Imagine being an early pioneer — perhaps a Native American — traveling on your own with nothing more than word-of-mouth and celestial navigation to get you where you needed to go.
And suddenly, the largest of your navigational aids, the moon, starts to change before your very eyes. First, fading from sight, and then turning a blood red color. Needless to say, it would be an unnerving situation that you found yourself in.
That's what happened last weekend when three lunar phenomena occurred simultaneously in what has become known as "a Super Blood Wolf Moon."
First, there was the full moon. Second, there was a total lunar eclipse. And third, the moon was at one of its closest distances from Earth, making it appear even larger than normal. You might call it a lunar trifecta.
Paula and I had read up on this total lunar eclipse and two other events and were ready to take it all in from our darkened patio Sunday night. Fortunately, it was a clear night and our neighborhood light pollution was at a minimum on the back side of our house.
When we weren't looking at the moon turning rusty red as the Earth's shadow moved across the lunar surface, we talked about childhood memories involving stars and constellations.
I remember my dad taking me out in the country where his brother lived. It was really out there, far off the beaten path. When I was allowed to go out with the grown-ups on a "coon hunt," my dad would give me quick, off-the-cuff, lessons on the constellations that were in our view. And believe it or not, I still remember most of what he told me.
Take for instance the story of the Pleiades — the seven daughters of Atlas. They were Maia, Electra, Taygeta, Merope, Alcyone and Sterope. (I had to look up the names because my memory's not that good.) The small constellation looks like a very small version of the Big Dipper. The Pleiades is located in the constellation Taurus — the bull — consisting of several hundred stars. Only six of the seven sisters can be seen with the naked eye.
Daddy always told me if I were ever to get lost in the woods at night (perish the thought), I should find this grouping of stars, and the handle of the Pleiades/little dipper would always point east, giving me some sense of direction. Fortunately, I never had to do that.
My dad also introduced me to the North Star, Polaris, which virtually never moves from its spot directly over the North Pole. During the night, Polaris doesn't rise or set, but stays very near the same spot above the northern horizon year-round. And if you were to be at the North Pole, the North Star would be directly overhead. Naturally, the North Star is an essential part of celestial navigation.
Here's a little something for you from the astronomical trivia department. Polaris is 434 light-years from Earth and is nearly 4,000 times brighter than our sun. (Do you feel smarter now? I knew you would.)
I can think of a couple of constellations names that have appeared in book, music and movie titles, too. One of my favorite sci-fi thrillers from the '70s was "Andromeda Strain." It was written by the same man who brought you the hospital-based television series "E.R." — Michael Crichton. By the way, "Andromeda Strain" is still worth watching if you get a chance.
And who could forget the Fifth Dimension's song "Aquarius" in 1969. It topped the Billboard Hot 100 and Easy Listening charts that year.
Here's hoping you get a chance to do some stargazing soon and that you never have to use any of my dad's navigation information. Oh yes, don't forget the famous quote from American Top 40 host Casey Kasem, "Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars."