Why Don’t We Send Probes “Up” In The Solar System?

Wouldn’t it be easier to see what’s outside the solar system if we just send out probes straight up?

Dammit, science people! Why are you always firing probes “outwards”? Then they have to go past all this stuff, like planets and asteroids and crap to escape the solar system. Don’t you realize that if we want to see what’s outside the solar system we just need to shoot them straight up?

Then we don’t have to go past all that junk, and we can finally see what’s between us and the next star system over! Is it thick goo? Is it thin goo? Is it the aether?!

What the heck is wrong with you! It’s so easy. Just go up! Why are we always going out?

Whenever we talk Solar System, we’re always using flat objects for reference. Plates, flying disks, pancakes and pizzas, as it’s arranged in a flat disk known as the plane of the ecliptic.

Formed from a blob of hydrogen gas and dust in the solar nebula. Gravity pulled everything together, and the conservation of angular momentum set the whole thing spinning, faster and faster. The spinning pulled the whole Solar System into the disk we see today, with our star at the center and the planets embedded in the surrounding disk. As a result, the Sun, Moon, planets and their moons all move through a relatively small region in the sky.

This definitely makes things easier to send spacecraft from world to world. NASA’s Voyager 2 was able to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune because they were all lined up like dominoes.

When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he answered, “that’s where the money is,” and we explore along the plane of the ecliptic because that’s where the science is. Everything in our Solar System is arranged along this flat area, so it makes sense to look along this region.

But wait! As you know, the Solar System isn’t actually flat. Some objects rise a little above or below the plane of the ecliptic. This is known as a planet’s orbital inclination.

Orbit of Mercury
Orbit of Mercury

Of all the planets, Mercury has the greatest with 7-percent. It’s even crazier for the the dwarf planets, Pluto is 17-percent off the plane of the ecliptic, and Eris is 44-percent.

One of the reasons Eris went undiscovered for so long is because it orbits so far outside the planet of the ecliptic. It wasn’t until Mike Brown and his team from Caltech looked far enough outside the usual hiding spaces that they found these additional dwarf planets.

There really isn’t much outside the flat plane of the ecliptic, it’s also much more difficult to get spacecraft to travel above or below. When spacecraft launch, they already have tremendous velocity just from the rotation of the Earth and the speed of the Earth orbiting the Sun.

I realize this is just more “outwardist” propaganda for you. So why no “up”? If you did want to go that way, you need a powerful rocket capable of creating velocity in this direction, or that direction.

If you wanted to escape the Earth’s gravity and explore the Solar System in the regular old way, you’d need to add about 10 km/s in velocity to your spacecraft. But for straight up, you’d need about 30 km/s, meaning more fuel, and compromises to your payload.

It still sounds like I’m making excuses. Here’s the deal, you might be amazed to learn that spacecraft actually have been sent “up”.

Artist impression of the Ulysses spacecraft. Credit: NASA/ESA
Artist impression of the Ulysses spacecraft. Credit: NASA/ESA

The European Space Agency’s Ulysses spacecraft, launched in 1990 had the goal of looking down on the Sun from above. It wasn’t possible to do this just with a rocket, but engineers were able to use a gravitational assist from Jupiter to kick Ulysses into an orbital inclination of 80-degrees, and for the first time, we were able to see the Sun from above and below.

A new European mission is in the works called the Solar Orbiter, and it’ll get into an orbital inclination of 90-degrees to be able to see the Sun’s poles directly for the first time. If all goes well, it’ll launch in 2018.

So, why don’t we go up? Actually, we do. We’re going “up” again very soon. It’s good to go up. It’s always good to get outside of our regular stomping grounds and see our Solar System from new angles and perspectives.

If you could send a probe anywhere in our Solar System, where would you choose?

Venus and Jupiter Meet At Last

The year’s finest conjunction is upon us. Chances are you’ve been watching Venus and Jupiter at dusk for some time.

Like two lovers in a long courtship, they’ve been slowly approaching one another for the past several months and will finally reach their minimum separation of  just over 1/4° (half a Full Moon diameter) Tuesday evening June 30.

