Along the Milky Way

I have been asked by a number of people what the Milky Way is and why they cannot see it anymore. Often, people tell me that they used to see it when they were a child, but do not see it anymore. The Milky Way is indeed still there and you can see it, if you get away from light polluted skies.

Long ago, people also wondered what the Milky Way was, and they had a number of interesting legends to explain it.

The bushmen of the Kalahari desert said that long ago there were no stars in the night sky. No-one could walk around at night because they could not see and would bump into things. One little girl who lived alone in a hut was very lonely. She longed to go out at night and visit with people. One night a spirit came and told her to take a pot of the embers in her fire and throw them up into the air. The little girl did as she was told and the embers were turned into the Milky Way.

The Greeks were just as imaginative. They explain it as the milk of the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus. It seems that Zeus had a thing for mortal women. He would fall for them, chase them and the end result was a few children of Zeus origin. The problem was that the children would not share Zeus' immortality unless they drank Hera's milk. And Hera was not about to have anything to do with Zeua' love children.

Then Zeus developed a "thing" for Alcmene, she did not particularly return the affection. Undaunted, Zeus disguised himself as Alcmene's husband. Alcmene didn't know any better and so welcomed him in. So much did Zeus enjoy himself, that he extended the night for three days and out of this affair, came Hercules. Hera, hearing this bedtime story, was not amused., and managed to delay Hercules birth for a month. The other gods on Olympus figured that in order to get Hercules immortality they were going to have to pull a fast one on Hera. One night, while she was sleeping, Hermes snuck in the infant and let him have some of Heras milk. Hera awoke, and in outrage, shoved the child back, though it was too late by then. In the struggle however, some of the milk went into the sky and become the Milky Way.

On a more tame note, many Siberian people see the sky as a tent. They refer to the Milky Way as the seam of the sky. Other cultures have called it the backbone of night.

What is the Milky Way? It is our home in the universe. It is a large spiral galaxy, 80 light years in diameter, composed of 100 billion stars, their planets, comets, gas and dust. Our Sun and planets are located about 2/3 of the way out in one of the arms, in what you might call the galactic suburbs. The shape of the galaxy is round and flat except for the center which is a thick bulge. Most of the contents of the galaxy is toward the center.

The Milky Way itself is spinning. Our solar system is traveling around in the galaxy at 560, 000 miles per hour and it takes 182 million years for us to make one round trip. Since the Earth formed, we have made 25 trips.

This time of year the Milky Way runs from northeast, overhead and down to the southwest. This is the best time of the year to view it, but, you will need dark skies because it is easily obscured by street lights. But if you can get out into the country, it is well worth the trip to see our Galaxy.

I grew up in a very rural portion of Chester County, miles from even street lights. The stars truly glittered in the night sky, and never was the Milky Way more prevalent. It appeared as a soft glittery glowing band across the sky. It was quite breathtaking. In binoculars or a telescope, the cloud is resolved into thousands of stars.

Unfortunately now, our skies are polluted with street lights, flood lights and bill boards. Most are not the shielded types and are more energy wasteful than they are worth. We have lost many of our nighttime treasures. The Milky Way is one of them. But if you can go out into the country, somewhere where the skies are truly dark, you are in for a real treat!

Copyright © 2002 Kathy A. Miles and Charles F. Peters II