Stargazing can be a lonely preoccupation. Sometimes its so hard to convince your loved ones to travel to the middle of nowhere in the dark to see a bunch of sparkly things, as beautiful as they may be.
Most seasoned stargazers have spent an evening or twenty alone in the middle of some farmer’s field, lost in the vastness of space and, frankly, scared out of their minds.
The sounds of the night are the scariest part — the rustle of a corn stalk can be the sure sign that Bigfoot is approaching stealthily through the darkness.
Come on, it could have been Bigfoot. I don’t usually stop to notice any details. I’m too busy running for the car to see the blood dripping from its hideous, razor-sharp fangs.
Take heart, solitary stargazers. This time of year, the patron star of lonely astronerds afraid of giant, beast-like humanoids sits low and forlorn in the south. It’s Fomalhaut, the “Solitary One.”
Look directly south around midnight and you’ll see a single star amidst a large patch of darkness. The other stars in Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, are too faint to see from all but the darkest rural skies. Fomalhaut sticks out like Bigfoot’s big toe.
The star’s name comes from the Arabic expression “Fum al Hut,” which means the “Mouth of the Fish.” It is traditionally associated with the coming of autumn and the loss of summer. Add to that its isolated location, and you have one depressing star.
Because it never gets very high above the horizon, it often takes on a dim orange cast as its light is filtered through the thick layer of air close to the horizon.
Don’t let appearances fool you. Fomalhaut is a hot, young star that burns with an almost pure, white flame.
It has the distinction of being one of the first stars around which a disk of cool dust and gas was discovered. Astronomers believe that such disks eventually form into planets like those in our own solar system. Fomalhaut’s dusty disk was discovered in 1983 by IRAS, the Infra-Red Astronomical Satellite, which was sent into orbit to examine not the light, but the heat, emanating from the stars.
In 1908, astronomers announced the existence of a planet orbiting just inside the outer debris ring. It is massive, at least as large as Neptune and perhaps three times the size of our largest planet, Jupiter. Fomalhaut b, as it is officially called, was the first-ever extra-solar planet photographed in visible light by the Hubble Space Telescope.
In 2014, the International Astronomical Union began public voting to give informal names of some of the extra-solar planets. In December 2016, they announced that Fomalhaut’s planet would be forever known as Dagon.
Most people have heard the story of Sampson, the great Israelite hero and strong man who was seduced by the Philistine woman Delilah. However, they don’t know that the story has an astronomical connection.
Sampson derived his strength from his body hair, and men of his clan were not permitted to shave or cut. Delilah learned his secret and had his hair shaved off. The weakened Sampson was at the mercy of his Philistine enemies, who had his eyes gouged out.
The Philistines decided to offer a sacrifice to the fish-god Dagon in honor of their triumph. It’s hard to blame them. Sampson had slain more than a few Philistines in his time.
So the Philistines had an enormous debauch in Dagon’s temple in the town of Gaza. To add insult to injury, they paraded the blinded and weakened Sampson before the assembled multitude. Summoning his last reserve of strength, Sampson pushed on the pillars of the temple, and managed to take thousands more Philistines with him as the falling temple debris crushed him.
Dagon is none other than the star Fomalhaut. The Philistines worshipped the starry representation of the god at their temple at Gaza. The IAU voters couldn’t rename the star, so they very rightly restored its Biblical connection by renaming its planet.
The temple’s rubble has long since turned to dust, but the star remains as a symbol of Sampson’s power. At the time of his death, Sampson was as alone and isolated as the star. Surrounded by his enemies, he was able to summon the power to triumph.
I hope it’s clear this weekend. Saturn is still visible at our Friday night program, and I’ll be there for that, of course. But Saturday night is free. It just seems like a good time to stand alone under the stars and watch Fomalhaut flicker in the south. Watch out, Bigfoot. Take heed, Dagon. Here I come.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.