Paul Derrick's Stargazer



Stargazer Columns: Best of 1990-92

 Copyright by Paul Derrick.  Permission is granted for free electronic distribution as long as this paragraph 
 is included.  For permission to publish in any other form, please contact the author at

Jan. 20, 1990: Stars Over Central Texas
Feb. 03, 1990: The Telescope and the Heretic
Mar. 31, 1990: A Quarter Equals a Half in Moon Math
May 12, 1990: Just Where Is the Little Dipper?
Sep. 29, 1990: Shine on Harvest Moon

Jan. 05, 1991: Stargazing in Switzerland
Jan. 19, 1991: Astronomy vs. Astrology
Apr. 27, 1991: Stargazin' 'n' Noticin'
May 11, 1991: Movement in the Sky
Jul. 20, 1991: Seasons and the Sun
Aug. 17, 1991: Extraterrestrials?
Sep. 14, 1991: Cassiopeia & Margaret Willets
Sep. 28, 1991: Sputnik I Anniversary
Oct. 12, 1991: Polaris Not Always the North Star
Oct. 26, 1991: Things to See in the Night Sky
Nov. 09, 1991: Sky & Telescope Turns 50

Feb. 01, 1992: Planets & Stars: the Epitome of Existence
Feb. 15, 1992: Clyde Tombaugh: Discoverer of Pluto
Feb. 29, 1992: Happy Leap Day
Mar. 14, 1992: How Far Is Far?
Mar. 28, 1992: Parsecs and Other Vast Distances
Apr. 11, 1992: Elementary Guide to Heavenly Bodies
May 09, 1992: Sky Net: Of Meridians & Parallels
Jul. 18, 1992: Follow the Drinkin' Gourd
Aug. 15, 1992: Solar System Model
Sep. 12, 1992: Messier Objects
Sep. 26, 1992: Space Exploration Inevitable
Nov. 08, 1992: Moon Not Larger Near Horizon
Nov. 22, 1992: 29 Years After Kennedy Assassination
Dec. 20, 1992: The Truth Doesn't Always Set One Free

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January 20, 1990

Stars Over Central Texas

Welcome to "Stargazer," a biweekly column for those who enjoy the beauty and wonder of starry night skies. We'll share some of the joys of amateur stargazing and keep you abreast of interesting upcoming happenings in the local nighttime skies.

Hopefully, you noticed the brilliant "evening star" which recently disappeared into the sunset in the southwest. That beautiful gem was the planet Venus which will soon become the "morning star" in the predawn southeast sky. It's prominence in the evening sky has been replaced by another brilliant "star" -- the planet Jupiter, king of the planets.

Jupiter, which will be with us all winter, is passing through one of the most exciting parts of the winter sky. Of the 13 brightest stars ever visible locally, Jupiter is now surrounded by 7 of them. And it outshines them all. It is between the constellations Gemini and Orion and within a galatic stone's throw of the stars Betelgeuse and Rigel (in Orion), Aldebaran (Taurus), Capella (Auriga), Pollux (Gemini), Procyon (Canis Minor) and Sirius (Canis Major). (Other than the sun, Sirius is the brightest star seen by earthlings.) Look for the famous Orion (the Hunter) midway up in the southeast sky soon after dark -- Jupiter will be above it. Use the diagram to identify the other bright stars in the neighborhood.

Stargazers who live beyond city lights have an advantage as light pollution limits the number of sky objects visible to the city dweller. It is especially a factor when viewing fainter "deep sky" objects, such as galaxies, star clusters and nebulae, which are beyond the solar system. But city stargazing is still enjoyable. Many interesting objects not seriously impaired by city lights are the moon, several planets, many constellations, binary (double) stars, and brighter "deep sky" objects.

Our local star, the sun, is not affected by city lights. However, it is not recommended for unsophisticated amateur observation because of the danger involved. Even when viewed with some filters, the sun can cause serious and permanent eye damage (as well as telescope damage). So just don't do it. There are safe and interesting ways to view the sun indirectly which we will discuss in a future column.

Questions, comments and ideas for column topics are welcome and may be sent to 918 N. 30th St., Waco, TX 76707. A final suggestion: clip this column and stick it on the refrigerator to remind you of things to watch for in the night sky.

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Feb. 3, 1990

The Telescope and the Heretic

When one thinks of astronomy, one naturally thinks of telescopes. Galileo Galilei turned his newly invented telescope to the heavens in 1609 and shook human and astronomical history.

He discovered four moons revolving around Jupiter -- now called the Galilean moons in his honor -- and provided strong evidence to support a controversial theory of an earlier scientist, Nicolaus Copernicus. Much to the dislike of the church and academia, this heretic had the audacity to suggest that everything did not revolve around the earth (Jupiter's moons revolved around Jupiter), and that the earth was not the center of the universe.

The theory was such a threat to the theological and scientific world-view that proponents were imprisoned (including Galileo) and some even burned at the stake. But the theory and heretics prevailed, thanks in part to a simple telescope.

The telescope, which had a profound impact on human history, is still an integral part of astronomy. So, should you rush out and buy one? Not necessarily. Much can be seen with the naked eyes. For example, constellations are far too large to be viewed through a telescope.

And so very much can be seen with a simple pair of binoculars which many people already own. Binoculars come in sizes with two numbers. A popular size for star gazing is 7x50. The first number gives the power -- 7x makes things look 7 times larger. The second number gives the size (in millimeters) of the big end--the larger the size, the larger the field of view. Learn to use and enjoy binoculars before investing in a telescope.

We'll discuss telescopes more later, but if you just must buy a telescope right away and you're not familiar with them, call or write and I'll share with you some helpful information I've assembled.

Hopefully, our last column helped you locate Jupiter, the brilliant "star" between Orion and Gemini. With binoculars, you can see the Galilean moons just as Galileo did 380 years ago. A minimum of 7x is needed (16x is better) and the binoculars must be very steady (brace them on something).

The four moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto) will look like very tiny stars lined up across one or both sides of the planet. They move quickly so their positions change nightly (even hourly). Io is about the size of our moon and is the closest of the four to Jupiter. In 1979, Voyager 1 astounded the scientific world when it found Io "geologically alive" with active volcanoes.

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Mar. 31, 1990

A Quarter Equals a Half in Lunar Math

A quarter equals a half and a half equals a full. New math? No, lunar math. This week we see the first quarter moon which looks like a half moon. So why is it called quarter?

The moon orbits the earth like a space shuttle. But the moon's orbit at 250,000 miles is much higher than the shuttle's orbit at about 100 miles. While the shuttle goes around the earth in about 90 minutes, it takes the moon nearly four weeks to make the trip.

