October 2017: Skies Over Crestone

Filed under: Skies over Crestone |

by Kim Malville

Jupiter will be visible for only a few days in the western twilight at the beginning of October. It will reach conjunction with the sun on October 26 and then it will reappear in the morning skies around November 7. Saturn will, however, will be visible low in the southwest twilight throughout October, dropping closer and closer to the sun each week.

The Death of Cassini

After 20 years in space and 13 years orbiting Saturn, Cassini, died at 7:55am EST on Friday, September 15. Before being torn apart by Saturn’s atmosphere, Cassini sent back some phenomenal photographs, which we will see soon. Before its final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, Cassini spent four months diving in the dangerous un-probed region between the planet and its rings, making detailed measurements of the rings in order to determine if they were primarily rock or ice

NASA ended Cassini’s mission by sending the probe into Saturn’s atmosphere because there was the fear of contaminating the planet’s moons. There was fear that microbes from Earth may have stowed away on board while Cassini was being built here on Earth. Because Cassini’s radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) was still functioning and still hot, it was possible that those microbes could still be alive and could taint worlds that may already have their own kind of life. Left to wander aimlessly without commands from the earth through the Saturn system, Cassini might have accidentally crashed onto the surface of a moon, such as Enceladus. The crash wouldn’t necessarily have killed all the microbes, and the hot RTG could help the probe slowly to melt through the ice and contaminate its underground water ocean for eternity. These RTGs provide electrical power using heat from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium-238, in the form of plutonium dioxide. The large difference in temperature between this hot fuel and the cold environment of space is applied across thermocouples, which generates an electrical current using no moving parts.

Kudos to Cassini. Thanks to the 13 years of exploration, we know that Titan has oceans of liquid methane and Enceladus has an underground ocean of water beneath cracked shell of ice. In the bottom of that ocean there may be hot plumes of water, like those erupting from the rifts deep in the Earth’s oceans, which serve as nurseries of life. Cassini was also responsible for discovering six named moons, and finally, Cassini, went where no one has gone before, making its deep dive into the thick atmosphere of Saturn, during which it was destroyed in an explosion, with a flash but no fire because there is no oxygen in Saturn’s atmosphere. Not bad, Cassini; rest in peace.

Rooms on the summit of Llulliallaco, 22,110 feet.

Rooms on the summit of Llulliallaco, 22,110 feet. photo by Johan Reinhard

Death & astronomy in the high Andes

The Incas are renowned for their architecture, skillful masonry, complex political organization and their knowledge of astronomy.  Perhaps their most remarkable achievement was the ascent and the building of ceremonial structures on many of the highest peaks of the Andes, including the mountain Llullaillaco with an altitude of 22,110 feet, containing the world’s highest archaeological site. The mountain is on the Chilean-Argentine border, east of Antofagasta, some 750 miles south of Cusco. It was climbed by the Inca sometime around 1500, probably close to December solstice—the start of the climbing season—and then not again until 1952 when two Chilean climbers, anticipating the glory of a first ascent, were disappointed to discover they were not the first.

Many of these mountaintop shrines, of which there may be over 100, were the sites of capacocha ceremonies.  There are 16 shrines for which mummies have been documented and these almost entirely involved child sacrifice, boys of ages 4 to 10 and teenage girls chosen for their beauty and perfection, who were offered to the sun, and mountain deities. According to Spanish chroniclers, offerings on the summits were made after state-supported pilgrimages, which often involved weeks or months of travel, covering distances of 1000 km or more. They included priests, officials, assistants, local inhabitants, the child to be sacrificed, and sometimes proud parents.

Once on the summit, the party would have spent the night either in the two rooms or behind a windbreak. Whether it was in the rooms or behind the windbreak, spending the night at such a high altitude would have been an excruciating test of endurance, as any climber who has bivouacked at high altitudes can attest. Clearly, they did not have down sleeping bags or down jackets, but some of the discomfort may have been alleviated by chewing coca leaves. When the first gleam of the sun appeared, its location would have been burned in the memories of those waiting for the dawn. Few sunrises could have been greeted more enthusiastically than by those who spent a frigid night on the summit of Llullaillaco.

The platform on top contained the bodies of three children, a 13-year-old girl and a boy and girl aged 4-5 years. The young boy may have been seated facing the rising sun on December solstice. The 13-year-old girl was facing northeast approximately in the direction of June solstice sunrise. This possibility would be truly extraordinary because the mountain cannot be climbed in June. How could they have oriented the body? June solstice sunrise is opposite December solstice sunset. To determine the location of June solstice sunrise, they only needed to mark the direction of sunset on December solstice and turn the opposite direction.

Llulliallaco boy.

Llulliallaco boy.

All children had been carefully selected, well fed, and honored for a year before their deaths. The practice of burying children alive or of suffocating them prior to burial apparently was based on the belief that only “complete” offerings were acceptable to the sun or mountain deity. A victim who had shed blood would have been an “incomplete” offering. Sacrificial techniques employed in capacocha ceremonies seem to have been selected to avoid an overt display of cruelty. Two of the children on Llullaillaco had been anesthetized by combination of coca leaves and chicha (corn beer) when they were buried alive. The boy may have died from exhaustion before reaching the summit.

Climbing the mountain and spending the night on top must have been terribly frightening for these children. Perhaps a brilliant sunrise in the luminous atmosphere of the summit of the mountain was exciting. Perhaps being in the presence of gods of the sun and mountain was an epiphany for the children.  We shall never know.

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