I’ve decided to start a new blog series on things that simply amaze me.  I’ve got a list of 25+ topics (at the moment)  so I hope you’ll enjoy reading and learning about amazing things.  This our first blog in this series. Do, please, tell me the things that amaze you, too! Id we share an amazement, I might blog about it!

Geminid meteor shower Credit Yuri Smityuk/Getty Images

I read about a meteor shower that was predicted to be over the skies of Melbourne on and around the nights of April 22, 2020.  The article said that you might see up to 18 meteors per hour in the night sky. I didn’t think that would be true, as I live in deep suburbia with loads of light pollution.   And I wondered if I should I make the effort and go outside?  Is it worth the effort?  Its really cold (and I feel the cold) at this time of the year in Melbourne. Well, it’s really cold by Australian standards anyway!

Picture Craig Abraham

Anyway, I went out and saw meteor after meteor – the best description I can give you is that it was like someone was using WHITEOUT across the night sky.  One particularly exciting Meteor was more like a firework – or a sparkler – wow, that was so exciting!  I now know that what I saw is called a “fireball”.  As you can see from the caption this isn’t my photograph but it is similar to what I saw.  Amazing, right? The fireballs are created by debris from the comet Thatcher. The Lyrids are actually one of the oldest recorded meteor showers with some historical Chinese texts mentioning the shower over 2,500 years ago.

Yead-Muhammad-Bangladesh

The Lyrids are pieces of space debris that originate from the comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher.  Their “radiant”, or point in the sky from which they appear and where they get their name, is in the constellation Lyra. The Lyrids appear to come from the vicinity of one of the brightest stars in the night sky – Vega. Vega is one of the easiest stars to spot, even in light-polluted areas.

Bill Cooke, lead of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “While the Lyrids aren’t as prolific as other meteor showers like the Perseids or Geminids, they usually do produce some bright fireballs” he said.  NASA has a YouTube channel link here to watch their hundreds of videos if you are interested.

Texas in September 2008. Image courtesy NASA

You can also have a look at https://www.meteorshowers.org/ Websites like this one let you put your location and you can find out what meteor showers are expected over your local skies and where you can report seeing a fireball regardless of where you are on the planet.

Have a look at this Perth Meteor shower from a few years back.  No wonder they make movies about them!

If you’d like to get some easy reading about the night sky here’s a link to a beginners guide to finding stars and planets .

This image of the night sky over Tidal River, in Victoria, Australia, near Wilson’s Promontory, was taken over a period of about 60 minutes. ABC Open contributor _keath.

Watch this interactive video for more on what you can see and when.  This is totally mind blowing.  I love how many events are happening in our night skies and I don’t even know about them (as I’m too busy watching TV).  https://www.meteorshowers.org.

This led me to wonder what dreamtime stories did the indigenous Australians tell about meteors and meteorites?

Of course, meteors sometimes make it through the atmosphere and hit the earth. Australia is home to some 30 confirmed craters that formed from the impacts of comets, asteroids, and meteorites. They range in age from a few thousand years to over a billion years. Some of these craters are featured in Aboriginal traditions that describe their formation. These include the Henbury craters, Wolfe Creek Crater, Gosse’s Bluff crater, and Liverpool crater.

Around 4,200 years ago, a large nickel-iron meteoroid came blazing across the Central Australian sky. It broke apart before striking the ground 145km south of what is now Alice Springs.  The fragments carved out more than a dozen craters up to 180 meters across with the energy of a small nuclear explosion.  This created the Henbury Crater.

Aboriginal people have inhabited the region for tens-of-thousands of years, and it’s almost certain they witnessed this dramatic event.   When scientists first visited Henbury in 1931, they brought with them an Aboriginal guide. When they ventured near the site, the guide would go no further. He said his people were forbidden from going near the craters, as that was where the fire-devil ran down from the sun and set the land ablaze, killing people and forming the giant holes. They were also forbidden from collecting water that pooled in the craters, as they feared the fire-devil would fill them with a piece of iron. So the story had been passed down from generation to generation.

