter comet in 1910, which could be seen in the daytime, in the months just before he died. Perhaps he was thinking of this comet when he wrote, “Death is the starlit strip between the companionship of yesterday and the reunion of tomorrow.”


On April 26, 1920, a debate took place concerning our Milky Way. Some astronomers thought we were at the center of our galaxy, for when you looked along the milky band of stars that defines the galactic disc, you saw roughly the same number of stars throughout. Other astronomers pointed to a concentration of star clusters in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, and suggested that that was where the galaxy’s center lay. Spiral nebulas were also considered, and while some thought they were simply forming solar systems inside the Milky Way, others said they were actually other galaxies far beyond ours. Now tonight there will be another meeting of astronomers – amateur astronomers, that is. The Treasure Coast Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 pm in the Science Center’s big auditorium on the Fort Pierce campus of Indian River State College. This meeting is open to the public.

Wed Apr 25, 2018       ARCTURUS AND BOÖTES

If you look off to the east tonight, or any night this month or next, you’ll find a star low in the sky after sunset. That eastern star is named Arcturus, which means, “bear chaser.” It’s called the bear chaser because Earth’s rotation causes this star to follow or “chase” the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear in the Sky. The bear is to the north of Arcturus (you’ll recognize its back and tail as the Big Dipper, well up in the northeast.) Arcturus is in the constellation Boötes, the Shepherd. This is an agricultural constellation that farmers and shepherds used long ago to keep track of when to plant and harvest and tend to the sheep. In the springtime, Boötes is a celestial reminder for those who watch over their flocks at the time when lambs are born. And in the fall, Boötes is low in the western sky after sunset, a cosmic post-it note to farmers - bring in the crops.


I like the sound of star names. Alpha Centauri, for instance, a mere 4 and a third light years away, is a favorite destination for many space travelers in science fiction. But it turns out that a lot of stars begin with “Alpha,” because that’s not actually the star’s name, but its designation. Rigel Kentaurus, which means, “the centaur’s knee,” is the actual name for Alpha Centauri. Alpha simply means it’s the brightest star in the constellation of the Centaur - so, Alpha Centauri. The star Arcturus, which you can see in the east this evening, is designated, Alpha Boötis, the brightest star of Boötes the Shepherd. To its south is Alpha Virginis, the brightest star in Virgo, named Spica. The second brightest star in a constellation is designated Beta, such as Merak, one of the stars in the Big Dipper. It’s designated Beta Ursa Majoris, because the Big Dipper is just a part of the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear.

Fri Apr 27, 2018        SUN IN ARIES

The earth revolves about the sun, which causes the sun to slowly drift through our sky from west to east. The sun has now entered the constellation Aries, the Ram. This means that because of the earth’s revolutionary motion, the sun is now directly between us and the stars which make up Aries. This obviously is a bad time to be looking for the constellation of the Ram, because the bright sun blocks our view of this part of space. If today’s your birthday, you may have been told that you’re a Taurus, meaning the sun was in Taurus when you were born. But the sun isn’t in Taurus, it’s in Aries, and will be for the next several weeks. When astrology was in its heyday thousands of years ago, the sun would have been in Aries, but because there’s a very slow wobble in the earth’s rotational axis, all the zodiacal signs have been offset by one constellation, turning bulls into sheep, sheep into fish, and so on.

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Music Notes

Songs of Space and Time

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