With no light of its own, the moon like the planets reflects light from the sun. When it is between the sun and earth at new moon, we do not see it as the sun is lighting its back side. In about one week, it travels one-quarter way around the earth, showing us a first quarter half-lighted moon. Half way around on the opposite side from the sun, the entire side facing us is illuminated and we see a full moon. So half a journey equals a full moon. In another week, it is three-quarters of the way around and we see the third quarter half moon.

Near new moon, one can see dimly the non-illuminated part of the moon next to the bright crescent. This ashen glow is earthlight on the moon -- sunlight reflecting off the earth just as moonlight is sunlight reflecting off the moon. When it is new moon on earth, it is full earth on the moon. Since the earth is larger and more reflective, a full earth nignignight on the moon would not be very dark. Still, perhaps future moonlings will write poems and songs about strolling across the moon with their lovers on beautiful earthlight nights. I hope so

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May 12, 1990

Just Where Is the Little Dipper?

The Big Dipper is probably the best known star pattern in the northern sky. In the early evening, it is now 60 degrees above the northern horizon, two-thirds of the way up. If there is a Big Dipper, there must be a Little Dipper, but where is it?

Contrary to popular belief, the dippers are not constellations but asterisms, patterns of stars within constellations. Throughout history, different cultures have imagined many different constellations. To resolve the ambiguities for astronomical officialdom, in 1930 the International Astronomical Union divided the sky into 88 areas. It gave recognition to the Latin-named star patterns within these areas, and they are today's 88 constellations. The Big Dipper is part of Ursa Major, the Big Bear. The Little Dipper is part of Ursa Minor, the Little Bear.

The Big Dipper (called the Plough in Europe) is easy to find as six of its seven stars are rather bright. The second star in the handle, Mizar, is a double star, the famous "horse and rider." It has a fainter companion, Alcor, historically used as a measure of keen eyesight. Only very good eyes can see it unaided although it is easily visible with binoculars. And a telescope reveals that Mizar itself is actually a binary star with another much closer companion star revolving around it.

The end stars of the bowl (pointers) point to nearby Polaris in the Little Dipper. Most people know there is a Little Dipper but cannot find it. Some mistakenly think it is the configuration of stars in the Pleiades cluster which resembles a tiny dipper. With five of its seven stars quite faint, the Little Dipper's dipper pattern can be seen only in a very dark sky. It would be easy to ignore except that Polaris, one of its two brighter stars, is the north star. Polaris is always due north, always the same number of degrees above the northern horizon as the observer's latitude (in Waco, 32 degrees), never sets, and is the only star which appears to never move.

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Sept. 29, 1990

Shine On Harvest Moon

Lovers have probably been singing to the moon for as long as there have been lovers. This Thursday night's full moon was immortalized in the song: "Shine on, shine on Harvest Moon, up in the sky." However, the naming of the Harvest Moon has more practical than romantic origins. It occurs at that time of year when many farmers in the northern hemisphere are harvesting their summer crops. Prior to the advent of modern farm equipment and lighting, the bright full moon offered farmers valuable additional hours for bringing in their crops.

The annual Harvest Moon which usually occurs in September is always that full moon nearest the autumnal equinox, the first day of fall. This year, fall began at 1:55 a.m. CDT last Sunday morning (September 23). September's full moon occured at 8:46 p.m. CDT September 4, some nineteen days before the fall equinox. October's full moon occurs only eleven days after the equinox thus it gets this year's Harvest Moon honors.

The full moon actually occurs at exactly 7:02 a.m. CDT the morning of October 4. Therefore the moon will appear full both October 3 and 4. As with all full moons, the moon will rise in the east as the sun sets in the west. It will flood the sky with light all night long -- around midnight, it will be at its highest point in a somewhat southerly direction. Then, it will set in the west as the morning sun rises in the east.

The full moon often seems larger near the horizon than when it is high in the sky. This is merely an optical illusion probably created by the visual proximity of earthly objects like trees and buildings. However, the moon's apparent diameter does in fact change throughout its monthly journey around the earth. The moon's orbit is an ellipse rather than a perfect circle. Thus, it is not always the same distance from earth. It's distance varies by some 10 percent from its closest (called perigee) to its farthest (called apogee). This full moon happens to occur only two days before perigee so this year's Harvest Moon will actually appear slightly larger and brighter than most full moons -- all the better for harvesters and lovers.

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Jan. 5, 1991

Stargazing in Switzerland

As you read this, the Stargazer should be visiting and, weather permitting, stargazing near Geneva, Switzerland. Let us see what he may expect.

Geneva's longitude is 6o East (of Greenwich, England) compared to Waco's longitude of 97o West. Geneva is more than one-fourth of the way around the earth from Waco, but this will have little effect. Stars and constellations that appear in both locations will rise over Switzerland about seven hours before they rise over Texas, just as the sun does. Except for events like eclipses and occultations which occur at precise times, stargazing is not affected by longitude.

Geneva's latitude is 46o North compared to Waco's latitude of 311o North. Geneva is nearly 15o further north than Waco. This does make a difference. Perhaps most noticeably, Polaris, the North Star, will be higher. It is the only star in the northern hemisphere which seems never to move. Its height above the horizon is always equal to the latitude of the observer. Wacoans always see Polaris 311o above the horizon, or about one- third of the way up in the sky. In Geneva, Polaris is 46o above the horizon, or about half way up in the sky.

Circumpolar stars are those which never set for a given latitude. The further north, the greater number of stars that are circumpolar. At the North Pole, all the northern sky stars are circumpolar. The same stars are always visible as they circle the straight overhead Polaris. No star rises, no star sets at the North Pole.

Switzerland is nearer the North Pole so more stars are circumpolar. The Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, and Capella (in Auriga) never set over Switzerland. Nearly always visible are Deneb (in Cygnus), Vega (in Lyra), and the Great Andromeda Galaxy.

Texans get more variety. Scorpius with its red giant Antares and Sagittarius with its teapot asterism are favorites in our summer sky. For the Swiss, they never rise far above the horizon and then are only visible a few hours each night. And they never see the lovely Canopus (in Carina).

Geneva is not good for stargazing as city lights and a frequent winter cloud cover interfere. However, stargazing from the surrounding mountains can be fantastic. The higher elevations and colder temperatures mean less atmospheric distortion.

Swiss stargazers have another advantage in the winter -- more hours of darkness. It gets dark earlier and stays dark longer. This reverses and becomes a disadvantage in the summer.

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Jan. 19, 1991

Astronomy vs. Astrology

"Hey, Dr. Derrick," said a young woman recently. "I saw your picture in the paper. I didn't know you were into astrology."

Trying not to grimace, I replied, "I'm into astronomy," to which she quickly corrected herself, "Sorry, astronomy."

