October 2014 – Things That Go Bump in the Night Sky


Hi everyone, I’m Darrell Heath with the UALR College of Arts, Letters, and Sciences; welcome to The Night Sky.

Autumn is my favorite time of the year; there is just something magical about it.   Perhaps it has something to do with the days growing shorter and the cooler temperatures ushering in the beautiful changes in leaf color.   You can almost feel nature shutting down from all the wild growth of summer and making ready for the cold, bleak days of winter.   Another reason I love the fall so much is that it brings back some very fond memories from childhood celebrations of my favorite holiday:  Halloween.

As a kid I loved scaring myself witless by binging on ghost stories and watching classic horror films.   Halloween, with its emphasis on ghosts, witches, and vampires seemed to me like a holiday tailor made for celebrating all things spooky and I relished the opportunity of designing my own costume and trick-r-treating with my friends.

At this point you are probably wondering how can I possibly link Halloween with astronomy but, in fact, the holiday does owe its origins to things going on with the astronomical calendar.

What we call Halloween today grew out of a holiday, named Samhain and was celebrated by the ancient Celts and their Druid priests of the British Isles and across portions of Iron Age and Medieval Europe.   Samhain occurred on a cross-quarter day, a day that was deemed to be the midway point between an equinox and a solstice, which are themselves astronomical events.  There are three other cross-quarter days throughout the year besides the one on October 31st:  February 2nd (known to us as Groundhog Day), May 1st (May Day), and August 1st (symbolized by the little known today holiday of Lammas).

Samhain means “summer’s end” and not only did the holiday mark the end of summer and the harvest it was also the Celtic New Year.

An important night sky harbinger that told the Druid priests when Samhain was to be celebrated was where upon the sky the Pleiades star cluster was located. Thousands of years ago the Pleiades reached its highest point in the sky right around October 31st and this was the signal to begin their festivities.  On this night they would build huge bonfires and offer animal sacrifices to their gods.   They also believed that on this night the boundaries between the world of the dead and that of the living became blurred and the spirits of the dead would to return Earth to roam the land from sunset to midnight, creating mischief wherever they went.   While we don’t know for sure the origins of the jack-o-lantern we do know that there is an old Gaelic tradition that involves carving out faces in various vegetables and gourds and turning them into lanterns to keep such mischievous spirits at bay.

So, we’ve established an astronomical connection to Halloween but is there anything going on in our sky this month that might be regarded as being a bit spooky?

Well, if you are one of those people who still hold with the erroneous belief that eclipses are harbingers of doom then be prepared to be frightened out of your wits.  We not only have just one eclipse; we have two of them this October.

The first is a total lunar eclipse during the early morning hours of October 8th.   Lunar eclipses occur during a full moon when the Sun, Earth, and Moon are aligned, with Earth in the middle, casting its shadow upon the lunar surface.   This particular lunar eclipse is the second of four that are spread out over half year intervals this year and next.  Total lunar eclipses in such frequencies are rare and are known as lunar eclipse tetrads. There are some folks who are trying to link this particular series of eclipses to a biblical prophecy that predicts the end times.   Needless to say this is total nonsense, it is simply a product of celestial mechanics and nothing more.

However, total lunar eclipses often appear a red color and to see the Earth’s shadow slowly gliding across the Moon’s face, turning it a rusty red, can seem a bit creepy.  The red color is a result of the Sun’s light being filtered through the Earth’s atmosphere and onto the Moon.  The more particulates in the atmosphere the more red the Moon will appear but sometimes, especially after volcanic eruptions; there can be enough particulates to make the Moon appear black.

Look for things to get underway at around 3:45AM CDT with totality beginning at 5:25AM and lasting for 59 minutes.   As an added treat the planet Uranus can be seen with binoculars or a small telescope about one degree away to the lower left of the Moon during totality.  The angular size of the full moon itself is just a half a degree, so Uranus will be about two full moon widths away.

Speaking of full moons, one of my favorite classic horror movies is Universal Studio’s 1941 film “The Wolf Man” starring Lon Chaney Jr. and Claude Rains.   One of the film’s most famous bits of dialog comes from Russian character actress Maria Ouspenskaya who plays the gypsy woman whose son (played by Bela Lugosi) has turned Lon Chaney Jr.’s character into a werewolf.  She recites to Chaney a few lines from an old gypsy poem that says:

“Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.”