The following year, a local resident asked Luritja elders about the craters. The elders provided the same answer and said the fire-devil “will burn and eat” anyone who breaks sacred law, as he had done long ago. Thus, the story of Henbury indicates a living memory of an event that occurred over four thousand years ago!

Many Indigenous cultures attribute meteoritic events to the power of sky beings. The Wardaman people of northern Australia tell of Utdjungon, a being who lives in the Coalsack nebula by the Southern Cross.  He will cast a fiery star to the Earth if laws and traditions are not followed. The falling star will cause the earth to shake and the trees to topple. The Luritja people of Central Australia tell of an object that fell to Earth as punishment for breaking sacred law.

If you are homeschooling your kids, you might like to look at the activity pack about the Rainbow Serpent Dreamtime Story, its available (for purchase I think) from the organisation called Twinkl.

Rainbow serpents and fire devils

The Djaru of Western Australia believe Wolfe Creek crater, also known as Kandimalal, was caused by a cosmic impact, representing the spot where the Rainbow Serpent (whose eyes are seen as a meteor) crashed to the Earth.

Even into the early 1900s, the link between meteorites and craters wasn’t considered proper science [by some scientists]. Rocks didn’t just fall out of the sky. It turns out, yes they do!

Australia’s Aboriginal people had long known about the crater near Wolfe Creek by the time an aerial survey identified it in 1947.  Almost perfectly circular, Wolfe Creek Crater (also known as Wolf Creek Crater) is considered the second largest crater in the world from which meteorite fragments have been collected. Because of its excellent preservation, the crater clearly shows the classic features that result from a large meteorite striking the Earth.

The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image of Wolfe Creek Crater on September 22, 2006.

According to an article written by ABC Journalist Maryke Steffens,  Aboriginal people have been described as ‘the world’s first astronomers’, she wrote: “The Yolngu people in Arnhem Land, have dreaming stories that explain tides, eclipses, the rising and setting sun and moon and the changing positions of rising stars and planets throughout the year.

In one of their stories, Walu the sun is a woman who lights her fire every morning and scatters red ochre across the clouds, creating dawn.  She then carries her torch across the sky, creating daylight. At the end of the day, she descends, puts out her fire, and travels underground through the night back to her morning camp.” My husband actually wrote an award-winning story about an incident in aboriginal history, which mentioned Walu. You can purchase the anthology that contains his winning entry here Literary Taxidermy. It’s very affordable and a great read.

CSIRO astrophysicist Ray Norris has been gathering and listening to Aboriginal stories about the night sky across the country.

One of his favourites is the Yolngu story of the three brothers in a canoe in the Djulpan constellation (known in Greek mythology as Orion the Hunter). The three stars in Orion’s belt are the brothers sitting side by side, with the stars Betelgeuse and Rigel marking the front and back of the canoe. The stars in Orion’s nebula represent a fish, and the stars of Orion’s sword mark out a fishing line trailing behind the canoe.

“I love it because it actually looks like a canoe when you see it,” says Norris.

Ray Norris CSIRO.

There are many stories about the Orion constellation right across Australia, and they are nearly always about a group of men hunting or fishing, says Norris. Often they are following a group of young women, represented by the stars in the Pleiades cluster in the constellation Taurus.

Surprisingly, these stories are very similar to Greek mythology, in which Orion pursues the Pleiades sisters across the sky.

Orion’s nemesis, Scorpius, is also depicted as a scorpion in some Aboriginal stories.

For example, one Yolgnu story tells of Bundungu the scorpion, who is gathered with his people along the banks of the Milnguya (Milky Way) with their relatives the Baripari (quoll) and Wahk (crow).

Kyle Pickett EmuInTheSky2

“It’s that sort of thing that fascinates me, the way that different cultures arrive at the same conclusions,” says Norris.