When confused with astrologers, most astronomers bristle as if they've been insulted even if unintentionally. While both study the stars and other heavenly bodies, the purposes and methods of study are quite dissimilar and lead to very different outcomes.

Astronomy is the scientific study of the universe. As a science, it adheres to the rules of scientific inquiry. Science formulates testable theories to explain, predict and increase our control over nature. As theories are supported by observations, they gain validation and credibility. When not supported by the evidence, they are modified or discarded. By this time-honored method, our knowledge advances even if tediously and imperfectly.

Recent publicity over the big bang theory illustrates the scientific method. Around 1927 based on then current knowledge, Georges Lemaitre suggested a theory (later dubbed the big bang theory) to help explain the origin of the universe. For many years, new data supported his theory. Now some recent observations suggest the theory needs to be modified, or maybe even discarded. Contrary to the recent insinuations of a syndicated columnist, this does not reflect negatively on science or scientists. This is how science works. It is science at its best.

Astrology is a false or pseudoscience which studies heavenly bodies in the belief that they have a direct influence on the course of human affairs. Credible evidence to justify such beliefs is lacking -- statistical studies fail to find any correlation between the motions of stars or planets and human affairs. Yet astrology has a wide following.

Pseudosciences like astrology may entertain, they may provide emotional solace or the illusion of control when humans feel weak and vulnerable. But pseudosciences didn't develop vaccines for polio and smallpox, grow more wheat or put us on the Moon. They didn't give us automobiles, televisions, computers or other devices which make possible life as we know it. Nor will they solve the myriad problems still confronting us.

In the advancement of human knowledge, pseudosciences like astrology are pacifiers devoid of nourishment. Science is Mother Nature's milk by which we survive and grow.

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Apr. 27, 1991

Stargazin' 'n' Noticin'

Recently Beatrice Ramirez of Coryell County wrote Stargazer about her newfound interest in stargazing. She said, "Looking up into the heavens gives me a sense of freedom...I plan to enjoy this beautiful universe for the rest of my life."

Her letter reminds me of a story. During an extended visit in the country, a city fellow came upon a local farmer named Elijah. The farmer was standing stock still in a field staring up into the nearly dark twilight sky. With a trace of ridicule in his voice, the urbanite said, "What'cha doin', Elijah?" to which Elijah witheringly replied, "Noticin'."

Indeed it's hard to imagine the beauty and wonder of the heavens failing to elicit deep feelings and thoughts in those who, like Beatrice and Elijah, notice. People stargaze for different reasons. Some pursue it like a second vocation. For others, it is a true avocation, an enjoyable hobby, a diversion from daily work. It can provide temporary diversion from life's hassles and stresses. But stargazing (or bird watching or noticing other aspects of nature) can be more than mere diversion.

In replying to Beatrice, I acknowledged that while stargazing is fun, it is for me also a rather philosophical activity. I find it both humbling and affirming. I contemplate the unfathomable size of the universe and the probability of countless other beings and civilizations "out there" and am taken beyond myself and feel small and insignificant. At the same time, stargazing takes me deep within myself to the very core of my being as I realize I too am part of this magnificent whole, no less so than any other being.

In 1947, Texas naturalist Roy Bedichek wrote, "What a large percentage of urbanized populations miss beginning the day under the spell of the silent, pervasive, leisurely preparations of the heavens to receive the sun!" The man knew how to notice.

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May 11, 1991

Movement in the Night Sky

During the course of a night heavenly bodies seem to move across the sky. They rise in the east, move slowly from east to west, and set in the west. Their apparent motion, of course, is actually due to the earth's west-to-east rotation.

One can demonstrate this visual effect. While standing and looking straight ahead cup your hands around your eyes. Now slowly turn around in a counterclockwise direction. The surrounding objects seem to move around you in a clockwise direction. They appear on your left, move across your "sky" from left to right, and then disappear on your right. (If you turn half way around, that's how much "sky" you see in one night.)

But it gets a bit more complicated. While the earth rotates once every 24 hours, the objects in the sky do actually move. Different objects move at different rates. Even the stars move but their movement is extremely gradual as viewed from Earth.

The movement of planets is more noticeable, especially those nearer the sun. The movement of most naked-eye planets against the background stars is easily noticeable from week to week and even night to night. For the past several weeks, we have been watching Jupiter, Mars and Venus grow closer each evening.

Disregarding transients like meteors and satellites, the fastest moving night object is the moon. It circles the earth once a month, moving from west to east. It's rapid motion relative to the stars is detectable from hour to hour. It moves one-half degree (one moon width) each hour against the background sky. From one night to the next, the moon moves eastwardly along the ecliptic about 13 degrees -- some call this a moon stride.

To approximate a moon stride, hold your hand out at arm's length. Make a University of Texas "hook 'em horns" sign by spreading your index and little fingers far apart. (This will be difficult for Texas Aggies and Baylor Bears, but it will be dark -- no one will see!) The distance between the tips of the two fingers is about 13 degrees or one moon stride. You can predict where the moon will be tomorrow night. Facing south and using your left hand, align your index finger with the moon. With your little finger aimed to the east, it will be where the moon will be the same time tomorrow night.

Currently, Venus, Mars and Jupiter are aligned along the ecliptic nearly one moon stride apart in the evening sky. As if to emphasize this, a crescent moon passes near them on three consecutive nights -- Venus on Thursday, Mars on Friday, and Jupiter next Saturday. Next month, these four will put on a dazzling naked-eye show -- the Grand Conjunction.

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July 20, 1991

Seasons and the Sun

Earth's distance from the sun varies during the year because we circle the sun in an elliptical rather than circular orbit. When farthest from the sun (called aphelion), we are 5 million kilometers (3 percent) more distant than when we are closest to the sun (called perihelion). The sun, of course, is our source of warmth.

On July 6, the earth was at aphelion; on January 3 we were at perihelion. Thus on a hot summer day we were actually FURTHER from the sun than on a cold winter day. This seems backwards -- it seems we should be closer to the hot sun during the summer and farther during the winter. Actually these differences in distance from the sun have little effect upon temperatures on Earth.

Our seasonal temperature variations are due to the fact that the earth is tilted 23 1 degrees in its orbit. This tilt affects the length of our days (amount of daylight) and how high the sun gets in our sky. In the summer, days are longer (over 14 hours in Central Texas) and nights are shorter (less than 10 hours). More hours of sunshine mean more hours during which the earth absorbs warmth from the sun. Winters are reversed. Longer nights and shorter days mean less time for heat absorption.

And in the summer, the sun gets higher in the sky. It's rays strike the earth at a more direct angle. Since the summer rays travel through less of the earth's filtering atmosphere, they deliver more heat to the surface.

