Friday, December 23, 2011

Satellites...or something

I was nearly asleep last night about 10:30 pm when my phone rang. It was my roommates boy, P. He was out with his friends and were looking at something really bright in the sky. They didn't know what it was. It was flashing "blue and red". Someone thought it was a satellite, but I said satellites don't flash. Airplanes flash, I told him. He said it wasn't an airplane. They didn't know what it was.

So I crawled out of bed and looked outside in the direction he mentioned - kind of south-east.

Sure enough, there was a bright something up there. My first, groggy thought was a planet - so I said "That's Jupiter."

P: "Oh really? Why is it twinkling?"

Me: "Because of the atmosphere."

P: "Wow, that's cool. Okay thanks. Sorry about getting you up."

Me: "That's okay. Night."

And off I go back to bed. But I kept thinking of that night sky. It was very beautiful and very clear. Then I thought more about what I saw, and remembered seeing Orion's belt, and that it was pointing right at that bright star I had called Jupiter. And I realized I had been mistaken. It wasn't a planet at all. It was the star Orion's Belt always points to. So I send P a text.

Me: * I was mistaken. It's actually the very bright star 'Sirius'. True story.*

P: * Ooh okay...I was wondering why it was twinkling...was it just barly found? I have never seen it before*

I had to chuckle a little with that question.

Me: * No. It's been there forever. It's just a very clear night so it stands out more*

P: * Okay...*

I know that tone of text from him. It means, "I don't really buy it, that still doesn't answer my question of why I haven't seen it before. It is so bright, how could I miss it in all the times I've been camping and out and night...but I'll just leave it at that with my doubting and wondering."

So understanding that this was probably what he was thinking I continued my explanation.

Me: *Also you only see it in the winter. That may be why you don't recognize it. You're used to seeing the summer sky.*

Whether he bought that or not, I don't know. He didn't answer after that. But it got me thinking about the night sky, and how most  people only give it a passing glance most of the time. It's there. There are stars up there. The big dipper is about the only thing most people can find. Maybe Orion's Belt. But there is usually a disconnect between when one can see Orion's belt and when they can't.

When I do astronomy programs in the summer I often get asked where Orion's belt is. To which I explain that it is a winter constellation, and isn't visible in the summer (except maybe during the wee hours of morning).

So why can't you see Orion in the summer? For the same reason we have day and night and different seasons. The earth rotates and more importantly, orbits the sun. As it orbits the sun, the view of the night sky shifts with the shifting position of the earth in space.

So go check out the winter sky. It is truly one of the best times to see the night sky. Bright constellations. Clear skies. Orion. And his Belt of three stars.


Felicia said...

I wish I knew the constellations better. Orion's belt is just about the only one I recognize when I look up at night. Thanks for sharing this and reminding me to pay more attention to the stars!

Oak in the Seed said...

Glad this young man went to you for his constellation education. Now that I take the dog out for his late night walk I am gifted by the stars and reminded of all good things.

Anonymous said...

I love finding Orion in the colder months (it's one of the few I can find with ease), but must say that I've never noticed the star you've mentioned. I'll be sure to look for it on our next clear night - thanks!

Sybil said...

Isn't there a galaxy in the sword on his belt ? I love gazing at the night sky, 'cept it give me a crick in my neck ...

Wendy said...

Thanks all. I love the winter night sky.

Sybil, not a galaxy in the sword, but a nebula - where stars are born. :) Ah, the beauty.

Sybil said...

That'll teach me to try to show off my vast and superior knowledge ! ;-)

Happy New Year Wendy !