Venus and Jupiter will appear to nearly converge in the western sky starting about an hour after sunset on June 30. Venus is the brighter planet. If you miss the show because of bad weather, they'll be nearly as close on July 1 at the same time. Source: Stellarium
The view facing west-northwest about 50 minutes after sunset on June 30 when Venus and Jupiter will be at their closest. If bad weather moves in, they’ll be nearly as close tonight (June 29) and July 1.  Two celestial bodies are said to be in conjunction when they have the same right ascension or “longitude”and line up one atop the other. Source: Stellarium

Most of us thrill to see a single bright planet let alone the two brightest so close together. That’s what makes this a very special conjunction. Conjunctions are actually fairly common with a dozen or more planet-to-planet events a year and 7 or 8 Moon-planet match-ups a month. It’s easy to see why.

The planets, including Earth, orbit within a relatively flat plane. As we watch them cycle through their orbits, two or more occasionally bunch close together in a conjunction. We see them projected against the
From our perspective in the relatively flat plane of the Solar System we watch the planets cycle around the Sun projected against the backdrop of the zodiac constellations. They – and the Moon – follow the ecliptic and occasionally pass one another in the sky to make for wonderful conjunctions. Credit: Bob King

All eight planets travel the same celestial highway around the sky called the ecliptic but at different rates depending upon their distance from the Sun. Distant Saturn and Neptune travel more slowly than closer-in planets like Mercury and Mars. Over time, we see them lap one another in the sky, pairing up for a week or so and inspiring the gaze of those lucky enough to look up. After these brief trysts, the worlds part ways and move on to future engagements.

Venus and Jupiter above St. Peter's Dome in Rome on Sunday June 28, 2015. Details: Canon 7D Mark II DSLR, with a 17-55-f/2.8 lens at 24mm f/4 and exposure time was 1/40". Credit: Gianluca Masi
Venus and Jupiter above St. Peter’s Dome in Rome on Sunday June 28, 2015. Details: Canon 7D Mark II DSLR, with a 17-55-f/2.8 lens at 24mm f/4 and exposure time was 1/40″. Credit: Gianluca Masi

In many conjunctions, the planets or the Moon and planet are relatively far apart. They may catch the eye but aren’t exactly jaw-dropping events. The most striking conjunctions involve close pairings of the brightest planets. Occasionally, the Moon joins the fray, intensifying the beauty of the scene even more.

As Venus orbits interior to Earth’s orbit, its apparent distance from the Sun (and phase) changes. Since June 6, the planet’s separation from the Sun in the sky has been shrinking and will reach a minimum on August 15, when the planet is directly between the Sun and Earth. Credit: Bob King
As Venus orbits interior to Earth’s orbit, its apparent distance from the Sun (and phase) changes. Since June 6, the planet’s separation from the Sun in the sky has been shrinking and will reach a minimum on August 15, when the planet is directly between the Sun and Earth. Credit: Bob King

While moving planets are behind many conjunctions, they often don’t do it alone. Earth’s orbital motion around the Sun helps move things along. This week’s event is a perfect example. Venus is currently moving away from Jupiter in the sky but not quickly enough to avoid the encounter. Each night, its apparent distance from the Sun decreases by small increments and the planet loses altitude. Meanwhile, Jupiter’s moving away from Venus, traveling east toward Regulus as it orbits around the Sun.

So how can they possibly get together? Earth to the rescue! Every day, our planet travels some 1.6 million miles in our orbit, completing 584 million miles in one year. We see this movement reflected in the rising and setting times of the stars and planets.

View of Earth’s orbit seen from above the northern hemisphere. As our planet moves to the left or counterclockwise around the Sun, the background constellations appear to drift to the right or westward. This causes constellations and planets in the western sky to gradually drop lower every night, while those in the east rise higher. Credit: Bob King
View of Earth’s orbit seen from above the northern hemisphere. As our planet moves to the left or counterclockwise around the Sun, the background constellations appear to drift to the right or westward. This causes constellations and planets in the western sky to gradually drop lower every night, while those in the east rise higher. Credit: Bob King

Every night, the stars rise four minutes earlier than the night before. Over days and weeks, the minutes accumulate into hours. When stars rise earlier in the east, those in the west set earlier. In time, all stars and planets drift westward due to Earth’s revolution around the Sun.