The earth's tilt also accounts for the fact that the seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere -- summer in December, winter in June. No white Christmas in New Zealand.

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Aug. 17, 1991


The recent discovery of what might be a planet orbiting a distant star again raises the question: Are we alone in the universe? StarDate's Jeff Kanipe recently quoted Greek philosopher Metrodorus who in 4 BCE said, "To consider the Earth as the only populated world in infinite space is as absurd as to assert that in an entire field of millet, only one grain will grow."

Yet two thousand years later, we still have no evidence of life, present or past, anywhere beyond Earth. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) listens for signs of other beings, but nothing has yet been found. However, the search is akin to looking for needles in a haystack the size of a mountain.

That we have yet to detect other life is probably due to our level of scientific sophistication. We are a young species, just a few thousand years out of caves. Columbus discovered this "new world" a mere 500 years ago. Radios are less than 100 years old and computers are younger than many readers of this column. As a scientific species, we are but children with dime store toys. Imagine our knowledge and technology in just another 500 years. But there may be other ways in which we're not ready to discover other life.

Consider the implications of discovering the existence of other intelligent beings. We struggle to accept other humans of different color, life-styles, values and beliefs. Imagine our trying to accept the reality of aliens, not Hollywood's Mr. Spock or ET, but truly alien beings. To paraphrase the late British scientist J.B.S. Haldane, it is likely they are not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

Just as we are products of evolutionary adaptations to conditions on Earth, other life forms will be products of adaptations to their worlds. They are certain to be vastly different in looks, culture, attitudes, and language. They may differ in fundamental values and thought processes. They may see at different wavelengths, hear at different frequencies, even communicate through different senses. And how would they behave toward us? Would they respect other life forms? Would they be frightened? curious? threatened? hostile? benevolent? indifferent?

Even Metrodorus didn't know the extent of the universe: billions of galaxies, each with billions of suns and probably billions of planets existing for billions of years. To believe no other life exists seems preposterous and the ultimate in human egotism. But are we ready to know for sure? On the other hand, maybe it's exactly what we need to know to expand our perspective and nudge us to the next level of maturity as a species.

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Sept. 14, 1991

Cassiopeia and Margaret Willets

Rising in the northeast in the evening is the constellation named for the mythological queen, Cassiopeia. The constellation circles Polaris (the North Star), and, from our latitude, is in the sky virtually all the time. It is shaped like a M when it is above Polaris and like a W when below it. Right now in the evening it is like a M or W on its side. To me, Cassiopeia is a reminder of a very special person.

As a reader of this column you apparently appreciate stargazing. Do you recall when and how your interest began? Was it long ago or recently?

My fascination with the stars began as a child growing up on Galveston Bay. In the late 1940s and 1950s, the area was still rather undeveloped and had skies dark enough to see the Milky Way. (Not so today -- my childhood home is less than 10 miles from NASA's Johnson Space Center.) A couple of children's books from my mother, numerous Boy Scout campouts, a junior high school science teacher and a telescope from my dad all contributed to my interest. But one person stands out more than any other.

During the summer of 1954, our family hosted a delightful 80 year old retired art teacher, Margaret Willets, who was also an avid amateur astronomer. Many nights during her visit she dazzled me with the names of stars and constellations. She pointed out things like the Milky Way Triangle, the Diamond of Virgo, Mars, Saturn and other wonders of the night sky.

But what fascinated me most was something she could not show me. As a young woman in 1910, she had seen Halley's Comet. As she told me about it, I was awed. It would return, she said. She wouldn't be around to see it again but I would. And 31 years later, indeed I did. As it turned out, she didn't miss seeing it again by very much. She died at the age of 101, only 10 years before Halley's 1985-86 return.

So I regard Cassiopeia's M and W as a tribute to Margaret Willets, a marvelous lady who loved the stars and shared that love with a red-headed 14 year old boy from Bayview, Texas.

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Sept. 28, 1991

Sputnik I Anniversary

Oct. 4, 1957: Russia Places Satellite into Orbit. Thirty- four years ago this Friday, the launching of Sputnik I marked the beginning of the Space Age. It seems like only yesterday, but over half of today's population had not yet been born.

Still vivid in my memory are discussions of the news in high school. Our excitement and fascination were tempered by grave concerns over Russia's obvious rocket superiority during the insane Cold War. Not yet did we realize that with Sputnik was launched a furious Russian-American space race which would culminate in a human Moon landing less than 12 years later.

In a short 34 years, the Space Age has produced many marvels: human explorations of the Moon; instrument and camera landings on Mars and Venus; fly-by explorations of the Sun, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. We have learned more about the Solar System than had been learned in the rest of human history. We are the first humans to see Earth from space or see the Moon's other side. The Space Age has even given us invaluable information about planet Earth.

There have also been tragic and near-tragic moments: the death of three Apollo astronauts in 1967; the near loss of Apollo 13 en route to the Moon; the devastating loss of the Challenger crew. Disheartening disappointments include the flawed Hubble Space Telescope, although it is by no means a total failure.

Tangible benefits of the Space Age are many. Television and weather satellites, satellite telephone transmissions, Teflon, and advances in computer technology are but a few.

Even so, with our problems on Earth, some question the continued allocation of resources to space exploration. There are practical reasons why we should related to our long-term survival -- eventual space mining, waste disposal, and human space colonization as we deplete, spoil and over-populate Earth.

But there is an even more fundamental reason why we will. Like cats, we are an inherently curious species -- it is our nature to explore. We could no more refrain from space exploration than Pandora could resist opening her box.

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Oct. 12, 1991

Polaris Not Always the North Star

Ask some friends to name the pole star, also called the north star. Likely many will correctly name Polaris. Those familiar with the night sky can even point to it. Now let's really test your friends by taking them on an imaginary trip in a time machine, repeating our question at several points.

We'll first travel back to the year 3320 B.C., just before the era of the Egyptian pyramids. Now the north star is Thuban, a star about 25 degrees from Polaris. A faint star, Thuban is the brightest star in the constellation, Draco, the Dragon. Draco winds between the Big and Little Dippers but with no really bright stars it is difficult to see.

Now we'll go back to the year 325 B.C. when Alexander the Great was conquering much of the known world. Don't worry if you can't find the north star. There isn't any. Alexander had no north star to orient him. Good thing he was on land and not sea.

Let's now travel into the future to the year 11,000 A.D. The north pole star will be Deneb, the bright tail star in Cygnus, the Swan. Deneb will never get closer than 6 degrees from true north. If we go to 15,000 A.D. we will see the brightest north star possible, the brilliant Vega in Lyra. Vega, the fifth brightest star in the sky, will be some 4 degrees from true north. (Deneb and Vega along with Altair form the large Milky Way Triangle now straight overhead in our fall 1991 evening sky.)

