Astronomy during the first Thanksgiving

¡SkyCaramba! Weekly astronomy blog for the week ending November 24, 2012 

We don’t know the exact date of the Thanksgiving celebration held by English settlers and the Wampanoag people in North America in 1621. So as much as I’d like to tell you exactly what wonders they may have seen in the skies after celebrating the harvest, I can only tell you what they would have seen that autumn.

Seeing Venus provided an unusual challenge that fall. It hung barely above the horizon as the sun set in September, October, and November. There wasn’t light pollution like we have today, but a few clouds near the horizon would hide the planet. Finding Venus got much easier later in November. Venus was on its way to an evening sky pair-up with Mars in January 1622.

Mars was low in the south in Sagittarius when darkness set in. As the leaves changed colors and the breezes blew colder, Sagittarius slid westward while the red planet almost hovered in place as Capricornus approached.

Jupiter was at the feet of Gemini while Saturn was off to the side of the twins on the opposite side of the constellation. Jupiter barely moved near the star Propus in the foot of the twin Castor. Saturn was a little below the twin Pollux as the twins rose in the east in late evening. A fine addition they were to that section of the sky with Orion to the south of them and Canis Major rising a little later. As winter set in, Jupiter would slip away from Gemini toward the Hyades but not very far. The big planet was at opposition in December.

In late September and early October, Mercury appeared below Leo before sunrise. Then it vanished into the sun’s glare.

There was a solar eclipse in November 1621, however, none of it was visible in North America. The path of totality went across southern South America. Partial phases were limited to the southern hemisphere.

The constellations then looked pretty much the same way they do now, even though there is a slow drift that becomes noticeable over many centuries. You can try to imagine the planets in different places as you look at them during the American Thanksgiving. I’m sorry. There are no turkeys among the constellations. That’s okay, because the pilgrims and the Wampanoag didn’t actually eat turkey together. However, a tribe that lived in the southern Rocky Mountains recognized a turkey foot in the sky near Cygnus.