Jon U. Bell

Sky Watch Host

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Traveling at the speed of light, 186,000 miles a second, is impossible. Too bad. The moon is only a quarter of a million miles away. At the speed of light, you could get there in less than a second and a half. The light from the sun takes eight minutes to travel the 93 million mile distance to earth. Pluto is about four and a half light hours away. Frozen comets at the edge of our solar system, perhaps a trillion miles out, are nearly ten weeks away at speed-of-light travel. After that we come to the star Alpha Centauri, a little over four light years distant – that’s 25 trillion miles.

Wed Mar 21, 2018           PLACES IN THE SKY - MARCH

The vernal equinox is today – that’s the fancy term for the beginning of spring. On Monday, March 20th, at 12:15 p.m., Eastern Daylight Saving Time, the sun will appear at the top of the sky as seen from the earth’s equator. You'd think seasons would start first thing in the morning, but it seldom works out that way. Astronomers plot the sun's position in the sky as it drifts past the background of distant stars due to earth’s revolution. When it reaches a certain spot where the sun's direct rays touch upon the earth's equator, they know that spring has begun.

On March 16th in the year 1699 William Chaloner was executed at Tyburn Tree in London. Before his gruesome death, he wrote a letter to Sir Isaac Newton, begging for his life. “O dear sir, no body can save me but you,” he wrote, “I shall be murdered unless you save me.” Newton, England’s greatest scientist, had recently become the warden of the mint, and was responsible for the coining of English currency. This included catching anyone who committed the high treason of counterfeiting. Chaloner had sent a pamphlet to Parliament, accusing Newton of incompetence and corruption.



Ninety-two years ago, the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket was launched, in Auburn, Massachusetts. The man who launched it was its inventor - Robert Goddard. Rockets had been around for a long time – the Chinese were using them eight hundred years ago. But all rockets up to March 16, 1926, were solid-fuel, using a kind of gunpowder as the propellant. The problem with those rockets was that once ignited, the rocket fuel continued to burn until it was used up – no off switch.

On March 13, 1781, the planet Uranus was discovered by William Herschel. Herschel was a church organist and music director in the city of Bath, England. But he dabbled in other pursuits, and astronomy was his passion. Using a telescope he had built himself, he became the first person in history to discover another planet too faint to be seen with the unaided eye. About a hundred and fifty years after Uranus was discovered, the Lowell Observatory in Arizona announced the discovery of another planet. It had been found by a young observatory assistant, Clyde Tombaugh, and was named Pluto.

Except for a few star patterns such as Orion the Hunter or Scorpius the scorpion, most constellations look nothing at all like what they're supposed to represent. Learning to recognize constellations is about as easy as memorizing wall paper patterns. The only advantage you've got is that constellations, unlike wall paper, won't be torn down or painted over in the forseeable future. Folks long ago who made up these constellations didn't necessarily see the pictures either.