Let's take a big time leap forward to the year 27,970 A.D. Lo and behold, the north star is none other than Polaris. Had we traced our north star chase on a star map, we would notice we were following a big circle in the heavens.

By now your friends probably understand that the north pole star changes. By definition, it is whatever star, at any given point in time, happens to be located at or near the celestial north pole, that point in the sky straight above the earth's north pole. Right now Polaris is within one degree of that point. According to a popular astronomy computer program (EZCosmos), Polaris will be almost exactly at the celestial north pole August 1, 2170 A.D. Thereafter for thousands of years it will move further from Polaris into areas of the sky with no bright stars.

Most of the time, the northern hemisphere has no convenient north star, just as the southern hemisphere currently has no south pole star. We are just lucky to have Polaris in our era. In a future column, we will discuss what causes the earth's celestial north and south poles to keep changing.

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Oct. 26, 1991

Things to See in the Night Sky

To the average naked-eye observer, the night sky probably doesn't reveal much variety -- just lots of stars and sometimes the moon. But when one knows what to look for and where and how to look, the naked eye can see considerably more.

Stars are, indeed, the most numerous objects in our sky. Like our sun, they are massive balls of fire, some smaller than the sun, some vastly larger. Because they are much farther than the sun, they look smaller and fainter. Discerning eyes can see they are not all the same color.

Human imagination has linked groups of stars and created picture patterns called constellations. Most don't even remotely resemble their named pattern, but a few do: Scorpio (a scorpion), Canis Major (a big dog) and Orion (a hunter). Some unofficial star patterns, called asterisms, look more like what they are called, like Ursa Major's Big Dipper and Sagittarius' Teapot.

Some stars are bunched into visible clusters, such as the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus. Although only 6-8 separate stars are visible to the naked eye, this cluster contains hundreds of stars. Another cluster is Cancer's Beehive which looks to the naked eye like a faint blur of light.

Some "stars" are not really stars but planets. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn usually appear brighter than the brightest stars. More exotic are nebula, glowing clouds of interstellar gas and dust. Most are too faint for the naked eye, but not all. The Orion nebula appears as a barely visible luminous patch in the center of Orion's sword.

Everything described thus far is part of the Milky Way which itself is visible from rural sites on clear moonless nights. Although the naked eye sees it as a softly glowing cloudy band across the sky, it is actually billions of separate stars which make up the galaxy of which we are apart. (The Milky Way is but one of billions of galaxies in the known universe.)

Even with all this variety, the naked eye sees only nearby objects within the Milky Way, with one exception. Northern hemisphere Earthlings can see one object outside the Milky Way -- the great Andromeda galaxy, a distant galaxy much like the Milky Way.

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Nov. 11, 1991

Sky & Telescope Turns 50

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Sky & Telescope magazine. It was November 1941 when two publications merged to become the best-known magazine of amateur astronomy. Editor Leif J. Robinson relates the magazine's history in this month's issue.

Its earliest ancestor, the Amateur Astronomer, was a four- page newsletter of the New York City Amateur Astronomers Association begun in 1929. In 1936 the one-year-old Hayden Planetarium expanded its monthly bulletin into a magazine called The Sky. This new magazine immediately took in the Amateur Astronomer.

Another magazine for amateur astronomers, The Telescope, appeared in 1931. Originally a quarterly publication of Perkins Observatory in Ohio, it was moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1934 and became a bimonthly.

For several years there had been casual talk of a possible merger but little came of it. Then in the summer of 1941, the resignation of The Telescope's editor produced the crisis needed to generate serious talks. By August the merger was negotiated and three months later Sky & Telescope was born.

Survival during the Great Depression of the 1930's had been a challenge for both publications. The merger undoubtedly helped assure their continuing existence through World War II. That the new publication survived both the depression and war is remarkable. But its success is all the more remarkable because it was not born into a vacuum. A better-known amateur astronomy magazine, Popular Astronomy, had already been in existence since the 1890's. However, this magazine ceased publication in 1951, possibly due in part to S&T's competition.

The 24-page November 1941 issue of S&T, with a monthly circulation of 6,000, cost 20 cents. Today's 120-page issue costs $2.95 and had a circulation of 107,000 last year.

The first publishers of S&T, Charles and Helen Federer, wrote in the inaugural issue, "It is expected that Sky and Telescope will endure for many years to come, and play an important part in the development of the layman's interest in astronomy..." Indeed, it has fulfilled their expectations. Happy 50th birthday to a great publication.

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Feb. 1, 1992

Planets and Stars: The Epitome of Existence

Recently the Stargazer was interviewed by Tommy Wolfe and William Tamayo as part of a science project. One of their questions was "What role do the planets and stars play in space?"

Initially, I regarded the question as naive and wondered to myself what they were really asking. Did they want a description of planets and stars? Did they want to know the difference between them? However, the more I thought, the more I realized the youngsters had asked a very good question. They do, indeed, have very important roles (functions) for human existence.

Planets and stars represent the very epitome of everything which exists: matter and energy. Without planets and stars we couldn't be.

Stars are the source of energy. Turn off the sun and the earth would almost immediately become dark and cold. Life requires light and warmth. We might exist on stored energy reserves such as coal, oil and wood but only briefly. These were formed from living organisms which required solar energy. Animals cannot exist without plants. Although plants can exist without animals (as they did for millions of years), they cannot exist without sunlight. So one role of the stars is to provide energy for life.

Stars are also the source of all elements other than hydrogen. Through nuclear fusion, stars create all other matter. The stuff of which everything is made came from a star. Joni Mitchell's song "Woodstock" truly tells it like it is: "We are stardust."

So the stars play an essential role in our existence. But they are not sufficient. We cannot live on them, nor can we live in space (at least not yet). So the role of planets is to provide a place to live, a home for life. Humans are fragile animals and require special conditions for survival. Since we evolved on planet Earth, we are adapted to the conditions it provides. For Earth to continue fulfilling it role of providing us a home, we must not alter its conditions more quickly than we can adapt to new conditions. If we do, we will surely perish.

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Feb. 15, 1992

Clyde Tombaugh: Discoverer of Pluto

"Dr. Slipher, I have found your Planet X." Until he shared his discovery with his superiors at Lowell Observatory, 24 year- old Clyde Tombaugh was the only human to know with certainty of the existence of a ninth planet, later named Pluto. Barely a year earlier, he was a Kansas farmer with a fascination for telescopes and what they could see in the heavens.

Born Feb. 4, 1906 in Illinois, his interest in astronomy dated to early childhood. His first view through a telescope came at age 12. Poor farming in Illinois drove the family to Kansas in 1922. Working on the family farm by day, young Clyde became an increasingly avid amateur astronomer by night.