It’s this seasonal drift that “pushes” Jupiter westward to eventually overtake a reluctant Venus. Despite appearances, in this particular conjunction, both planets are really fleeing one another!

Johannes Kepler's depiction of the conjunction of Mercury (left), Jupiter and Saturn shortly before Christmas in the year 1603. He believed a similar conjunction or series of conjunctions may have heralded the birth of Christ.
Johannes Kepler’s depiction of the conjunction of Mercury (left), Jupiter and Saturn shortly before Christmas in the year 1603. He believed a similar conjunction or series of conjunctions – the Christmas Star – may have heralded the birth of Christ.

We’re attuned to unusual planetary groupings just as our ancestors were. While they might have seen a planetary alignment as a portent of kingly succession or ill fortune in battle, we’re free to appreciate them for their sheer beauty. Not to say that some might still read a message or experience a personal revelation at the sight. There’s something in us that sees special meaning in celestial alignments. We’re good at sensing change in our environment, so we sit up and take notice when unusual sky events occur like eclipses, bright comets and close pairings of the Moon and planets.

Venus and Jupiter over the next few nights facing west at dusk. Times and separations shown for central North America at 10 p.m. CDT. 30 minutes of arc or 30' equals one Full Moon diameter.  Source: Stellarium
Venus and Jupiter over the next few nights facing west at dusk. Times and separations shown for central North America at 10 p.m. CDT. 30 minutes of arc or 30′ equals one Full Moon diameter. Source: Stellarium

You can watch the Jupiter-Venus conjunction several different ways. Naked eye of course is easiest. Just face west starting about an hour after sunset and drink it in. My mom, who’s almost 90, will be watching from her front step. Binoculars will add extra brilliance to the sight and perhaps show several moons of Jupiter.

The view through a small telescope of Jupiter (top) and Venus on June 30 around 9:30 p.m. CDT. Jupiter's moons are G = Ganymede, E = Europa, I = Io and C = Callisto. Source: Stellarium
The view through a small telescope of Jupiter (top) and Venus on June 30 around 9:30 p.m. CDT. Jupiter’s moons are G = Ganymede, E = Europa, I = Io and C = Callisto. Source: Stellarium

If you have a telescope, I encourage you to point it at the planetary doublet. Even a small scope will let you see Jupiter’s two dark, horizontal stripes — the North and South Equatorial Belts — and several moons. Venus will appear as a pure white, thick crescent 32 arc seconds across virtually identical in apparent size to Jupiter. To tame Venus’ glare, start observing early when the sky is still flush with pale blue twilight. I think the best part will be seeing both planets in the same field of view even at moderate magnification — a rare sight!

To capture an image of these shiny baubles try using your cellphone. For many, that’s the only camera we have. First, find a pretty scene to frame the pair. Hold your phone rock-solid steady against a post or building and click away starting about an hour after sundown when the two planets have good contrast with the sky, but with light still about. If your pictures appear too dark or light, manually adjust the exposure. Here’s a youtube video on how to do it with an iPhone.

Jupiter and Venus at dusk on June 26. This is a 6-second exposure at f/2.8 and ISO 80 taken with a basic point-and-shoot digital camera. I braced the camera on top of a mailbox. Credit: Bob King
Jupiter and Venus at dusk on June 26. This is a 6-second exposure at f/2.8 and ISO 80 taken with a basic point-and-shoot digital camera. I braced the camera on top of a mailbox and stuck my phone underneath to prop up the lens. Credit: Bob King

Point-and-shoot camera owners should place their camera on a tripod, adjust the ISO or sensitivity to 100, open the aperture or f/stop to its widest setting (f/2.8 or f/4), autofocus on the planets and expose from 5-10 seconds in mid-twilight or about 1 hour to 90 minutes after sunset. The low ISO is necessary to keep the images from turning grainy. High-end digital SLR cameras have no such limitations and can be used at ISO 1600 or higher. As always, review the back screen to make sure you’re exposing properly.

