Stargazing in June: From the Stonehenge summer solstice to a cosmic embrace

1 06 2015
Two of our solar system’s most sensational planets will get together for a tryst

Two of our solar system’s most sensational planets will get together for a tryst

Let’s start by winnowing out the mythical chaff from the factual wheat. The Druids didn’t build Stonehenge; they came on the scene about 2,000 years later, and – according to the Roman writer Pliny – they didn’t worship in stone temples but in ‘‘forests of oak’’.

It was only in the 7th century that the antiquarian John Aubrey associated the Druids with Stonehenge. In 1740, a fellow neo-Druid called William Stukeley measured Stonehenge, and realised that its central line pointed ‘‘full northeast, being the point where the sun rises at the summer solstice’’. At that point, the link between Stonehenge, the Druids and the midsummer sunrise was set in tablets of stone.

But hang on. Instead of standing in the centre of the great stone circle and looking outwards, you could equally well place yourself at the Heel Stone and look through the centre of Stonehenge, towards the south-east. That’s the direction where the Sun sets, at midwinter.

In fact, Stukeley’s original account describes this bearing, with ‘‘the principal diameter or groundline of Stonehenge, leading from the entrance up to the middle of the temple to the high altar’’. So why did he choose the opposite direction as being critical to the Druids?

Stukeley was a Freemason. For Masons, the western part of the sky is the direction of death. The north-east is spiritually all-important because it is the point where the Sun rises on the feast of St John (the traditional Christian date for midsummer, on 24 June).

That’s why Stukeley picked out midsummer as the key season for Stonehenge. There’s no reason, though, to believe that our distant ancestors felt the same way. In fact, there are two great monuments in the British Isles which are unambiguous markers for the solstice, because they contain deep passageways that are lit up by Sun only once a year. In the case of Newgrange in Ireland and Maeshowe in Orkney, that date is the winter solstice..

Now archaeologists have provided the clinching evidence that Stonehenge, too, was erected to mark midwinter’s day. Mike Parker Pearson has excavated Durrington Walls, a huge settlement near Stonehenge. Here he’s found the remains of orgiastic feasts: bones of cows and pigs that had been brought vast distances – some from Cornwall, and others from the far north. Clearly, people came from all over the country to hold ceremonies at Stonehenge.

And the bones reveal the season that they travelled. The growth of the pigs’ teeth, and the amount they had worn, showed that they had been slaughtered for the table at the age of nine months. Given that piglets are naturally born in the spring, Parker Pearson is adamant that people were ‘‘feasting on pork at midwinter  most likely around the midwinter solstice’’.

So, if you want to truly celebrate as our ancestors did, don’t go to Wiltshire this month. Instead, go to Stonehenge on 22 December, to view the sun setting behind the giant portals of stone.

What’s Up

This month, two of our solar system’s most sensational planets are about to get together for a tryst. For the whole of spring, luminous giant Jupiter has been lighting up our evening skies. But dazzling Venus – Earth’s twin in size – has been sneaking up in the opposite part of the sky. Our neighbour world, cloaked in a dense atmosphere of carbon dioxide, reflects sunlight amazingly: it is the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon.

On 30 June, the two brilliant worlds tangle in a cosmic embrace. Separated by a space less than the diameter of the moon, Jupiter and  Venus will make a stunning sight low in the western sky. Otherwise, the summer constellations are making their appearance. Orange Arcturus, in Boötes, lords it over the night skies. Next to it, the small-but-perfectly-formed Corona Borealis – the Northern Crown – is a beautiful reminder that warmer days are on the way.

What to look out for

1 June: 5.19 pm: full moon

6 June: Venus at greatest eastern elongation

9 June 4.42 pm: moon at last quarter

16 June 3.05 pm: new moon

24 June 12.03 pm: moon at first quarter; Mercury at greatest western elongation

30 June: Venus and Jupiter close conjunction

Read the full story in the Independent. Heather Couper , Nigel Henbest

The Stonehenge News Blog





Friday will see a rare cosmic coincidence. Was Stonehenge used to predict eclipses?

19 03 2015

As the eclipse plunges Wiltshire and other places into darkness this Friday (March 20th), two other rare if less spectacular celestial events will be taking place, too: the Spring equinox and a Supermoon. Friday will see three rare celestial events and this will be the first time in living memory that the Spring equinox, a solar eclipse, and a supermoon are all taking place on the same day in the UK.

