Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Summer Into Autumn

We've started to get the first inklings that the long, hot summer in the desert is finally winding down. This past July was a record-breaker - the average daily high temperature was the hottest ever - and with it record electricity bills to keep the A/C running. The monsoon turned out to be another "non-soon," the eighth-driest on record, with us receiving barely a fourth of the normal rainfall we should have gotten. Violent monsoon thunderstorms were harder to find than Sarah Palin's brain. But we're relatively certain that 110-plus temperatures are behind us until next June and the daytime highs hover at or slightly above normal, which is around 100 degrees for this time of year.

But I've also noticed that it is getting darker a little earlier in the evenings. The sun used to still be up after 7pm, but now doesn't make it past 6:30pm. I leave the gym about the same time every visit and when I pull out of the parking lot, which faces due west, the sun is right there in front of me in my eyes, as it continues its inexorable drift southward.

Things are changing up in the nighttime sky, too. The great square of Pegasus, the constellation representing the Winged Stallion of mythology, is large and prominent in the eastern sky around 10pm. Hanging off one side is the constellation Andromeda, the maiden, and a quick look around with binoculars will reveal a smudge of grayish light, which is our neighboring galaxy aptly named the Andromeda Galaxy. The light that enters your eyes and registers in your brain left the vicinity of Andromeda over 2 million years ago, long before mankind made its appearance on Planet Earth, and it traveled 12 quintillion miles to get here. I don't really know how to explain what a quintillion is, other than to say it is the number 1 followed by 18 zeroes. Imagine you have twelve of those lined up end-to-end and that's how far Andromeda is in miles. Scientists believe Andromeda is barreling toward our galaxy and the two will collide in a couple billion years. When galaxies collide they basically pass through each other, the distances between individual stars are so vast, but the immense gravitational forces end up blowing huge streamers and tails of gas, dust and stars out into interstellar space. Eventually our Milky Way and Andromeda will merge into one huge supergalaxy, but that's many billions of years away, about the time everyone will be sick of reality TV and Paris Hilton will finally get some sense.

In the next couple of weeks the stars of winter will gradually make an appearance in the sky, and the stars of summer will disappear into the twilight glow in the west. The first thing to notice will be the tight star cluster of the Pleiades, climbing up the eastern sky barely ahead of the horns of Taurus, the Bull. The large, perfectly beautiful constellation Scorpio the Scorpion is skittering off toward the southwestern horizon, being chased to warmer climates by the advent of autumn. On the other side of the sky, Orion the Hunter is rising sideways over the eastern horizon, locked in a perpetual pursuit of the Scorpion, always trying but never catching up to it. Poet Robert Frost mentioned the rising of Orion in his work, "The Star-Splitter":

You know Orion always comes up sideways.
Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains
And rising on his hands...

Orion is quite the magnificent constellation and a true harbinger of the winter months. It houses the Great Nebula of Orion, an enormous, relatively close-by star factory where inconceivably large clouds of gas and dust are collapsing under their own gravity and igniting nuclear fires in their cores, giving birth to more stars which will ornament the skies millions of years from now. Underneath Orion is Lepus, the celestial Hare, a humble, unobtrusive collection of stars. As time goes on Orion will rise high in the southern sky, right-side up, and when it does you can finally spot the star Canopus, the second-brightest star in the night sky after Sirius the Dog Star, glittering low in the south. Canopus is so far south as seen from here that it is only above the horizon for a couple of hours each night. It barely clears the southern horizon and is up for a short time before it curves right back down and sets again. That star is a herald of the approaching spring season for me.

I feel that I am only doing what many generations of people before me have done - measure the passing of the seasons by changes in the sky. And it comes so very naturally and easily - almost as if we are genetically pre-programmed to observe what happens up above and correlate what we see to events on Earth. The stars and the planets are my oldest friends in the world, and it's comforting in an odd way to know they will be around long after I have moved on to the next world, becoming lifelong friends and companions to generations of natural-born astronomers yet to be.

No comments:

Post a Comment