I’m not a harmonic convergence kind of guy, but I believe this week’s grand conjunction, visible from so many places on Earth, will stir a few souls and help us appreciate this life that much more.

What is a Hunter’s Moon?

If you live in the northern hemisphere, than stargazing during the early autumn months can a bit tricky. During certain times in these seasons, the stars, planets and Milky Way will be obscured by the presence of some very beautiful full moons. But if you’re a fan of moongazing, then you’re in luck.

Because it is also around this time (the month of October) that people looking to the night sky will have the chance to see what is known as a Hunter’s Moon. A slight variation on a full moon, the Hunter’s Moon has long been regarded as a significant event in traditional folklore, and a subject of interest for astronomers.

Definition:

Also known as a sanguine or “blood” moon, the term “Hunters Moon” is used traditionally to refer to a full moon that appears during the month of October. It is preceded by the appearance of a “Harvest Moon”, which is the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox (which falls on the 22nd or 23rd of September).

The Hunter’s Moon typically appears in October, except once every four years when it doesn’t appear until November. The name dates back to the First Nations of North America. It is so-called because it was during the month of October, when the deers had fatted themselves over the course of the summer, that hunters tracked and killed prey by autumn moonlight, stockpiling food for the coming winter.

Full Moon Rising Over Northwest Georgia on June 22nd, 2013. Credit and copyright: Stephen Rahn.
Full Moon Rising Over Northwest Georgia on June 22nd, 2013. Credit and copyright: Stephen Rahn.

Characteristics:

Although typically the Moon rises 50 minutes later each day, things are different for the Hunter’s Moon (as well as the Harvest Moon). Both of these moons usually rise 30 minutes later on each successive night, which means that sunset and moonrise are not far apart.

This means there is prolonged periods of light during this time of the the year, which is the reason why these moons have traditionally been used by hunters and farmers to finish their work.

This difference between the timing of the sunset and moonrise is due to its orbit, meaning that the angle the Moon makes with the horizon is narrower during this time of year. The Hunter’s Moon is generally not bigger or brighter than any of the other full moons. Thus, the only difference between it and other full moons is the that the time between sunset and moonrise is shorter.

History of Observation:

Because the approach of winter signaled the possibility of going hungry in pre-Industrial times, the Hunter’s Moon was generally accorded with special honor, historically serving as an important feast day in both northern Europe and among many Native American tribes.

Traditionally, Native American hunters used the full moon of October to stalk deer and to spot foxes at night as they prepared for the coming winter. Because the fields were traditionally reaped in late September or early October, hunters could easily see foxes and other animals that came out to glean from the fallen grains.

The Hunter’s Moon is accorded similar significance in Europe, where it was also seen as a prime time to hunt during the post-harvest, pre-winter period when conditions were optimal for spotting prey. However, the term did not enter into usage for Europeans until after they made contact with Indigenous Americans and began colonizing North America.

The first recorded mentions of a “Hunter’s Moon” began in the early 18th century. The entry in the Oxford English Dictionary for “Hunter’s Moon” cites a 1710 edition of The British Apollo, where the term is attributed to “the country people”. The names are now referred to regularly by American sources, where they are often popularly attributed to “the Native Americans”.

In India, the harvest festival of Sharad Purnima, which marks the end of the monsoon season, is celebrated on the full moon day of the lunar month of Ashvin (September-October). There is a traditional celebration of the moon during this time that is known as the “Kaumudi” celebration – which translated, means “moonlight”.

The harvest festival of Shrad Purnima is celebrated on the full moon day of the Hindu lunar month of Ashvin. Credit: http://dfwhindutemple.org
The harvest festival of Shrad Purnima is celebrated on the full moon day of the Hindu lunar month of Ashvin. Credit: dfwhindutemple.org

Interesting Facts:

Sometimes, the Harvest Moon is mistaken for the Hunter’s Moon because once every four years or so the Harvest Moon is in October instead of September.  When that happens, the Hunter’s Moon is in November. Traditionally, each month’s full moon has been given a name, although these names differ according to the source.

