Sesquicentennial Stars of 1847
+ Von Del Chamberlain +
In late July 1847, in a valley beside one of the world's great dead seas, a group of people, weary from long and difficult travel, were busy unloading their few possessions at a place they had selected to build their new home. Soon, they would celebrate the end of their journey; indeed already such feelings were swelling as they worked. Little time for festivities, however, with so much work to do. Fields must be cleared and planted--very late to expect much of a crop. Shelter must be made against the expected winter of unknown proportions--unknown by their own previous experience. Almost all of the things the family would need must be located or made: furnishings for the home and the house itself.
As darkness crept in upon the group that evening, one of the children cried, "There it is. There is Venus. It has been so beautiful for all these months as we traveled, getting higher and brighter each night. It always seemed to point the way we should go next morning. Did it guide us to this place? Was it our special star? Now it is shining down upon our new home." They all stopped what they were each doing and looked out to the west to let their eyes feast on the luster of the brilliant planet. It was like a special guiding star that brought Christmas in the middle of summer. What a gift to have finally arrived at the place they would call home.
This family might have continued to watch as it got darker. The Moon was bright that night, just two days before full, so they paid little attention to the Milky Way that cut the sky in half over them. The bright star Spica was well up in the southwest with even brighter Arcturus was higher. The Great Dipper was high north of west and they could easily find the North Star to help them get their bearings in this new place. Off to the south was bright Antares in Scorpius and on around the horizon well up in the east were the three bright stars forming a triangle that they had watched get higher each evening as they approached the valley where they would live: Vega in Lyra, Altair in Aquila and Deneb in Cygnus.
The Pioneers would have watched these stars move higher until Vega, brightest star in the Summer Triangle and the brightest one in the constellation Lyra, was almost overhead at midnight in the mid-July sky. Next to Vega they saw two dim stars that connect to Vega in a tiny triangle. Just to the east of the lower of these dim stars is another about the same brightness. The most common name of this star is "Sheliak" and is 150 light years away from us. Thus, as we look upon Sheliak now we see light that left the star when Pioneer wagons were rolling into the Salt Lake Valley. Sheliak is our Sesquicentennial Star!
Knowing the stars was a very natural thing for those people. Like friends accompanying them across the plains and into the mountains, they had gazed at each other so often: like divine eyes starlight flowed down into upturned human eyes. Under this spectacular canopy people shared stories, sang songs, cooked meals, played games and let sleep come to yield energy for the next day.
Except for a few differences (Moon and planets), the same stars look down upon us 150 years later. The major difference is that these people were able to look up there and see the starry heavens in all their glory, whereas we, living here today, cannot. To see the sky as they did we must venture out into the country quite some distance. In 1847 the only lights on earth were from fires, lanterns and candles. Step out, look up and the lights of heaven provided the most majestic canvas ever looked upon.
Consider the changes since that time. Now, when astronauts orbit above us they look down upon a constellation that has blossomed to reveal the spread of humanity over the globe. Cities and towns gleam along waterways and concrete highways. The major dark areas are the deserts, mountains, oceans and arctic lands: places too dry, too high, too wet, or too cold for convenient living. Now, looking down, we see the great constellation of humanity glowing and growing on the planet. In 1847 they could look up to see the changeless patterns formed by stars and watch Moon and planets cycle through their pathways.
It seems ironic to me as I realize that this is the 47th article I have written for this column, coming as it does during the sesquicentennial Days of 47. I am fortunate to be living in a great city that has arisen on the edge of mountain, salty sea and desert. Each of the past 150 orbits of Earth round Sun has seen changes on the land in this place, while the seemingly changeless sky moved overhead, counting days and years. Each generation looked out to those same gleaming lights of heaven that watched the "progress" wrought by hand and mind. The few migrating here have transformed into a multitude calling this valley "home." Two sets of constellations tell the story: one nonexistent when pioneer wagon arrived, now seen by orbiting eyes surveying a great technology; the other, little changed, but seen less frequently by residents comforted from darkness by artificial light. Perhaps by looking around and deeply considering past, present and future we can honor both land and skyscapes with our presence.