Planetary potpourri: Random observations from the observatory


The sky will get pretty spectacular later in June. So this particular moonless week is a good time to clear out some miscellaneous notes.

To the ancients, the number six was unlucky but seven brought good fortune. Star groups with six (or else eight) visible members were therefore wrongly labeled with a “seven” – like the Seven Sisters. That’s also why there were Seven Wonders of the World, Seven Seas, a Seventh Heaven and so on: nothing with a six.

Many think that ancient cultures had great wisdom – building the pyramids, that sort of thing. And while you can’t take that away from them, not a single pre-Renaissance book nor religious leader foresaw the existence of germs, surmised that air is a mixture of substances, suggested that there might be more planets than the five visible ones or picked up on anything that wasn’t already obvious or established. Only a single person in all the 50 centuries of pre-Renaissance history – Aristarchus, on the Greek island of Samos – figured out that Earth goes around the Sun.

All in all, we humans displayed very few traces of foresight or perspicacity. Indeed, the ancients had most things backward. To give just one example, its very slow visible motion made classical cultures regard the god Saturn as gloomy, heavy and depressed – in a word, saturnine.  But the actual feeling you consistently get when telescopically observing the ringed world is exactly the opposite. Looking at Saturn produces exhilaration in all who see it. And far from heavy, it’s the fluffiest planet in the known universe – less dense than water. In a large enough lake, it would float like a cork.

We had our kitchen renovated. Great work deserves a compliment. The owner, Mari, at the Woodstock home improvement store Evolved created a wonderful design, then did a superb job at low cost. Her workers were flawless in their craftsmanship. Hats off.

Where can you see the stars best in New York State? Short answer: the Adirondacks. But they’re also pretty darned good from the western Catskills, like outside Andes or Delhi. You need an open space away from overhanging trees. Try a school track field or a cemetery. Maybe stop and tell the local police what you’re up to, as a courtesy.

I did a program at the Cairo-Durham Middle School last Friday night, and several people brought telescopes. All their mirrors were way out of whack, degrading the images. Just so you know, if you buy a reflector-type telescope, its main mirror will need periodic collimation. Not a difficult job, but if you’re not prepared to do it, stick with an 80mm refractor.

Latest June-through-August forecast from the National Weather Service: a cooler-than-normal summer here – not much cooler; just a bit. Sure, long-range forecasts rarely offer better than 60 percent accuracy. But it beats a coin toss.

This is satellite season. Watch the sky for three minutes between 9 and 10 p.m. any night and you’ll see one.  Most slowly cross the sky in a north/south direction: These are reconnaissance satellites. If its light is steady, it’s probably still functioning and actively spying.

That’s Venus down in the west the first couple of hours after sunset. For the next month it will be bright enough to cast faint crisp-edged shadows on any white surface (like a spread-out sheet) if you’re away from all artificial lights.

Now I can toss all those scraps. Next week we’ll try to include some thematic coherency.


Want to know more? To read Bob’s previous “Night Sky” columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at



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