By Cindy Chin, CEO & Founder, CLC Advisors, LLC
On Sunday, 27 September, 2015, twenty-eight amateur and professional astronomers and photographers ranging from ages 5 to 65 descended upon the English countryside in Salisbury, UK, to the Stonehenge monument in Amesbury. The reason for this occasion that has been occurring for the past twelve years was to view the full moon rise amongst the stones.
Since 2002, Pete Glastonbury has been organizing this special access event to view the full moon risings for the last 12 years. The first was a special commission for Stonehenge that included renowned archaeoastronomers Professor Gerald Hawkins, Professor Vance Tiede and Professor Hubert Allen. Fast-forward a dozen years and we have English Heritage’s steward Simon Banton as unofficial guide and new generations of astronomers.
This year wasn’t any regular autumn full moon rise, but a “super moon” coinciding with a blood full moon in combination with a total lunar eclipse later in the evening. This phenomenon has not occurred in more than 30 years, the last occurring in 1982, and the next one expected in 2033. The perigee full moon, when the moon is closest to the earth (approximately 31,000 miles closer), was fully visible rising from the stone circle of Stonehenge and our group of astronomers were ready with their cameras and tripods to capture the moment as the sun was seen setting directly behind them.
Lunar eclipses typically occur about twice a year when the Earth’s shadow blankets the moon from the sun. Modern-day scientists and astronomers can predict eclipses many centuries into the future and the stones at Stonehenge were constructed in a fashion that in ancient times communities were using their own methods to predict such occurrences. This fourth and final eclipse of a lunar tetrad was also called the “blood moon” as the moon appears in a reddish-orange brown during full lunar eclipse.
According to Simon Banton, a steward of English Heritage who led this group into the inner circle of the stones, the builders of Stonehenge were astonishing engineers. “Someone conceived the design of the structure as an architect. There are many hundreds of stone circles in Britain alone. Stonehenge was built with stones designed to fit into other stones. Two uprights and one across the top of the stones.”
The winter solstice sunset signifies the end of one cycle and the beginning of another cycle. The only unarguable alignment of Stonehenge in the way it was built in the direction facing the winter solstice with a progression in height: Two small, two medium, and one large, increasing in height. Entering the temple is most impressive is what’s facing, framing, or from the heel stone.
British-born American archaeoastronomer Gerald Hawkins first proposed that Stonehenge was an an ancient astronomical observatory that was used to predict the movements of the stars and sun. Using an early-model IBM 7090 computer, Hawkins entered the positions of the standing stones and other features of Stonehenge to model the movements and positions of the sun and moon using the positions of 56 holes as markers for the moon and sun to calculate the nodes of lunar orbit twice a day in a 28-day cycle.
With modern-day technology in archaeoastronomy, science is able to replicate and predict the accuracy of the stones at Stonehenge to measure the lunar orbits and seasons and their relevance even today. As space science outreach and retired teacher Chris Starr, 62, from Somerset said, “The experience of watching the moonrise was once in a lifetime, the sharing of a common experience from today, and what the ancients witnessed. Sharing a sense of wonder and a common thread. Stonehenge is an observatory built by some really smart ancestors. Even emerging from the plains of East Africa. It must have been quite a spectacle for our ancestors.”
Todd Howard, 40, another Stonehenge participant who was introduced to these outings through SpaceFest channels, pondered on the construction of Stonehenge. “It was built by intelligent people with astronomical awareness. Too many things that don’t line up to be a full observatory, but it had a huge social element to it,” as people traveled as far as Scotland to feast and celebrate the beginning of the new year.
The furthest participant to travel was astrophotographer Jeanette Lamb, 52, who came all the way from Queensland, Australia, for the first time. She has entered local astronomy competitions and has been awarded prizes for her photographs of the night sky and stars. “I cried when the moon rose over the stones. The history and privilege of being allowed at Stonehenge to view the moon rise is amazing. When you live in a country where there is no astronomical society, online communities bring astronomers and space scientists together. The online community is making our world smaller.” Indeed it is.
For more on the documentary Pete Glastonbury and Silent Earth are currently filming, including the work of Professor Gerald Hawkins here.
This full article can also be found on Silent Earth’s website here.
By Cindy Chin, CEO & Founder CLC Advisors, LLC
Preparing for #LucaTweetup at the ESA/ESRIN in Italy next week, I came across Carl Sagan’s wisdom in the words he penned not too long ago and how applicable it is due to recent current events in Eurasia. Sagan’s words echo my sentiments and the spirit in which I choose to participate – with humility, compassion, an open mind, the willingness to learn, and share in the spirit of inclusion. There is work to be done.
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
– Carl Sagan
Photo credit: NASA