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Night Sky
Full sky chart for the month of September

September 2008 Night Sky


With the close of the Olympics, I started thinking what the Greeks have contributed to the world over the centuries: sports, art, culture, medicine, and mythology. In the heavens, we can find all kinds of stories for the patterns formed in the sky. The Greeks called constellations “katasterismoi.” There were twelve special constellations called the “zodiakos” (zodiac) or “zodiakos kyrklos” (circle of little animals). These twelve appeared along the path of the sun as it traveled through the seasons.

Constellations are not all visible in the night sky throughout the year. Constellations first appear in the sky on the eastern horizon just prior to dawn. As the months progress, the stars travel toward the west. Then, one evening, a constellation reaches the western horizon and finally disappears completely from view for about six months.

The Greeks imagined that the heavens were made from a great, solid dome forged from bronze. The heavenly constellations were fixed on this dome. The Titan Atlas stood beneath the axis of the heavens in the far north (in the land of the Hyperboreans), and spun the dome around on his shoulders, causing the stars to rise and set. Part of the bronze dome always lay beneath the horizon. Here the constellations were believed to dwell deep beneath the earth in the misty pit of Tartaros, or the lands of the dead. As they rose into the heavens, the constellations were bathed in the purifying waters of the great earth-encircling river Okeano.

This month, I start a series of short explanations and stories about the stars and constellations seen in our skies throughout the year.

The term “Dog Days” was used by the Greeks, as well as the ancient Romans, who called these days caniculares dies (days of the dogs) after Sirius, the Dog Star. Sirius is the brightest star in the heavens besides the Sun and planets. The hottest part of the year, July to early September, was believed to be evil, causing the seas to boil, wine to sour, dogs to go mad, burning fevers, and hysterics. All creatures became lethargic in the heat of the summer. The ancients sacrificed a brown dog at the beginning of the Dog Days to appease the rage of Sirius, believing that Sirius was the cause of the hot, sultry weather, adding its burning heat to that of the sun.

Originally, the Dog Days were the days when Sirius rose just before or at the same time as sunrise. Due to the precession of the Earth around the sun, this is no longer true. Today, you can find Sirius rising in the east about 4:30 a.m. in September.

There are several stories involving an eagle, which relate to Aquila. The Greeks call this constellation Aiêtos.

The first story tells us about an eagle which was sent by Zeus to feed on the liver of the chained Titan Prometheus. Heracles freed Prometheus from his chains just in time for Prometheus to kill the eagle with an arrow, and Zeus placed the pair amongst the stars as Aquila (eagle) and Sagitta (arrow).

Another story tells of an eagle sent by Zeus to snatch the handsome Trojan youth Ganymedes up to heaven. The boy and eagle were placed amongst the stars as the adjacent constellations Aquarius and Aquila.

An eagle appeared to Zeus when he was performing a sacrifice prior to the commencement of his war against the Titans. Zeus took this as a sign of a good omen. To commemorate the event, he placed the eagle and altar amongst the stars as the constellations Aquila and Ara.

When Zeus wanted to seduce the goddess Nemesis, he changed himself into a swan and asked Aphrodite, in the guise of an eagle, to pursue him into her lap. As a memorial of this successful ruse, he placed an eagle and swan in the sky as the constellations Cygnus and Aquila. The Greeks called this constellation Ornis (the Bird) or Kygnos (the Swan).

Cepheus was the King of Aethiopia and father of the lovely Andromeda. He was forced to sacrifice his daughter to a sea monster because the boasts of his wife Cassiopea offended the gods. But, Perseus came to her rescue and slew the beast. As a memorial, the whole family—Cepheus, Cassiopea, Andromeda, and Perseus—were placed amongst the stars. The Greeks call this constellation Kêpheus.

I will have more shorts about the constellations in the months to come.


•Mercury will be low in the west early in September just after sunset.

•Venus will shine brightly in the western sky after sunset. On the 11th, look for Venus and Mars to be 0.3 degrees north of Venus, with Mercury about half a closed fist (five degrees) to the south. Binoculars will help find the dimmer partners.

•Mars, too, is low in the west at sunset. On the 13th, look for Mercury just south of Mars.

•Jupiter is high in the southern sky after sunset. It will be hard to miss. On the 10th, look for a Jupiter-Mars conjunction.

•Saturn has slipped into the setting sun.

•Uranus, on the 12th, is a faint naked-eye object as the planet reaches opposition. You will need dark skies to see it. Binoculars will be helpful.

•The Moon is full on the 15th in the constellation Pisces. The Moon is new on the 29th in the constellation Libra.

A big thank you goes to Sandoval County. They made quick work to improve the glare off the lighted sign at the Placitas Community/Senior Center.



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