Disillusioned with the uncertainties of farming, Clyde wrote Lowell Observatory in Dec. 1928. His experiences with telescopes impressed the staff as did his willingness to spend long cold nights in an observatory for $125 month. He was hired to operate a new long-exposure photographic telescope. In Jan. 1929, the 22 year-old self-taught amateur astronomer departed the Kansas wheat fields on an Arizona-bound train, destined to make astronomical history the very next year.

Lowell Observatory was founded near Flagstaff, Arizona by Percival Lowell in 1894. Lowell was fascinated with the planet Mars which he thought was inhabited by civilized beings. He was also convinced of the existence of a Planet X beyond Neptune. Three search projects between 1905 and 1916 ended in failure. In 1916, disappointed and depressed, Lowell had a stroke and died. It was the fourth search project which the young Kansas farmer was hired to conduct.

On clear nights, Clyde photographed hundreds of small regions of the sky, each region being photographed twice about a week apart. The paired photos were then painstakingly compared for "moving" objects. Stars stay in the same place but planets move. In a week, a planet would be in a slightly different location on the second photo. The afternoon of Feb. 18, 1930, comparing photos he had taken Jan. 23 and 29, 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto and wrote his name in astronomical history.

Feb. 4, 1992 Tombaugh celebrated his 86th birthday in Las Cruces, New Mexico where he lives with his wife Patsy.

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Feb. 29, 1992

Happy Leap Day

Today, February 29, is Leap Day. Most people are aware that February 29 occurs only once every four years, in years we call Leap Years. Yet many people do not know the reason behind this.

Since Leap Year happens to coincide with presidential election years in the U.S., some might think the extra day was inserted to give politicians an extra day to campaign. Leap Day actually relates to a more natural occurrence.

We exist in dimensions of time and space, so we have invented the concept of measurement to help us orient ourselves. We measure space in units of distance such as the meter, foot, mile or light year. We measure time in units like the year, week or second. Some measures are based on naturally occuring events; some are artificial units.

Time-measures based on natural events include the year, month and day. Other measures we use regularly, like weeks, hours, minutes and seconds, have no natural basis -- they are arbitrary and artificial. A day could have been divided into 10 hours rather than 24. Or a week could be a grouping of 10 days rather than 7.

Naturally-based measures are derived from events which occur independent of human affairs. The day, the most obvious and important measure around which we organize our lives, is based on the earth's rotation on its axis. Our bodies seem to have adapted sleep needs to this unit.

The month ("moonth") is based on the moon's orbit around the earth. Is it coincidental that the menstrual cycle of female humans approximately coincides with the moon's orbit?

The year is based on the time it takes the earth to orbit the sun. It takes nearly 365 days (earth rotations) for the earth to orbit the sun -- but not exactly. It actually takes about 3651 day. To account for the extra 1 day, we add one day, Leap Day, every four years. But that is not quite the whole story. More precisely, a year is 365.24225 days, so we make other periodic adjustments. Like we omit adding the extra day in century-years, except for every 4th century. It's just one more instance of humans adapting themselves to the natural rhythms of nature. Maybe we should do more of that. Happy Leap Day.

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Mar. 14, 1992

How Far Is Far?

Every day we use measures of distance like inches, feet and miles. They are so common they seem natural. But like all units of measure, they are human inventions. Most of the world uses the meter and derivatives such as the centimeter (1/100 of a meter) and kilometer (1,000 meters). Such measures serve us well in our daily affairs. But their use in astronomy is limited.

Astronomers use the kilometer (km), about .6 mile, to measure the size of objects, particularly within the solar system. Earth's diameter is 13,000 km and its circumference is 40,000 km at the equator. The sun's diameter is 1,400,000 km. Jupiter, the largest planet, has a diameter of 143,000 km while Pluto, the smallest planet, is believed to be smaller even than our moon which has a diameter of 3,500 km.

Beyond these kinds of measures, kilometers are less useful. Distances between objects are so great that the large numbers become cumbersome and difficult to conceive. For example, try to imagine the 25 trillion miles to Proxima Centauri, the next nearest star beyond our sun.

Astronomers have created other, more practical, measures of distance. Within the solar system, distances are measured with the astronomical unit (a.u.), the average distance from Earth to Sun (150 million km or 93 million miles). Using this unit, the innermost planet, Mercury, is .4 a.u. from the sun while the outermost planet, Pluto is 39 a.u. (Objects orbit in ellipses, not perfect circles, so we are talking average distances.) Beyond the solar system, even the a.u. is not adequate. Proxima Centauri is 267,000 a.u. away, and it's our next door neighbor.

The light year (l.y.) was conceived from a natural phenomenon -- the distance light travels in one year, traveling at the speed of 300,000 km/second or 186,000 miles/second. One light year is 9.5 trillion km, 5.9 trillion miles, and 63,000 a.u. At 4.22 l.y., Proxima Centauri doesn't seem so far away. However, other distances, even within our Milky Way galaxy start requiring large numbers. The diameter of the Milky Way is about 100,000 l.y. The Andromeda galaxy, a neighboring member of the Local Cluster of galaxies, is 2 million l.y. away. The most distant known object, quasar OQ172, is believed to be 16 billion l.y. away.

To make these huge numbers more manageable, astronomers created units of measure called the parsec, the kiloparsec and the megaparsec. We'll discuss these in our next column.

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Mar. 28, 1992

Parsecs and Other Vast Distances

Last time we discussed measures of distance used in astronomy. The astronomical unit (a.u.) is the average distance between Earth and Sun -- about 93 million miles. The light year (l.y.) is the distance light travels in one year -- 5.9 trillion miles. These distances are enormous by Earth standards, yet they are inadequate for easily expressing cosmic distances. So astronomers conceived of measures called the parsec (pc), kiloparsec (kpc) and megaparsec (mpc).

Although they sound like the lingo of Mr. Spock and Capt. Kirk, they are actually the lingo of astronomers. The kiloparsec and the megaparsec are easy to explain. The kpc is 1,000 pc and the mpc is 1 million pc. Explaining the parsec is harder.

Short for parallax-second, the parsec is the distance at which the radius of the earth's orbit around the sun would appear one arc-second wide. This turns out to be 19 trillion miles or 3.26 l.y. But let's see how this is useful in astronomy.

Recall that a circle contains 360 degrees. The dome of the sky from one horizon to the opposite appears as a half circle of 180 degrees. One degree is 1/180th of that apparent distance. One arc-minute is 1/60th of a degree, and one arc-second is 1/60th of an arc-minute. For reference, a full moon appears to be about 1/2 degree or 30 arc-minutes in diameter. Jupiter currently appears about 40 arc-seconds in diameter -- a distance too small to see without binoculars. So one arc-second is a very tiny span of the sky.