Other full moons of interest include the Wolf Moon in January, the Strawberry Moon in June, the Sturgeon Moon in August, the Cold Moon in December, and the Pink Moon in April. All of the full moons have different characteristics due to the location of the ecliptic – i.e. the path of the Sun – at the time of each.

The Hunter’s Moon is also associated with feasting. In the Northern Hemisphere, some Native American tribes and some places in Western Europe held a feast day. This feast day, the Feast of the Hunter’s Moon, was not been held since the 1700’s. However, the Feast of the Hunters’ Moon is a yearly festival in Lafayette, Indiana, which has been held in late September or early October every year since 1968.

We have many interesting articles about the moon here at Universe Today. For example, here are some about the red moon and a rundown of what a full moon is all about.

For more information, check out the page on the Hunter’s Moon at NightSkyInfo, and full moon names and meanings, courtesy of the Farmer’s Almanac.

Astronomy Cast has an interesting episode on the subject – Episode 113: The Moon: Part I

Sources:

The September Equinox: ‘Tis the Season to Spy the Zodiacal Light

This week leading up to the September equinox offers you a fine chance to catch an elusive phenomenon in the pre-dawn sky.

We’re talking about the zodiacal light, the ghostly pyramid-shaped luminescence that heralds the approach of dawn. Zodiacal light can also be seen in the post-dusk sky, extending from the western horizon along the ecliptic.

September is a great time for northern hemisphere observers to try and sight this glow in the early dawn. This is because the ecliptic is currently at a high and favorable angle, pitching the zodiacal band out of the atmospheric murk low to the horizon. For southern hemisphere observers, September provides the best time to hunt for the zodiacal light after dusk. In March, the situation is reversed, with dusk being the best for northern hemisphere observers and dawn providing the best opportunity to catch this elusive phenomenon for southern observers.

The clash of the zodiacal light and the plane of our galaxy. (Credit: Cory Schmitz, used with permission).
The clash of the zodiacal light and the plane of our galaxy. (Credit: Cory Schmitz, used with permission).

Cory Schmitz’s recent outstanding photos taken from the Nevada desert brought to mind just how ephemeral a glimpse of the zodiacal light can be. The glow was a frequent sight for us from dark sky sites just outside of Tucson, Arizona—but a rarity now that we reside on the light-polluted east coast of the U.S.

In order to see the zodiacal light, you’ll need to start watching before astronomical twilight—the start of which is defined as when the rising Sun reaches 18 degrees below the local horizon—and observe from as dark a site as possible under a moonless sky.

The Bortle dark sky scale lists the zodiacal light as glimpse-able under Class 4 suburban-to-rural transition skies. Under a Class 3 rural sky, the zodiacal light may extend up to 60 degrees above the horizon, and under truly dark—and these days, almost mythical—Class 1 and 2 skies, the true nature of the zodiacal band extending across the ecliptic can become apparent.  The appearance and extent of the zodiacal light makes a great gauge of the sky conditions at that favorite secret dark sky site.

The source of the zodiacal light is tiny dust particles about 10 to 300 micrometres in size scattered across the plane of the solar system. The source of the material has long been debated, with the usual suspects cited as micrometeoroid collisions and cometary dust. A 2010 paper by Peter Jenniskens and David Nesvorny in the Astrophysical Journal cites the fragmentation of Jupiter-class comets. Their model satisfactorily explains the source of about 85% of the material. Dust in the zodiacal cloud must be periodically replenished, as the material is slowly spiraling inward via what is known as the Poynting-Robertson effect. None other than Brian May of the rock group Queen wrote his PhD thesis on Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud.