Unlike Greek celestial tradition, which focuses almost exclusively on stars, Aboriginal astronomy focuses on the Milky Way and often incorporates the dark patches between stars.

The Emu in the Sky, a story common to many Aboriginal groups, is an example of this — its body is made up of the dark patches in the Milky Way.  The Boorong people saw the same dark patches as the smoke from the fires of Nurrumbunguttias, the old spirits. The Kaurna people saw the Milky Way — called Wodliparri or hut river — as a large river where a Yura (monster) lives in the dark patches. My husband’s story also includes the aboriginal legend that explains how the Emu came to be in the sky.

To the Ngarrindjeri people, the dark shape formed by the Southern Cross is the stingray Nunganari and the pointers are Ngarakani, or sharks.

The Emu in the Sky lines up with a rock carving in Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park Barnaby Norris

If you look up into the sky tonight, you can clearly make out the Emu in the Sky. You’ve almost certainly been looking at it all your life, but you’ve probably never ‘seen’ it.

The Emu is stretched across one of the most familiar objects in the night sky, the Milky Way. Look closely at the the Southern Cross and you’ll see its head as a dark smudge tucked near the bottom left hand corner of the constellation. Its neck passes between the two pointer stars, and its dark body stretches the length of our luminous galaxy.

The Emu in the Sky has featured in Aboriginal storytelling for thousands of years.

Many different language groups have their own interpretation of the Emu’s heavenly fate, along with a rich and diverse range of stories about mallee fowl, parrots, fish, stingrays, hunters, men, women, girls and boys.

The Emu in the Sky stretches across the Milky Way Source Barnaby Norris

Once you hear these stories, the night sky will never look the same again. And it’s not just stories you’ll find — Aboriginal astronomy contains a map to understanding, surviving and living in harmony with our great southern land.

Aboriginal people would have had a very practical reason for their interest in astronomy: the sky is a calendar that indicates when the seasons are shifting and when certain foods are available, says Dr. Roslynn Haynes,  author of Explorers of the Southern Sky, a history of Australian astronomy.

“Constellations appearing in the sky, usually at sunrise or sunset, were very important. They helped [Aboriginal people] predict what was happening in the world around them,” says Haynes.

For example, at different times of the year the Emu in the Sky is oriented so it appears to be either running or sitting down. Depending upon its position people in the western desert knew it was time to hunt for emus or collect their eggs.

When Scorpius was visible in the evening sky towards the end of April people of Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria knew the wet season was over and the dry south-easterly wind marimariga would soon begin to blow.

The Boorong people in north western Victoria looked to the mallee fowl constellation, Neilloan (Lyra), to tell them when they should harvest the bird’s eggs. When Neilloan appeared in the north-west sky around April, they knew the birds would be preparing their mound-like nests. The disappearance of Neilloan in late September or early October meant it was time to start gathering.

“All of these things were very important as food sources,” says Haynes.

While the night sky had a very practical use for Aboriginal people, it was also valuable spiritually, as a means of reinforcing culture and community, says Haynes.

“Objects in the sky had stories attached to them to do with the values and morality of the community. So when constellations appeared, the stories were told and those lessons would be ingrained in the younger people.”

“They were interested in the holistic view that it gave them of the world, that the heavens were as close to them as the surrounding earthly environment.”

To find out more about the Dreamtime stories please read more here.

What are the odds?   This amazing image is from Emma Zulaiha Zulkifli in Sabah, on the island of Borneo in Malaysia

If you want to learn more about Astronomy there’s a great series on ABCiview with Julia Zemiro and Brian Cox.  Link here.

Look at this!

Anyhow, I do hope you enjoyed the first in my series about Things that Amaze me. Don’t forget to tell me the things that amaze you!

To support Aboriginal People in Australia you can donate to Yothu Yindi here.

And if you miss reading about my students and my glass projects you can always go here for a read.

We’ll get back to making glass soon enough!

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