One of the most intriguing mysteries in the world is the Stonehenge. Nobody knows who built the mysterious Stone Circle in Wiltshire, or what its purpose was exactly. There are many theories associated with Stonehenge and archaeologists have been debating for ages to determine why it was built. Most experts believe that Stonehenge is actually an ancient astronomical calculator.

Eclipses have long been feared as bad omens, but the equinox is celebrated as a time of renewal

Eclipses have long been feared as bad omens, but the equinox is celebrated as a time of renewal

Eclipse Cycles

Now, it’s widely accepted that Stonehenge was used to predict eclipses. The inner “horseshoe” of 19 stones at the very heart of Stonehenge actually acted as a long-term calculator that could predict lunar eclipses. By moving one of Stonehenge’s markers along the 30 markers of the outer circle, it’s discovered that the cycle of the moon can be predicted. Moving this marker one lunar month at a time – as opposed to one lunar day the others were moved – made it possible for them to mark when a lunar eclipse was going to occur in the typical 47-month lunar eclipse cycle. The marker would go around the circle 38 times and halfway through its next circle, on the 47th full moon, a lunar eclipse would occur.

Aubrey Holes
Stonehenge has a ring of 56 pits that are now known as Aubrey holes, after antiquarian John Aubrey. They date back to the late fourth and early fifth millennium. These holes were not really noticed until the 1920s. It’s believed that the only standing feature at Stonehenge at the time these holes were dug was the Heel Stone – the marker of the midsummer sunrise – but this is now proven false. Some experts believe they were meant to hold timbers or more stones, but the astronomical interpretations of these holes are very interesting. It’s also believed that the holes helped to predict astronomical events. Complicated math theories back this up to some degree, as some lunar eclipses can be predicted by using numbers associated with Stonehenge. It’s even believed that Stonehenge was used to keep track of lunar cycles by moving marker stones two holes per day, ending with 56 holes.

Hawkins
Meanwhile, Gerald Hawkins studied Stonehenge much later, in 1965, using computer programs. He found multiple solar and lunar alignments that correlated with the location

of Stonehenge. He set his data so that the positions of the stars and planets would match where they were in 1500 B.C., when he believed it was built, and found that 13 solar correlations and 11 lunar correlations matched up with the megalithic stages. In other words, he believed Stonehenge was used to predict astronomical events. He also believed that it was built to align with the position of the summer and winter solstices.

What is a solar eclipse?
A solar eclipse happens when the moon passes between the sun and the earth, hiding the sun from view and blocking out the sunlight that usually reaches us.

The eclipse, which will be partial, not total, will begin here at around 8.45am on Friday and peak at around 9.30am before ending at 10.30am. It will be the biggest eclipse since August 1999.

Spring equinox

The equinox will also happen on March 20th. While it won’t have any discernable, direct impact on how the solar eclipse looks, it will contribute to a rare collision of three unusual celestial events.

On March 20th, the Earth’s axis will be perpindecular to the sun’s rays — which only happens twice a year, at the two equinoxes. After that, it will start tipping over, making the days longer in the northern hemisphere.

As such, the equinox has long been celebrated as a time of beginning and renewal, by a number of historic cultures, and is linked to Easter and Passover.

The equinox will happen at the same time as a solar eclipse in 2053 and 2072, though it doesn’t always appear as close together as that.

English Heritage will welcome people to Stonehenge to celebrate the Spring (Vernal) Equinox on Saturday 21st March. Expect a short period of access, from first light (approximately 05:45am) until 08:30am. Click here for more info

Supermoon

A very rare supermoon eclipse of the sun is happening this week that won’t take place again until 2034.  A supermoon is when a full, or new moon coincides with the night when the earth and moon’s orbits move them slightly closer together, making the moon look about 14% bigger, and 30% brighter than normal. This generally happens roughly once every 14 months, but can happen more often; in January 2014, there were actually two supermoons in a single month.

In the past, groups have argued that the supermoon could cause natural disasters, madness, or even throw the earth off its axis. Experts agree that the worst thing that might happen is the tide comes in another inch that night.  As well as a supermoon, there is also an event when a full moon is as far away from earth as possible; this is called a micromoon, for obvious reasons.

Some useful Links:

Solar eclipse, Supermoon, Spring equinox:

Solar Eclipse, Supermoon, Spring Equinox: 3 Rare Celestial Events Align March 20th

Solar Eclipse 2015: How to watch a solar eclipse safely

Stonehenge: An Astronomical Calculator

Astro-Archaeology at Stonehenge

Remember that no one should look directly at the sun during a partial eclipse without proper equipment, as it can damage the eyes.

Merlin at Stonehenge
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