January 2013: Skies over Crestone

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Skies Over Crestone by Kim Malville


Jupiter continues to dominate the evening skies, brighter than any star in the sky. It is below the Pleiades star cluster and above red Aldebaran the blood-hot eye of the Taurus, the Bull. Jupiter keeps moving retrograde (westward) until January 30.

January 2: On this day the earth is closest to the sun, quite some irony for us living in the winter of the northern hemisphere. The tilt of the earth has more influence on our climate than the distance to the sun.

January 5: Last quarter of the moon

January 11: New moon

January 18: First quarter moon

January 21: Jupiter is close to the moon; it will be an especially spectacular sight at 10pm. Not visible in Crestone, the moon will actually cover Jupiter as seen in South America.

January 27: Full moon

Winter solstice

Winter officially began in the Northern Hemisphere of Earth, at the time of Winter Solstice, on Friday Morning, December 21 2012 at 4:12am Mountain Standard Time. In ancient times, Mid-Winter festivals were a major event. Calendars often placed solstice on December 25. Instead of fighting these pagan festivals, the early Christian church adopted December 25 as the symbolic birth date of Jesus Christ. We know from archaeological evidence that winter solstice festivals occurred at such diverse places in the ancient world as Stonehenge, Newgrange, Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Machu Picchu.

One common theme of these festivals was to encourage the sun to return northern again and bring warmth to the suffering earth. Winter solstice also symbolized rebirth, when the dying sun was reborn. The tunnel of  the great tomb of Newgrange built around 3200 BC near today’s Dublin, is oriented to sunrise on December solstice, and at that time a beam of the sun touched the burial of a king, who might be reborn in the light of the reborn sun.

Stones replaced timbers in Stonehenge about 2600 BC, when the place was transformed into the domain of death. It became a place for the dying of the sun as well for human burials. People walking toward Stonehenge in December would see the sun setting behind it, perhaps even appearing to sink in the circle of stones. To this day, festivals continue at the solstices at Stonehenge, and it has always been a favorite for Druids to celebrate sunrises and sunsets.

Sunrise at winter solstice was celebrated in Chaco Canyon partly, we think, as an element in a  major pilgrimage festival. In AD 900 a great kiva was constructed at precisely the right location to provide a spectacular view of the sun rising out of the center of Fajada Butte.

In the southern hemisphere the seasons are reversed and winter solstice occurs in June. In the Inca Empire large events at June solstice were organized by the state to demonstrate the connection between the sun and the Inca king. There is evidence for June solstice events at Cusco and many sites in the Sacred Valley as well as Machu Picchu, which was a spectacular place for celebrating the sun dawning over the peaks in the northeast.

Another doomsday flop

For several years, winter solstice of 2012 has been promoted as the end Mayan calendar and therefore also the end of the world.  This recent doomsday scenario started with claims that Nibiru, a supposed planet discovered by the Sumerians, was headed toward a collision with Earth. This catastrophe was initially predicted for May 2003, but when nothing happened the doomsday date was pushed back to December 2012 and linked to the end of one of the cycles in the ancient Mayan calendar at the winter solstice in 2012. Five thousand people celebrated solstice sunrise at Stonehenge this year, five times more than last year. It’s not clear how many were disappointed that the sun continued rising.

The Mayan calendar has many cycles built upon cycles. There is no reason to believe that the Maya felt the end of Baktun 13 was the end of the world. Mayan astronomers calculated the beginning of the Maya as having occurred on September 6 in the year 3114 B.C. This date started the first “baktun” cycle of the calendar. December 21, 2012 marks the end of the 13th baktun and the beginning of  new one. The Maya calendar is vast and complicated and contained many more baktuns. The count of 20 baktuns (we are only at 13!) is a piktun, 20 piktuns becomes a kalabtun, 20 kalabtuns is a kinchiltun, and 20 kinchiltuns is alautun. The culmination of all of these tuns, the alautun, takes 63,081,429 years to reach

The alautun seems like a long span of time, but it is child’s play compared to the Hindu chronology, in which one day in the life of Lord Brahma, a kalpa, is 4.32 million years. Since Lord Brahma will live for 100 years, his life time amounts to 311 trillion, 40 billion years, a quantity larger than the national debt and even the age of the astronomical universe which is 13.75 billion years.

In any case, it is good the world has not come to an end. It is too beautiful a place.

Other worlds

Speaking of great places to live, it’s hard to find anything like the Earth.  Even though 854 planets orbiting other stars have been identified in the galaxy, not one is as beautiful as Earth. The closest planet that we know about orbits one of the stars in the triple star system known as Alpha Centauri, at a distance of 4.4 light years. It circles its star Alpha Centauri B in 3.2 days, hugging it at a distance of 1/10th the distance of Mercury from the sun: much too close. The star heats the planet to a temperature of 1200 C, which means it is a blob of lava: not so good. This star is a likely target for unmanned space craft sometime in the future. It will be a long journey using solar sailing, lasting decades. Let’s save the earth first.

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