Valley Skies – Valley history and the stars

The Columbia Valley is much connected to the stars, both in history and today. Brian Fenerty discusses current and past events in the skies.

They whisper, wink, and glide, so gently west –

O’er lake, river, trees, o’er even loftiest of heights

At last ‘yond western peaks they quiet hide, and rest –

‘Til do it all again, again, in forever wond’rous nights.

Our valley is much connected to the stars, both in history and today. Explorer David Thompson purposely included stellar measurements to map our and other regions with long-unmatched accuracy! The Columbia River, which Thompson navigated to the sea, we find has its name echoed in the southern constellation, Columbia, The Dove. That is of course a symbol of peace, which brings us back to the sign at our valley’s dramatic canyon gateway about the peace that mountains bring. In today’s busy world, many sprawling streetlight-glared cities wish for their children (and their adult selves) the peaceful sparkling night skies that we still have.

It’s not just valley days that bring poetry to many a heart young and old, but also dusk and night with the stars and their company. The stars are full of science, but a science that for every discovery leads the expert, the enthusiast, and the child in each of us, to wonder more! Often, the science, the wonder and poetry blended together is a quiet unspoken quest, to gently map, bit by bit within, what the world is whispering to us day and night.

With this new column now introduced, I’ll march into the details! Right now, bright Jupiter glides overhead, near born-together stars in small cluster Pleiades. Through binoculars or a telescope, the giant planet’s four brightest moons dance around fast enough that they can be used as a measure of time, as Thompson knew.

Saturn now emerges in the middle of the night. Winter’s favourite star nursery, the Orion Nebula, glows under the Hunter’s three-star belt. To the lower left of Orion, bright Sirius (actually a binary star), is “close” to us — we see it as it was just 8.6 years ago, given how far its light must travel to reach us. The smaller of this stellar duet was large, but became a red giant (as will our own star in the far future) before becoming a white dwarf remnant. Various cultures link Sirius to dogs or wolves, something to ponder if you have seen the wolf pack east of the Hector Gorge along Highway 93 recently. To the upper left of Orion, in the rectangular constellation Gemini, the top star Castor is actually a six-star system! In the other top corner is the star Pollux, with an exoplanet.

Surprises may also wait — a new visitor from the far edges of our solar system can loop around the sun. In mid-March, the Comet Panstars can be seen faintly during dusk as an object nearly setting on the horizon. Try binoculars or a telescope from the east side of the valley, scanning at dusk just over the mountaintops to the west, on March 12 or later.

And nearby asteroids? The predicted very close pass by Earth recently was on a very separate orbit from a much smaller, and thus unpredicted piece of early solar system that impacted in Russia.

Until my next column, I wish you bright days and dark sparkling nights.

Brian Fenerty is a valley resident and an esteemed member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. He is retired from a career in painting and photography.