September 19, 2011
Stargazing can be a lonely preoccupation. Sometimes it’s so hard to convince your loved ones to travel to the middle of nowhere in the dark to see a bunch of sparkly things, as beautiful as they may be.
Most stargazers have spent an evening or two alone in the middle of some farmer’s field, lost in the vastness of space and, frankly, scared out of their minds. The sounds of the night are the scariest part — the rustle of a corn stalk can be the sure sign that Bigfoot is approaching stealthily through the darkness.
Come on, it COULD have been Bigfoot. I don’t usually stop to notice any details. I’m too busy running for the car to see the blood dripping from its hideous, razor-sharp fangs. Take heart, solitary stargazers. This time of year, the patron star of lonely astronerds sits low and forlorn in the south. It’s Fomalhaut, the “Solitary One.”
Look directly south around midnight and you’ll see a single star amidst a large patch of darkness. The other stars in Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, are too faint to see from all but the darkest rural skies. Fomalhaut sticks out like Bigfoot’s big toe. The star’s name comes from the Arabic expression “Fum al Hut,” which means the “Mouth of the Fish.” It is traditionally associated with the coming of autumn and the loss of summer. Add to that its isolated location, and you have one depressing star.
Because it never gets very low above the horizon, it often takes on a dim orange cast as its light is filtered through the thick layer of air close to the horizon. Don’t let appearances fool you. Fomalhaut is a hot, young star that burns with an almost pure, white flame. It has the distinction of being one of the first stars around which a disk of cool dust and gas was discovered. Astronomers believe that such disks eventually form into planets like those in our own solar system. Fomalhaut’s dusty disk was discovered in 1983 by IRAS, the Infra-Red Astronomical Satellite, which was sent into orbit to examine not the light, but the heat, emanating from the stars.
According to astronomical historian Robert Burnham, the Solitary One has a Biblical connection.
Most people have heard the story of Sampson, the great Israelite hero and strong man who was seduced by the Philistine woman Delilah. However, they don’t know the astronomical connection. Sampson derived his strength from his body hair, and men of his clan were not permitted to shave. Delilah learned his secret and had his hair shaved off. The weakened Sampson was at the mercy of his Philistine enemies, who had his eyes gouged out.The Philistines decided to offer a sacrifice to the fish-god Dagon in honor of their triumph. It’s hard to blame them. Sampson had slain more than a few Philistines in his time.
So the Philistines had an enormous debauch in Dagon’s temple in the town of Gaza. To add insult to injury, they paraded the blinded and weakened Sampson before the assembled multitude. Summoning his last reserve of strength, Sampson pushed on the pillars of the temple, and managed to take thousands more Philistines with him as the falling temple debris crushed him.
Dagon is none other than the star Fomalhaut, which the Philistines worshipped at the temple at Gaza. The temple’s rubble has long-since turned to dust, but the star remains as a symbol of Sampson’s power. At the time of his death, Sampson was as alone and isolated as the star. Surrounded by his enemies, he was able to summon the power to triumph. I hope it’s clear this weekend. It just seems like a good time to stand alone under the stars and watch Fomalhaut flicker in the south. Watch out, Bigfoot. Here I come.
The early evening sky is still bereft of planets. Bright Jupiter is low in the east by 11 p.m. and reaches its highest point in the south by 4 a.m. It sticks out like a sore thumb among the relatively faint stars of Aries and Pisces in that direction. Faint, orange Mars peeks above the eastern horizon just before morning twilight.
Tom Burns is the director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.