Here’s Your Sign: Are You an Ophiuchian?

Credit: Stellarium

It happens to all lovers of astronomy sooner or later.

I once had a friend who was excited about an upcoming conjunction of Saturn and Venus. They were passing closer than the apparent diameter of the Full Moon in the dawn sky, and you could fit ‘em both in the same telescopic field of view. I invited said friend to stop by at 5 AM the next morning to check this out. I was excited to see this conjunction as well, but not for the same reasons.

Said friend was into astrology, and I’m sure that the conjunction held a deep significance in their world view. Sure, I could have easily told them that ‘astrology is bunk,’ and the skies care not for our terrestrial woes… or I could carefully help guide this ‘at risk friend’ towards the true wonders of the cosmos if they were willing to listen.

We bring this up because this weekend, the Sun enters the constellation Ophiuchus, one of 13 modern constellations that it can appear in from our Earthly vantage point.

If you’re born from November 30th to December 18th, you could consider yourself an “Ophiuchian,” or being born under the sign of Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer. But I’ll leave it up to you to decide what they might be like.

Photo by author.
Seen at the Albany Park Zoo: Herpetology, or a modern day “serpent bearer?” Photo by author.

You might remember how the “controversy” of the 13th sign made its news rounds a few years back. Hey, it was cool to at least see an obscure and hard to pronounce constellation trending on Twitter. Of course, this wasn’t news to space enthusiasts, and to modern astronomers, a ‘house’ is merely where you live, and a ‘sign’ is what you follow to get there.

The modern 88 constellations we use were formalized by the International Astronomical Union in 1922. Like political boundaries, they’re imaginary constructs we use to organize reality. Star patterns slowly change with time due to our solar system’s motion — and that of neighboring stars —about the galactic center.

Astrologers will, of course, counter that their craft follows a tropical scheme versus a sidereal cosmology. In the tropical system, ecliptic longitude 0 starts from the equinoctial point marking the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere, and the zodiac is demarcated by 12 ‘houses’ 30 degrees on a side.

This neatly ignores the reality of our friend, the precession of the equinoxes. The Earth’s poles do a slow wobble like a top, taking about 26,000 years to make one turn. This means that in the sidereal scheme of things, our vantage point of the Sun’s position along the zodiac against the background stars if reference to our Gregorian calendar is slowly changing: live out a 72 year lifespan, and the constellations along the zodiac with respect to the Sun will have shifted about one degree due to precession.

Credit: Starry Night Education Software.
Our changing pole star. Credit: Starry Night Education Software.

Likewise, the direction of the North and South Pole is changing as well. Though Polaris makes a good pole star now, it’ll become increasingly less so as our north rotational pole begins to pull away from it after 2100 A.D. To the ancient Egyptians, Thuban (Alpha Draconis) was the pole star.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Precession over time. Credit: Tfr000 under Wikimedia Creative Commons 3.0 license.

Astrology and astronomy also have an intimate and hoary history, as many astronomers up until the time of Kepler financed their astronomical studies by casting royal horoscopes. And we still use terms such as appulse, conjunction and occultation, which have roots in astrology.

But the science of astronomy has matured beyond considering whether Mercury in retrograde has any connection with earthly woes. Perhaps you feel that you’re unlucky in love and have a vast untapped potential… sure, me too. We all do, and that just speaks to the universal state of the human condition. Astrology was an early attempt by humanity to find a coherent narrative, a place in the cosmos.

But the rise of the Ophiuchians isn’t nigh. Astrology relented to astronomy because of the latter’s true predictive power. “Look here, in the sky,” said mathematician Urbain Le Verrier, “and you’ll spy a new planet tugging on Uranus,” and blam, Neptune was discovered. If the planets had any true influence on us, why didn’t astrologers manage to predict the same?

Combating woo such as astrology is never simple. In the internet era, we often find tribes of the like-minded folks polarized around electronic camp fires. For example, writing ‘astrology is woo’ for an esteemed audience of science-minded readers such as Universe Today will no doubt find a largely agreeable reception. We have on occasion, however, written the same for a general audience to a much more hostile reception. Often, it’s just a matter of being that lone but patient voice of rationalism in the woods that ultimately sinks in.

Photo by author.
Zodiacal artwork seen at the Yerkes observatory. Photo by author.

So, what’s the harm? Folks can believe whatever they want, and astrology’s no different, right? Well, the harm comes when people base life decisions on astrology. The harm comes when world leaders make critical decisions after consulting astrologers. Remember, Nancy and President Ronald Reagan conferred with astrologers for world affairs. It’s an irony of the modern age that, while writing a take down on astrology, there will likely be ads promoting astrology running right next to this very page. And while professional astronomers spend years in grad school, you can get a “PhD in Astrology” of dubious value online for a pittance. And nearly every general news site has a astrology page. Think of the space missions that could be launched if we threw as much money at exploration as we do at astrology as a society. Or perhaps astronomers should revert back to the dark side and resume casting horoscopes once again?

But to quote Spiderman, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and we promise to only use our astronomical powers for good.

What astronomers want you to know is that we’re not separate from the universe above us, and that the cosmos does indeed influence our everyday lives. And we’re not talking about finding your car keys or selling your house. We’re thinking big. The Sun energizes and drives the drama of life on Earth. The atoms that make you the unique individual that you are were forged in the hearts of stars. The ice that chills our drink may well have been delivered here via comet. And speaking of which, a comet headed our way could spell a very bad day for the Earth.

Don’t leave home without one… a travelling “pocket planetarium” circa 16th century seen at the Tampa Bay History Center. Photo by author.

