Days of the year can get pretty confusing. Not from a date point of view but rather what celebration should be taking place. When one starts getting into the realm of International Blueberry Pie Day, the waters can get a bit murky, and one starts wondering if these days actually exist. International Astronomy Day falls on May 14th this year. With people (including us) getting confused as to when we should really be jumping up and down and celebrating the night sky, we realized that since we do it most nights in the African bush, we should explore a little deeper.
Whether it’s national or international, any Astronomy day is a day to raise public interest in the science and encourage interaction between the general public and astronomers and other space enthusiasts. The great thing about star gazing is that you don’t need to be an expert or even have any expensive equipment to look up at the night sky and feel an overwhelming sense of awe.
Deep in the African wilderness and far away from any light pollution, the night sky is revealed with more clarity. One is able to gain and appreciate a greater awareness of the movements, phases and events of the celestial bodies.
At this time of the year in southern Africa, we can enjoy an extravaganza of night sky sightings on starlit journeys back to camp. For about another month the three brightest stars of the night sky, Sirius, Canopus and Alpha Centauri are all visible. The ever present Southern Cross as well as the famous constellations Orion, Virgo, Leo and Gemini are also seen during autumn.
Jupiter and its Galilean moons are being observed alongside the constellation Leo, and if you are awake just before sunrise for your morning game drive, Saturn and Mars are clearly illuminated alongside Antares, the red giant in the constellation Scorpio. In the next few weeks Venus will be spotted on the horizon.
Many of the constellations and star names we know today come from the early Middle Eastern, Greek and Roman cultures. However it is important to remember that these early celestial observers were not alone and you probably wouldn’t find a part of the globe that doesn’t have a rich history of astronomy. From the Mayans and Egyptians to Indians, Chinese and Aboriginal Australians, stars and planets were an important part of any early civilisation or hunter gatherer bands, and Southern Africa is no different.
Early humans have used the movement of stars or planets for navigation, cues for when to plant and harvest crops or a sign of the changing seasons not to mention the cultural and mythological beliefs.
The Southern Cross and two pointers (Alpha and Beta Centauri) are the most recognisable stars of the southern night sky and are prominent in Southern African star mythology. These stars were called Dithutlwa, “The Giraffes” in Sotho, Tswana and Venda traditions. The bright stars of the cross were seen as male giraffes, and the two Pointers female. The Venda called the fainter stars of the Southern Cross Thudana, “The Little Giraffe”. For the Sotho, cultivating season begins when the giraffe stars are seen close to the south-western horizon just after sunset.
The second brightest star of the night sky is Canopus and is commonly known in Southern Africa as Naka or the horn star and marks the coming of winter. Naka is seen towards the end of summer, when days become shorter cooler and the bush turns brown. This is when the Tswana would know to start breeding their sheep. In Venda and Sotho tradition the first person to see this bright star in the night sky that season would climb a hill and blow a sable antelope horn to receive their prize. The /Xam Bushman believed Canopus influenced the availability of ant or termite eggs and so called it “The Ant egg star”, while the Zulu saw it as a signal of beginning of their harvest time.
For most of summer, the well-known Orion constellation, flanked by Taurus the bull, Sirius (the brightest star in night sky) and the Pleiades cluster are visible in the southern hemisphere.
The Namaqua Khoikhoi have their own alluring mythical tale relating to these stars and a hunter of their own. To them Pleiades were the “Stars of Spring” and called the Khunuseti. The seven stars which make up the Pleiades cluster were the daughters of Tsui /Goab, the Dawn or Sky God. One day, the story goes, the Khunuseti told their husband (Aldebaran of Taurus constellation) to go out and hunt the three zebras (three stars of Orion’s Belt). Without question, the husband went out, but with only one arrow. He aimed and shot at the zebras, but missed. His arrow (Orion’s Sword) fell beyond the zebras, and still lies there today. He was unable to retrieve his arrow as there was a fierce lion (the star Betelgeuse) also watching the zebras. So the hunter remained there for eternity, shivering from the cold and suffering from thirst and hunger, unable to return to his wives in fear of their anger and unable to collect his arrow for fear of the lion.
Tribal lore is full of stories like this, all woven into the incredible tapestry of the sky.
As we head into winter, the skies are going to become ever clearer, and the star-gazing season is really upon us. Here are some dates to diarise:
- May 6: New Moon. The Moon will be situated on the same side of the Earth as the Sun and will not be visible in the night sky. This is the best time of the month to observe faint objects such as galaxies and star clusters because there is no moonlight to interfere.
- May 5-6: An above-average Meteor Shower, which means more shooting stars (up to 60 an hour at its peak). This activity will be best viewed in the Southern Hemisphere. It is produced by dust particles left behind by comet Halley, which has been observed since ancient times. The new moon will ensure dark skies this year for what could be an excellent show. Best viewing will be from a dark location after midnight. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Aquarius, but can appear anywhere in the sky.
- May 9: Rare Transit of Mercury Across the Sun. The planet Mercury will move directly between the Earth and the Sun. Viewers with telescopes and approved solar filters will be able to observe the dark disk of the planet Mercury moving across the face of the Sun. This is an extremely rare event that occurs only once every few years.
- May 21: Full Moon, Blue Moon. The Moon will be located on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun. Its face will be will be fully illuminated.
- May 22 : Mars will be at its closest approach to Earth and its face will be fully illuminated by the Sun. It will be brighter than any other time of the year and will be visible all night long. This is the best time to view and photograph Mars. A medium-sized telescope will allow you to see some of the dark details on the planet’s orange surface.
Go find somewhere quiet, away from bright city lights and enjoy the show. It hasn’t been the same for the last 13 billion years!