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Ribblehead Viaduct at night Copyright Pete Collins

An exploration of space and time

Thursday 28 October, 2021, by Sam Cage

As we get back into the dark wintery nights we will begin to see the beauty of the night sky a tad more. Stargazing is a very popular hobby and there are aspects of space that not everyone knows, like how other cultures saw the stars or how to navigate using the stars. Join us in learning a bit more about space in the past, present, and future.

Constellations from different cultures

For as long as humans have been roaming the earth we have been interested in the stars. With a lot less light pollution than we have now, the stars would have been a mosaic of lights in the sky which some people noticed could be connected to make shapes. Almost everyone saw the same shapes but they didn’t all have the same stories.

Orion – Sah (Egyptian)

A graphic depicting the star constellation Orion in front of a starry background
The Orion constellation

Sah is seen as “the Father of Gods” so it makes sense for him to represent one of the brightest constellations in our sky. The layout for Sah was slightly different from how we see Orion, what we know as Orion’s belt was seen by the Egyptians as the crown of Sah. The nearby star of Sirius (the brightest star in Canis Major) was seen as Sah’s wife, Sopdet, a fertility goddess.

Ursa Major/ The Plough – The Seven Rishis (Hindu)

A graphic depicting the star asterism, The Plough, in front of a starry background
The Plough asterism

In Hindu belief the seven main stars in the constellation Ursa Major, also known as The Plough, are seen as the seven Rishis. The seven Rishis were sages that are said to make the sun rise and shine in the sky, it is also said they were assigned to be present through the four great ages to guide the human race.

The seven sages were married to seven sisters who were seen in the night sky as the asterism, The Pleiades.

Taurus/Hyades – Mouth of the Wolf (Scandinavian)

A graphic depicting the star constellation Taurus in front of a starry background
The Taurus constellation

The five main stars that make up the V shape in Taurus are a group of stars known as the Hyades. These five stars are what make up the Mouth of the Wolf constellation, also known as Ulf’s Keptr. This wolf could symbolise many characters from Scandinavian beliefs. For instance, it could symbolise Fenrir the son of Loki and one of the causes of Ragnarok. It could also be seen as one of Fenrir’s children, Hati and Skoll who are said to chaise the sun and the moon through the sky. Generally when a wolf is mentioned, it is often to symbolise chaos and destruction.

Cassiopeia – Náhookǫs Bi’áád (Navajo)

A graphic depicting the star constellation Cassiopeia in front of a starry background
The Cassiopeia constellation

Náhookǫs Bi’áád, or the Female Revolving One, is named due to her proximity to Polaris as she revolves around the night sky. She is a woman who personifies motherhood and regeneration and it’s said that she provides growth and stability in the home while also being able to bring harmony. She’s seen carrying her grinding stone and stirring sticks which act as her weapons to ensure that she will always be able to feed her family. The stars that comprise Náhookǫs Bi’áád are what we know as the constellation Cassiopeia.

Scorpius – Nidhogg (Scandinavian)

A graphic depicting the star constellation Scorpius in front of a starry background
The Scorpius constellation

Nidhogg is the name of one of the giant serpents that dwell beneath the world-tree Yggdrasil, gnawing on the tree’s roots until his eventual freedom during Ragnarok. The Nidhogg constellation is very similar to the Scorpius constellation but instead of the normal small tail, the Nidhogg constellation has a tail that is made up of 19 stars

Nidhogg represents chaos and evil as it lurks in the world-trees roots. The enemy of Nidhogg is a great eagle named Hræsvelg, who represents wisdom and virtue as he perches in the uppermost branches of the tree. The constant tension between the eagle and the serpent is fuelled by a talking squirrel named Ratatoskr. This cheeky red squirrel is said to run up and down the tree ferrying insults between the two enemies.

Draco – Wolf (Babylonian)

A graphic depicting the star constellation Draco in front of a starry background
The Draco constellation

Yet another Wolf appears in the night sky, but this time it uses the stars in the Draco constellation to form its shape. It uses the head and middle section of Draco to make up its starry shape. In Babylonian belief it’s said that the Wolf gnaws at the harness-work that suspends The Plough to the centre of heaven. When it finally tears the rope apart, the different levels of the cosmos that the rope connects will collapse bringing about the end of a world.

The Babylonians were very talented in astronomy to the point where they could predict future celestial events and map the path of Jupiter using advanced maths about 1,400 years ago.

Past uses for constellations

Constellations and stars aren’t just a pretty lights in the sky, in the distant past when constellations were first connected they served purposes for our ancestors. In most cultures they were used as a way to tell stories of gods, heroes and beasts, but some of those constellations had served a deeper purpose.

Navigation

A graphic depicting the star constellation Ursa major and The Plough in front of a starry background
The Ursa Minor constellation and The Plough

Before we had compasses and advanced technology like GPS, people had to use the sun and the stars to navigate across land and sea. The sun can be used to find East and West due to it always rising in the east and setting in the west. At night they don’t have the sun however, so how did they navigate? There’s a few methods to find your way, Polaris (The North Star) can be used to find north due to it being the closest star to the north celestial pole meaning it is always in the north. The North Star can also be used along with a sextant to find your latitude, or how close you are to the equator. To find The North Star, look for Ursa Minor which is located right next to Ursa Major and find the star at the end of its tail.

Now you know how to find how close to the equator you are, how do you find how far East or West your are? To find your longitude you have to record the rising and setting time of a certain constellation every night, by looking as the change in times each night you can calculate how far East or West you have travelled.

These techniques are still known and used today in case the boats navigation system goes down.

Calendars

A graphic depicting the Summer Triangle, an asterism that is made from three stars in the Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila constellations
The Summer Triangle – Cygnus (Left), Lyra (Middle), Aquila (Right)

Around 5,000 years ago some of the first astronomers started noticing patterns in the sun and moon. As they noticed these patterns they built shrines called henges to mark key events like the summer or winter solstices and the spring and fall equinoxes. Being able to see when these events were coming helped them to know when to plant crops after frosts and when to harvest them before winter descended. You could determine the time of year by how bright the constellations appeared. For example ancient people knew that when Orion started to become more visible, winter would soon arrive. Or they would see the Summer Triangle and know that Spring and Summer was coming.

Predicting the future

A graphic depicting the constellation Canis Major with its brightest star, Sirius, being pointed out
The Canis Major constellation – The star Sirius being pointed out

The ancient Babylonians perfectly mapped the stars over 3,000 years ago, and as time went on they recorded every celestial event they saw, including the motions of the planets they could see and the eclipses of the sun and moon. They wrote their findings on clay tablets and used them to calculate when any future celestial events would occur. Some have even said it’s possible they could have predicted the eclipse in 2017.

Eventually the regular observation of the stars, first made popular by Babylonian astrologers, made the accurate prediction of the flooding of the Nile River, giving Egyptians a major advantage. They realised that the location of the star Sirius’ rise on the horizon of the Nile plain became an accurate predictor of annual Nile flooding.

Future celestial events

Due to years upon years of studying and recording celestial events, we can accurately predict what events will occur in the future and when they will happen. Some of these events are quite rare and are worth keeping in mind.

Leonid meteor storm – 2031

In November of the year 2031, the Comet Tempel-Tuttle will complete a full orbit of the sun, and as it comes by Earth it will bring along what is known as the Leonid meteor storm. It’s often described as being a ‘storm’ due to the intense amount of meteors coming into the atmosphere. It’s said that the Leonid storm in 1833 produced 100,000 to 200,000 meteors per hour. I don’t think anyone would want to miss this beautiful, natural light show.

Halley’s Comet – 2061

On 28th July 2061, we will see the return of the very famous Halley’s Comet. It is a “periodic” comet and returns to Earth’s vicinity about every 75 years, making it possible for someone to see it twice in their lifetime if they’re very lucky. At its brightest, it will be almost as bright as Venus making it incredibly easy to spot on a clear night. Once it appears it should be visible for four three to four days, allowing you to have multiple chances at seeing this magnificent spectacle.

Planetary alignment – 2040

The possibility of alignment between planets in the solar system is quite rare. Scientists estimated that there is a rare planetary alignment of Mars, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and The Moon will occur in the year 2040. The five naked-eye planets cluster together in the sky which happens every 57 years. Clustered well together, the planets will stage a spectacular show at 7:30 p.m.

Total lunar eclipse – 2022

On 16th May 2022 there will be a total lunar eclipse for the first time since 2019. A total lunar eclipse is a process where the Moon is completely blocked by the Earth’s shadow, but it can still be seen with the naked eye, but instead of the normal white glow we see The Moon displaying, it appears red. This is because Earth’s atmosphere bends sunlight and indirectly lights up the Moon’s surface, giving the moon a more ominous look.

Planetary transit – 2065

On 22nd November 2065, there will be a rare event known as a planetary transit. When one object is obscured by another object that passes between it and the observer. It is often called an occultation however this is when the closer object is bigger than the object behind it. During the transit in 2065, we will see Venus transit Jupiter, making it seem like the two planets form a single star.

Two stars combine into a red nova – unknown

Sometime in the near future, there will be a spectacular sky show. Two stars will merge into one, pushing out excess gas into an explosion known as a red nova. At magnitude 2, it will be as bright as Polaris in the sky, and just behind Sirius and Vega in brightness. It’s not often we get a new star that is visible to the naked eye so this is a truly special event. This new star will be seen at the end of the right wing of Cygnus so you best study the constellation so you can play real-life spot the difference when the new addition comes into view. It was originally estimated to happen in 2022 but that was recently found to be false.


During the dark sky week we will be bringing you plenty of starry content, but for now why not read our blog The Stories of the Stars to learn more about the stars and constellations in our sky.

You can also find more information about the Dark Sky Festival and the events taking place on the Dark Skies National Parks website, or here on our very own website.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam Cage

Sam is the Creative Content Assistant with the YDNPA

Website: www.yorkshiredales.org.uk

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