Colorado Skies: Many legends flow from the Milky Way
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Colorado Skies: Many legends flow from the Milky Way

Jul 31, 2023

Of the celestial wonders that greet observers of the late summertime Colorado sky, none is more impressive to the naked eye than the faint irregular band of light that we call the Milky Way.

Sweeping down from the “W” of Cassiopeia in the northeast, this broad soft band of starlight passes through the heart of the Summer Triangle stars Vega, Deneb and Altair, and finally disappears over the southern horizon to the south of the “Teapot” of the constellation of Sagittarius.

Unfortunately, the Milky Way has become progressively more difficult to view from Loveland owi​ng to an ever-increasing sky-glow arising from an ever-growing Larimer County populace. However, if one takes the time to find a dark observing site on a moonless night, the Milky Way glories visible to even the unaided eye are well worth the effort.

As one might expect, such a prominent band of light has generated a wealth of mythology and folklore throughout the ages.

Among the most common legends are those which consider the Milky Way to be a sort of “Highway to Heaven.” Such was the case for cultures as diverse as the Chinese, Hindus and the Native Americans.

The Algonquin tribe of Canada carried the imagery a step farther in their belief that the bright stars that lined the Milky Way were the campfires of those departed souls on their celestial journey to the hereafter.

Other cultures envisioned the Milky Way variously as a mighty celestial river flowing across the heavens, milk flowing from the breast of a goddess, a belt of snow, a band of golden star dust, and a cloud-eating shark.

Halfway between the Summer Triangle and the Sagittarius Teapot, however, this glowing boulevard of stars is almost completely severed by a huge slashing dark wedge of space known to astronomers as the Great Rift.

This prominent Milky Way feature extends southward from the constellation of Cygnus all the way to the southern horizon.

Interestingly, the westernmost branch of the Great Rift stops abruptly just to the north of the constellation of Scorpius, while the eastern branch extends below the horizon and on into the southern hemisphere.

As in the case of the Milky Way itself, the Great Rift has also inspired a wealth of ingenious explanations, particularly from the Mayan culture.

One of the most interesting of these, however, comes not from the Maya, but from the Lakota tribe of our Northern Plains. For the Lakota, the Milky Way was the “Trail of the Spirits”, the celestial trail that all Lakota people must take when death overtakes them.

At the point where the Milky Way splits into the Great Rift stands a divine Arbiter. Those who led an immoral life are forced by the Arbiter to head down the western branch of the Great Rift, thus to be forever consigned to the dead-end celestial void above Scorpius, while those who lived righteous lives are directed down the eastern branch leading to Wanaghiyata, the heavenly home for departed souls.

During the 20th century astronomers discovered that the Great Rift is, in reality, a gigantic system of overlapping non-luminous molecular dust clouds composed of a wide variety of substances including ammonia, ethyl alcohol and cyanogen.

Located about 300 light years away, this complex of interstellar clouds almost completely blots out the myriad of Milky Way stars that lie behind them.

Were it not for the presence of the Great Rift, for example, the light from the nuclear regions of the Milky Way would be so bright that this column could easily be read on any given summer’s night!

Elsewhere in the sky: The planet Saturn is visible nearly all night long as a golden-hued object in the constellation of Aquarius.

The planet Jupiter rises about 10 p.m. and shines brightly as a yellowish-white object amid the stars of Aries.

The planet Venus rises about 3 a.m. and blazes to the northeast in the predawn twilight.

The planet Mercury makes its best morning appearance of the year. This elusive world can be seen during the last half of September rising 90 minutes before the sun below the planet Venus.

The planet Mars is too close to the sun to be easily seen in September.

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