But even if you can’t see the zodiacal light, you still just might be able to catch it. Photographing the zodiacal light is similar to catching the band of the Milky Way. In fact, you can see the two crossing paths in Cory’s images, as the bright winter lanes of the Orion Spur are visible piercing the constellation of the same name. Cory used a 14mm lens at f/3.2 for the darker image with a 20 second exposure at ISO 6400 and a 24mm lens at f/2.8 with a 15 second exposure at ISO 3200 for the brighter shot.

The orientation of the ecliptic & the zodiacal band as seen from latitude 30 deg north in September, about 1 hour before sunrise. (Created by the author in Stellarium).
The orientation of the ecliptic & the zodiacal band as seen from latitude 30 deg north in September, about 1 hour before sunrise. (Created by the author in Stellarium).

Under a truly dark site, the zodiacal light can compete with the Milky Way in brightness. The early Arab astronomers referred to it as the false dawn. In recent times, we’ve heard tales of urbanites mistaking the Milky Way for the glow of a fire on the horizon during blackouts, and we wouldn’t be surprised if the zodiacal light could evoke the same. We’ve often heard our friends who’ve deployed to Afghanistan remark how truly dark the skies are there, as military bases must often operate with night vision goggles in total darkness to avoid drawing sniper fire.

Another even tougher but related phenomenon to spot is known as the gegenschein. This counter glow sits at the anti-sunward point where said particles are approaching 100% illumination. This time of year, this point lies off in the constellation Pisces, well away from the star-cluttered galactic plane. OK, we’ve never seen it, either. A quick search of the web reveals more blurry pics of guys in ape suits purporting to be Bigfoot than good pictures of the gegenschein. Spotting this elusive glow is the hallmark of truly dark skies. The anti-sunward point and the gegenschein rides highest near local midnight.

And speaking of which, the September equinox occurs this weekend on the 22nd at 4:44 PM EDT/20:44 Universal Time. This marks the beginning of Fall for the northern hemisphere and the start of summer for the southern.

The Full Harvest Moon also occurs later this week, being the closest Full Moon to the equinox occurring on September 19th at 7:13AM EDT/11:13 UT. Said Moon will rise only ~30 minutes apart on successive evenings for mid-northern latitude observers, owing to the shallow angle of the ecliptic. Unfortunately, the Moon will then move into the morning sky, drowning out those attempts to spy the zodiacal light until late September.

Be sure to get out there on these coming mornings and check out the zodiacal light, and send in those pics in to Universe Today!

Ancient Astronomical Calendar Discovered in Scotland Predates Stonehenge by 6,000 Years

A team from the University of Birmingham recently announced an astronomical discovery in Scotland marking the beginnings of recorded time.

Announced last month in the Journal of Internet Archaeology, the Mesolithic monument consists of a series of pits near Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Estimated to date from 8,000 B.C., this 10,000 year old structure would pre-date calendars discovered in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East by over 5,000 years.

But this is no ordinary wall calendar.

Originally unearthed by the National Trust for Scotland in 2004, the site is designated as Warren Field near the town of Crathes. It consists of 12 pits in an arc 54 metres long that seem to correspond with 12 lunar months, plus an added correction to bring the calendar back into sync with the solar year on the date of the winter solstice.

Diagram...
A diagram of the Warren Field site, showing the 12 pits (below) and the alignment with the phases of the Moon plus the rising of the winter solstice Sun. Note: the scale should read “0-10  metres.” (Credit: The University of Birmingham).

“The evidence suggests that hunter-gatherer societies in Scotland had both the need and sophistication to track time across the years, to correct for seasonal drift of the lunar year” said team leader and professor of Landscape Archaeology at the University of Birmingham Vince Gaffney.

We talked last week about the necessity of timekeeping as cultures moved from a hunter-gatherer to agrarian lifestyle. Such abilities as marking the passage of the lunar cycles or the heliacal rising of the star Sirius gave cultures the edge needed to dominate in their day.

For context, the pyramids on the plains of Giza date from around 2500 B.C., The Ice Man on display in Bolzano Italy dates from 3,300 B.C., and the end of the last Ice Age was around 20,000 to 10,000 years ago, about the time that the calendar was constructed.