Parallax refers to the apparent change in direction of an object brought about when an observer changes viewing locations. The nearer an object, the greater the apparent change in direction. Try it -- move your head from side to side. See how nearby objects seem to move more than farther ones.

The parsec capitalizes on the movement of Earth around the sun. At any time, the earth is on the opposite side of the sun and 186 million miles from where it was six months before. By measuring the angular direction of an object two times six months apart, astronomers calculate the object's distance. The distance at which an object seems to move one arc-second is defined as one parsec. The most distant known object, quasar OQ172, at 16 billion l.y. is less than 5,000 mpc. Seems almost next door.

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Apr. 11, 1992

Elementary Guide to Heavenly Bodies

The Stargazer is frequently asked the difference between planets, stars, solar systems, galaxies and other heavenly bodies. Today we'll explain some of these. Our resource is an excellent book entitled "The Facts on File Dictionary of Astronomy" edited by Valerie Illingworth.

We'll start with our sun which is a star. A star is a huge luminous gaseous ball which generates enormous energy through nuclear reactions in its core.

Orbiting some stars are planets, bodies which shine by reflecting the light of their star. Some planets like Earth are mostly solid bodies. Others like Jupiter are believed to be mostly gaseous. Astronomers are absolutely certain of planets around only one star -- ours. But there is increasing evidence that planets orbit many, probably millions, of stars.

Substantially smaller than planets are asteroids (also called minor planets and planetoids), comets and meteoroids which also orbit our sun. These range in size from a few hundred miles in diameter to specks smaller than grains of sand. When meteoroids enter and burn up in our atmosphere, these are called meteors, also known as "shooting stars."

Some planets have one or more bodies orbiting them, objects we call moons. Our moon we simply call "moon" although we have given formal names to the known moons of the other six planets with moons. Like planets, moons shine only by reflecting light from the sun. While we have only one moon some of the larger planets have over a dozen moons each.

The solar system consists of the sun and the many bodies that are gravitationally bound to and orbit the sun. This includes planets, moons, asteroids, comets and meteoroids.

On a vastly larger scale are galaxies which are composed of millions, even billions, of stars and other exotic things like nebulas, clusters and black holes. Our galaxy which we call the Milky Way is but one of billions of galaxies in the universe.

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May 9, 1992

The Celestial Net: Of Meridians and Parallels

"Of Meridians and Parallels man has made a net and this net thrown upon the heavens and now they are his own." These words of John Donne, the 17th century English poet, are inscribed upon a plaque in the Old Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England.

The meridians and parallels refer to the imaginary lines of longitude and latitude around the earth. On a globe these lines do look like a net thrown upon the earth. This net is a framework for mapping the face of the earth -- making it our own. With it we can establish the location of any place on earth, like Waco, Texas, at longitude 97 degrees 9 minutes west, latitude 31 degrees 33 minutes north.

Astronomers took this net, cast it upon the heavens, and now they too are our own. This celestial net is an imaginary globe mapping the heavens, only we are on the inside of this globe. The earth's north pole projected up into space (like looking straight up while standing at the north pole) becomes the north celestial pole. Since the star Polaris is very close to this point, it serves as our "north star." Similarly, the earth's south pole points to the south celestial pole, although there is no conveniently located "south star." An imaginary line around the heavens straight above the earth's equator establishes the celestial equator.

With these in place, it is easy to weave the net of celestial meridians and parallels. Celestial meridians, comparable to earth longitude, are called right ascension and measured in units called hours and minutes (where one hour equals 15 degrees). Celestial parallels, comparable to earth latitude, are called declination and measured in degrees. The half of the celestial globe above the earth's northern hemisphere is the northern celestial hemisphere, and likewise with the south.

With this celestial net, astronomers can map the sky and establish the location of every object, like the brightest star Sirius at right ascension 6 hours 44 minutes and declination -16 degrees 42 minutes. (The minus sign means Sirius is in the southern celestial hemisphere.)

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July 18, 1992

Follow the Drinkin' Gourd

The stars have always been many things to many people. In the 19th century they were beacons of liberation for countless runaway slaves. The south represented cruel bondage. The north represented hope. So many ran away seeking freedom in the north.

They mostly had to travel by dark of night to avoid detection, and they had no compass to guide them. But they did have nature's wonderful stars which are there for all, rich or poor, free or enslaved. And they had a musical starmap in the lyrics of a well-known Black American folk song: "...the old man is a-waitin' for to carry you to freedom if you Follow the Drinkin' Gourd." This subversive song offered astronomical directions for reaching freedom in Canada.

The drinkin' gourd refers to the Big Dipper, a good choice for guidance. An easily recognizable pattern of rather bright stars, it is nearly always visible above the horizon any time of night and any season. It is never far from Polaris, the North Star. Although the Big Dipper does not point exactly north, it is close enough. By heading toward the drinkin' gourd, the Black Americans enslaved in the south would be heading in a northerly direction, toward the hope of a new life of freedom.

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Aug. 15, 1992

Solar System Model

Our solar system consists of one star (our sun) and millions of objects which are gravitationally bound to and orbit the sun. These objects include dozens of planets and moons and countless smaller objects like comets, asteroids, and meteoroids.

The solar system is billions of miles in diameter. Yet, like the universe, it is mostly empty space. Only a tiny fraction is occupied by matter. If the sun, which is 865,000 miles in diameter, was an empty container, it could easily hold all the other solar system objects.

A scale model helps visualize the smallness of the solar system's objects relative to the vastness of its space. Visualize the sun as a 24 foot ball resting atop the Alico Building in downtown Waco.

The planet Mercury is a jacks ball orbiting 1,000 feet away over the convention center. Venus is a handball orbiting over the police station 1/3 mile away. Earth is a tennis ball 1/2 mile away near the city tennis center. Mars is a ping-pong ball 3/4 mile away near the main library. More than one mile away are countless asteroids, none larger than a kernel of popcorn.

Jupiter is a van tire 2.5 miles away near Lion's Park. Saturn, an auto tire, is near Waco's airport 5 miles out. Uranus and Neptune are basketballs. Uranus is 9 miles away over Elm Mott and Neptune is 15 miles away past Camp Val Verde. Pluto, a small marble, orbits at an average distance of 19 miles, near Bruceville-Eddy.

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Sept. 12, 1992

Messier Objects

Over 200 years ago French astronomer Charles Messier had a fascination for comets. During his lifetime, he discovered 15 to 20 comets and observed more than 50. Yet, his claim to fame is for the non-comets he noted and cataloged.