All of these are real things that astronomy tells us about our place in the cosmos, whether you’re an Ophiuchian or a Capricorn. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the heavens may (seem to) blaze forth for the death of princes, but the fault lies not in the heavens, but ourselves. Don’t forget that, as James Randi says, “you’re a member of a proud species,” one loves to look skyward, and ultimately knows when to discard fantasy for reality.


A Fine Pair of Lunar Occultations for North America This Weekend

Pi Sagittarii moments before it was occulted by the Moon on August 10th, 2011. (Photo by Author).

Heads up, North American residents: our Moon is about to blot out two naked eye stars on Friday and Saturday night.

Such an event is known as an occultation, an astronomical term that has its hoary roots in astronomy’s pseudoscience ancestor of astrology. An occultation is simply when one astronomical body passes in front of another from our line of sight. There’s nothing quite like watching a star disappear on the dark limb of the Moon. In a universe where events often transpire over periods of time longer than a human life span, occultations are abrupt affairs to witness.

Close double stars have also been teased out of occultation data, winking out in a quick, step-wise fashion. If an occultation such as the two this weekend occurs while the Moon is waxing towards Full, we get the added advantage of watching the action on the leading dark limb of the Moon during convenient early evening hours.

Beta Capricorni on the dark limb of the Moon Saturday night. (Created by the author using Starry Night).
Beta Capricorni on the dark limb of the Moon Saturday night. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

First up is the occultation of the +3.9th magnitude star Rho Sagittarii on Friday night, October 11th. Central conjunction for this occultation occurs at 00:40 Universal Time (UT) early on the morning of the 12th. The Moon will be at a 51% illuminated waxing gibbous phase, having passed First Quarter just prior to the start of the occultation at 7:02 PM EDT/23:02 UT on the 11th. The sunset terminator line at the start of the occultation will bisect the central U.S., and observers east of the Mississippi will get to witness the entire event. The southern graze line will cross Cuba and Guatemala. Note that the Moon will also pass its most southern declination for this lunation just two days prior on October 9th at 23:00 UT/7:00 PM EDT, at a declination of -19.6 degrees.  This is one of the Moon’s most southern journeys for 2013, meaning that it will still ride fairly far to the south in the sky during this weekend’s occultations.

The occultation of Rho Saggitarii by the Moon for the night of October 11th. (rendered using Occult 4.1.02 software).
The occultation of Rho Sagittarii by the Moon for the night of October 11th. the dashed line indicates where the occultation will occur in the daytime; east of this region, the occultation occurs after sunset. (rendered using Occult 4.1.02 software).

Rho Sagittarii is an F-type star 122 light years distant. Stick around until February 23rd, 2046, and you’ll get to see an even rarer treat, when the planet Venus occults the very same star. Just south of the Rho Sagittarii pair lies the region from which the Wow! Signal was detected in 1977.

The Moon moves at an average speed of just over a kilometre a second in its orbit about the Earth, and traverses roughly the apparent distance of its angular size of 30’ in one hour. The duration of occultations as seen from their center line take about an hour from ingress to egress, though its much tougher to watch a star reappear on the bright limb of the Moon!

And the night of Saturday, October 12th finds the 62% illuminated waxing gibbous Moon occulting an even brighter star across roughly the same region. The star is +3.1 magnitude Beta Capricorni, which also goes by the Arabic name of Dabih, meaning “the butcher.”  Dabih is also an interesting double star with a +6th magnitude component 3.5’ away from the +3rd magnitude primary. Dabih is an easy split with binoculars, and it will be fun to watch the two components pass behind the Moon Saturday night. This occultation also occurs the night of October 12th which is traditionally Fall Astronomy Day. If you’re hosting a star party this coming Saturday night, be sure to catch the well-timed occultation of Beta Capricorni! The central conjunction for this event occurs at 01:27 UT on the morning of the 13th, and North American observers east of the Rockies will get to see the entire event.

(Rendered using Occult software).
The occultation footprint of Beta Capricorni for the night of October 12th. (Rendered using Occult software).

Beta Capricorni is 328 light years distant, putting the physical separation of the B component at about a third of a light year away from the primary star at 21,000 astronomical units distant. “Beta B” thus takes about 700,000 years to orbit its primary! It’s also amazing to think that those fusion-born photons took over three centuries to get here, only to be rudely “interrupted” by the bulk of our Moon in the very last second of their journey.

And be sure to keep an eye on the primary star as it winks out, as it’s a known spectroscopic triple star with unseen companions in respective 9 and 1374 day orbits. Dabih may just appear to “hang” on the jagged lunar limb as those close companions wink out in a step-wise fashion.

Both occultations are bright enough to watch with the naked eye, although a standard set of 10x 50 binoculars will provide a fine view. The ingress of an occultation is also an excellent event to catch on video, and if you’ve got WWV radio running audio in the background, you can catch the precise time that the star disappears from your locale.

Note: WWV radio is still indeed broadcasting through the ongoing U.S. government shutdown, though they’re operated by NOAA & the NIST.

The International Occultation and Timing Association is always interested in reports of occultations carried out by amateur astronomers. Not only can this reveal or refine knowledge of close double stars, but a series of occultation observations from precisely known locations can map the profile of the lunar limb.

Be sure to catch both events this U.S. Columbus Day/Canadian Thanksgiving Day weekend, and send those pics in to Universe Today!

Precise timings for the ingress and egress of each lunar occultations for major North American cities can be found at the following pages:

– Rho Sagittarii

– Beta Capricorni