“We have been taking photographs of the Scottish landscape for nearly 40 years, recording thousands of archaeological sites that would never have been detected from the ground,” said manager of Aerial projects of the Royal Commission of Aerial Survey Projects Dave Cowley. “It’s remarkable to think that our aerial survey may have helped to find the place where time was invented.”

The site at Warren Field was initially discovered during an aerial survey of the region.

Vince Gaffney professor of Landscape and Archaeology at University of Birmingham in Warren Field, Crathes, Aberdeenshire where the discovery was made.
Vince Gaffney, professor of Landscape and Archaeology at University of Birmingham in Warren Field, Crathes, Aberdeenshire where the discovery was made. (Credit: The University of Birmingham).

The use of such a complex calendar by an ancient society also came as a revelation to researchers. Emeritus Professor of Archaeoastronomy at the University of Leicester Clive Ruggles notes that the site “represents a combination of several different cycles which can be used to track time symbolically and practically.”

The lunar synodic period, or the span of time that it takes for the Moon to return to the same phase (i.e., New-to-New, Full-to-Full, etc) is approximately 29.5 days. Many cultures used a strictly lunar-based calendar composed of 12 synodic months. The Islamic calendar is an example of this sort of timekeeping still in use today.

However, a 12 month lunar calendar also falls out of sync with our modern Gregorian calendar by 11 days (12 on leap years) per year.

The familiar Gregorian calendar is at the other extreme, a calendar that is strictly solar-based.  The Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582 and is still in use today. This reconciled the 11 minute per year difference between the Julian calendar and the mean solar year, which by the time of Pope Gregory’s reform had already caused the calendar to “drift” by 10 days since the 1st Council of Nicaea 325 AD.

Artist’s conception of the Warren Field site during the winter solstice. (Credit: The University of Birmingham). Credit: The University of Birmingham
Artist’s conception of the Warren Field site during the winter solstice. (Credit: The University of Birmingham). Credit: The University of Birmingham

Surprisingly, the calendar discovered at Warren Field may be of a third and more complex variety, a luni-solar calendar. This employs the use of intercalary periods, also known as embolismic months to bring the lunar and solar calendar back into sync.

The modern Jewish calendar is an example of a luni-solar hybrid, which adds an extra month (known as the 2nd Adar or Adar Sheni) every 2-3 years. This will next occur in March 2014.

The Greek astronomer Meton of Athens noted in 5th century B.C. that 235 synodic periods very nearly add up to 19 years, to within a few hours. Today, this period bears his name, and is known as a metonic cycle. The Babylonian astronomers were aware of this as well, and with the discovery at Warren Field, it seems that ancient astronomers in Scotland may have been moving in this direction of advanced understanding as well.

It’s interesting to note that the site at Warren Field also predates Stonehenge, the most famous ancient structure in the United Kingdom by about 6,000 years. 10,000 years ago would have also seen the Earth’s rotational north celestial pole pointed near the +3.9th magnitude star Rukbalgethi Shemali (Tau Herculis) in the modern day constellation of Hercules. This is due to the 26,000 year wobble of our planet’s axis known as the precession of the equinoxes.

The precession of the north celestial pole over millenia. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons graphic under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license. Author: Tau'olunga).
The precession of the north celestial pole over millennia. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons graphic under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license. Author: Tau’olunga).

The Full Moon nearest the winter solstice also marks the “Long Nights Moon,” when the Full Moon occupies a space where the Sun resides during the summer months and  rides high above the horizon for northern observers all night. The ancients knew of the five degree tilt that our Moon has in relation to the ecliptic and how it can ride exceptionally high in the sky every 18.6 years. We’re currently headed towards a ‘shallow year’ in 2015, where the Moon rides low in relation to the ecliptic. From there, the Moon’s path in the sky will get progressively higher each year, peaking again in 2024.

Who built the Warren Field ruins along the scenic Dee Valley of Scotland? What other surprises are in store as researchers excavate the site? One thing is for certain: the ancients were astute students of the sky. It’s fascinating to realize how much of our own history has yet to be told!