Few comets actually develop the easily visible bright coma and long tail usually associated with comets. Most appear as fuzzy blurs of light with only a trace of a tail.

In searching for comets with the telescopes of the day, Messier discovered a large number of fuzzy objects which resembled but were not comets. So that he would not be misled in his comet searches by these non-comets, he began to chart and list them.

For a quarter of a century Messier cataloged over 100 objects which he labeled as either star clusters or starless nebulae. His work came to be known as the Messier Catalog. To this day, these objects are called Messier-objects, each with the number ascribed by Messier. For example, M42 is the Orion nebula. Much later, astronomers would identify some M-objects to be galaxies, such as M31, the Andromeda Galaxy.

This Thursday morning the moon will be near M45, better known as the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus. Throughout the next two weeks, Mars will be near M35, a faint star cluster in Gemini. Binoculars are required for M35. The morning of Sept. 20, the moon will join Mars and M35.

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Sept. 26, 1992

Space Exploration Inevitable

October 4, 1957, the world was stunned as the Soviet Union placed Sputnik I into Earth orbit. The next year, the U.S. established NASA and the space race was on.

In 35 years, 12 Earthlings have visited our moon. Robots have landed on Venus and Mars. Dozens of space craft have examined comets, asteroids, and every other planet except Pluto.

These incredible achievements were partly fueled by the Cold War. But much of the impetus surely came from our species' innate curiosity and quest for knowledge, our irresistible drive to explore and conquer.

With the demise of the Cold War, some question the continuation of space exploration, citing our myriad Earthly problems. Certainly we must address these problems more diligently if our species is to survive.

But as long as we do survive, it seems certain we will continue to look to the stars. We can't help ourselves -- we are restless creatures. The security of the cave couldn't hold us. The harshness of untamed lands and the vastness of endless seas couldn't keep us at home.

And it seems unlikely that even Earth can hold us indefinitely. It is our temporary home, but we are citizens of the cosmos.

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Nov. 8, 1992

The Moon Is Not Larger Near the Horizon

Recently psychologist and columnist Dr. Hap LeCrone asked the Stargazer if astronomers had any explanation for why the moon looks larger near the horizon than when it is high in the sky. He raised a question at least two thousand years old.

Indeed, to most people the moon (especially when full) looks considerably larger when near the horizon than when overhead. But this is an illusion -- our mind and eyes playing a trick on us. The moon is not larger when near the horizon. In fact, it is slightly smaller.

When viewed straight overhead, the moon is about 4,000 miles closer to the observer than when viewed on the horizon. It is unlikely, however, that the slight difference in size (less than 2 percent) would be noticeable.

As for the illusion, there seems to be no fully satisfactory explanation. One age-old idea is that the moon looks larger near the horizon because it is viewed in close proximity to earthly objects.

Fred Schaaf, in his book Seeing the Sky: 100 Projects, Activities & Explorations in Astronomy, says this explanation goes back at least as far as Ptolemy in the second century A.D. Yet Marcel Minnaert, an expert on the nature of light, discounts this explanation. He asserts that even when viewed through a tube (where earthly objects are shielded from view), the low moon still looks larger. Other explanations have been offered but there seems to be no consensus of opinion.

This is probably more appropriately a question for psychology (human perception) than astronomy. Perhaps the Stargazer should have asked the question of Dr. LeCrone.

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Nov. 22, 1992

29 Years After the Kennedy Assassination

Anyone who is old enough can almost certainly go back 29 years to the very day President John Kennedy was assassinated. The event burned its mark into our individual and collective memories and left millions stunned, shaken and questioning.

When searching for answers to questions which may have no answers, humans often find themselves peering into the fathomless night sky. And undoubtedly, people around the world gazed upward the night of November 22, 1963, trying to comprehend the traumatic event of a few hours earlier.

The stars they saw that night are exactly the ones we will see tonight, 29 years later. Then as now, the sun set shortly before 5:30 p.m. CST (in central Texas). By 7:00 p.m., the sky was dark. High in the northeast was Cassiopeia while overhead was the Square of Pegasus. Hidden between them was the faint but awe-inspiring Andromeda Galaxy. High in the west were Vega (in Lyra the Lyre), Deneb (in Cygnus the Swan) and Altair (in Aguila the Eagle) forming the Milky Way Triangle. Rising in the northeast was the bright star Capella (in Auriga the Charioteer) with the Pleiades star cluster a little higher in the east.

There were some differences. Tonight will not have the crescent moon of 1963. Venus (named for the goddess of love) was the evening star in 1963 as it will be tonight, however, in 1963 it was rubbing shoulders with Mars (named for the god of war). Jupiter was prominent in the 1963 evening sky but not in 1992.

There is a coincidental similarity between tonight's sky and that of Nov. 22, 1963. The planet Saturn is in Capricorn in the south southwest, almost exactly where it was that fateful night 29 years ago. It takes Saturn 29 Earth-years to circle the sun, so to Saturn, it has been but one year since Kennedy's death.

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Dec. 20, 1992

The Truth Doesn't Always Set One Free

The American poet Archibald MacLeish wrote, "When the earth was the World -- all the world there was -- and the stars were lights in Dante's Heaven, and the ground beneath our feet roofed Hell, we saw ourselves as creatures at the center of the universe, the sole particular concern of God." Indeed, most early cosmologies and religions placed Earth at the center of the universe with the sun, moon and stars moving around us. Until rather recently, to suggest otherwise was not merely foolish, it was dangerous.

Copernicus developed his famous sun-centered theory in 1530, but for fear of execution did not publish it until near death in 1543. The theory, although not a new one, was labeled a heresy.

As far back as 250 B.C., Aristarchus proposed that the earth orbits the sun, but the theory was not then confirmable. Since it ran counter to prevailing views, it was not widely embraced. Four hundred years later, when Ptolemy set forth the earth- centered view in The Almagest (the bible of ancient astronomy), this entrenched the erroneous view for the next 1400 years.

In the early 1600s, Galileo turned his newly invented telescope skyward and found evidence to support Copernicus' theory. He said so publicly, and in 1633 the 69 year-old genius was imprisoned by the Inquisition and forced to live his remaining years under house arrest. However, truth proved stronger even than the Inquisition and the theory took hold.

In 1992, the Catholic Church acknowledged it erred and that Galileo was right after all. Perhaps the church's real error was not taking the wrong side on a scientific question, but in involving itself in a scientific question in the first place.

Scientific knowledge is best established by the scientific method, not religious belief or decree. It appears that 359 years later, that's what the pope finally stated in his recent proclamation. Perhaps the wise religions will apply this lesson to other complex, even disturbing scientific inquiries like the hows of evolution, the origin of the universe, and the existence of extraterrestrial life. Eventually, truth does prevail.

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