But can the Moon really exert some kind of influence over animals and humans?     Well, certainly the Moon can provide a visual cue for many animals to carry out various behaviors and activities.   Corals for example use both Moon and sunlight, along with biochemical cues, to initiate spawning on the nights of a full moon but there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate there is a link between Moon phases and human behavior.

Yet there has been a long established myth that the Moon can exert some kind of control over human behavior, namely in it’s ability to either turn people into werewolves or induce madness.  You can even here echoes of this in the words “lunatic” and “lunacy”, “luna” being the Roman goddess who personified the Moon.

I’ve known many folks who work in both law enforcement and the medical fields who firmly believe that a full moon brings about an increase in human violence. The problem with that belief is that there have been innumerable studies looking at both police and hospital records to see if there is a correlation between the Moon and an increase in hospital visits or arrest incidents and so far there has never been a link established between the two.

Maybe the myth persists simply through the power of suggestion.  If you are predisposed to believing the myth then perhaps when an out of the ordinary event occurs, and it happens during a full moon, your mind immediately forms a connection between the two, all the while ignoring those other out of the ordinary things that happen during the rest of the month when the Moon is at any phase besides full.

The Moon is a beautiful night sky companion, capable of raising tides on our oceans, but it wields no mystical power over the affairs of humans.

OK, moving on to our next eclipse of the month.  This one is a partial solar eclipse.   With a solar eclipse we have the Moon positioned in between the Earth and the Sun blocking some of the sunlight from reaching the Earth.  On rare occasions, if the alignment is just right, the Moon’s disc can block the entire Sun out, leading to a total eclipse of the Sun.  Other times it will only obscure a portion of the solar disc.  That’s what will happen on the afternoon of October 23rd at 4:08PM CDT.   Mid-eclipse will occur at around 5:24PM.  In our location the Sun will set at 6:21PM and we will not be able to see the remainder of it.  Remember: do not look directly at the Sun during the eclipse or you will risk permanent eye damage.  This is especially true when using binoculars or a telescope.  If you do use optical aid of any kind it must be with the proper filters in place.   And no, sunglasses, no matter how expensive they are will not be safe.   You can use welder’s glass rated at 14 or higher or you can purchase solar eclipse glasses that use a mylar film from many scientific supply houses.  Be sure and check with the UALR Physics and Astronomy Department or the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society to see if they will have telescopes set up for safe observing at a location near you.

A popular theme in 20th century science fiction was that of alien invaders from outer space and due in large part to H.G. Wells’ classic novel “War of the Worlds”, a story about an attempt by Martians to conquer an unsuspecting 19th century Earth with their overwhelmingly superior firepower.  It’s a theme that still resonates with readers over a century later.  But what if the tables were turned and it was Mars that was confronted with a frightening visitor from beyond?   One could argue that that scenario has already been played out with our own visits to the Red Planet but on October 19th Mars will have a very close encounter with an icy visitor from the outer fringes of the solar system: Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring.  On October 19th the comet will brush by Mars at a distance of about 82,000 miles.  That may sound like a lot but in astronomical terms it is a very close shave.  Just to be safe, NASA will protect its various orbiters by placing them on the opposite side of the planet from the comet at the time of closest approach.

While the core of the comet will not strike the planet it is the dirty snowball’s long dusty tail containing particles traveling at high velocities that poses the greatest risk to orbiting spacecraft.  Rovers on the planet’s surface may be treated to a spectacular meteor shower and you can bet that even the orbiters will be gathering valuable scientific data as the comet makes its flyby.  Comet Siding Spring only serves to highlight the fact that our solar system is a cosmic shooting gallery
and scary near misses like this one are more common than we once realized.

When I opened the show I said that, to me, the month of October seemed magical but I didn’t mean any kind of supernatural magic.   Ghosts, werewolves, evil spirits and the like are all the products of human imagination but there does exist another kind of magic, the magic of reality as revealed to us through a rational, scientific interpretation of the universe.   We don’t need the supernatural to feel awe and wonder with the world, there is a certain poetic magic that can arise simply from understanding rather than from ignorance.

Until next time, I encourage you to step outside look up, and enjoy the magic of the night sky.

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