Cold fire

Overheard in a local check-out line: “We just didn’t have a fall this year.”

Boots OsageOh, but we did. It was an autumn rich with analogous pigments running up and down the warm side of the color wheel. Northwest Ohio had a Fall on fire. Fortunately, the fire wasn’t a consuming inferno like the one raging through the Great Smokey Mountains and points around, though it is dry here. Cranberry Run doesn’t run and the old quarry bed is hollow with one soft, spring-fed spot near its center. Chewed bits of osage orange are scattered on the east bank.

Those bits are a concern, not because they’ll harm the chewer but because quite a few have been chewed and it’s not even half way through December. Osage oranges (also called hedge apples) aren’t a menu choice for native mammals around here, according to tropical ecologist Dan Janzen of the University of Pennsylvania and Paul Martin, a paleoecologist at the University of Arizona,  scientists who teamed up to develop the concept of ecological anachronisms.

Those honeylocust pods and osage oranges that still cling to their mothers stand out as deep purple and chartreuse highlights among bare branches. At night, tree branches spiderweb toward the stars, or as is the case tonight, into heavy clouds pushed by wind so strong that it’s snowing sideways. This morning, stars shown in that sky. As I ran down the road before dawn, Orion was still trying to grab the handle of the Big Dipper as the Hunter’s legs slipped below the horizon line to the other side of the world. This weekend, the white reflected blaze of the Cold Moon will hide all but both of these constellations brightest stars.

If you join us in the back tallgrass field for the December 10 Cold Moon hike, you’ll appreciate the brilliance of this, unless partly cloudy predictions turn to mostly cloudy. Cloud cover seems likely, but we may venture out anyhow.

But before the clouds move in, we can appreciate the cold fire that builds most evenings of late, in full view of Red Fox Cabin’s front porch.


What’s Your Sign?

Group in Field

Alicia and Andrew Phillips review a winter star chart before leaving Red Fox Cabin for the trails.

Alicia and Andrew Phillips review a winter star chart before leaving Red Fox Cabin for the trails.

Astronomers have posited that if you were to count each and every grain of sand on all of the world’s beaches, you still wouldn’t come close to the number of stars in the sky. As a matter of fact, it’s suggested that you’d have to multiply that number by ten before you’d even come close. So it should come as no surprise, then, that the human imagination has configured the stars into any number of shapes over the thousands of years that we’ve been staring skyward. This past Saturday night, a group of participants in The Quarry Farm’s first Star Walk had the opportunity to view a few of these constellations.

It was nearly a perfect night for such an event. Although cloud cover had made star-gazing next to impossible for most of the week, a cold front moved in late Saturday afternoon and swept the sky clear. And while still chilly, the woods that surround the big back field provided a windbreak and pulled the teeth of the worst of the cold. While the wind howled outside the preserve, some stargazers even removed an outer layer.

Mike Erchenbrecher looks to the stars

Mike Erchenbrecher looks to the stars

Mike Erchenbrecher, an award-winning retired Franklin County science teacher and avid amateur astronomist, escorted more than a dozen people through the woods and back to the big eleven-acre field where we all turned our faces up. Mike immediately pointed out the Hunter’s two dogs, Canis Major, the big dog, and Procyon, the little dog, and then the Hunter himself, Orion, with his belt of three stars. His finger traced a giant W as he talked about Cassiopeia, the Queen, who is forever chased by Cepheus, the King. And then, of course, there were the zodiacal constellations. At this time of year, the most readily recognizable of such is Gemini, with its two bright stars, Castor and Pollux. Taurus is also recognizable, as well as Cancer.

Some closeups of what we saw:

  • The constellation Cygnus the Swan, which contains Cygnus X-1, the first object identified as a probable black hole
  • jupmoon4Jupiter and its moons*…we could make out a moon on either side of bright Jupiter overhead.
  • Orion NebulaThe Orion Nebula** below Orion’s Belt appeared to us as a hazy spot.
  • Core of Andromeda GalaxyOur Milky Way was outshown by the half moon, but the Andromeda galaxy** was visible to the north.



Mike handed out star charts and independent-study over hot chocolate and cookies. Here are satellite passes for the next few days:

International Space Station

Brightness                 Start                 Highest point                 End                 Pass type
                [Mag]                 Time                 Alt.                 Az.                 Time                 Alt.                 Az.                 Time                 Alt.                 Az.
20 Jan -0.8 06:11:53 13° N 06:11:53 13° N 06:13:03 10° NNE Visible
21 Jan -0.9 06:56:32 10° NNW 06:58:23 14° N 07:00:13 10° NE Visible
22 Jan -0.8 06:08:04 13° N 06:08:04 13° N 06:09:28 10° NNE Visible
23 Jan -1.2 06:52:31 11° NNW 06:54:49 18° NNE 06:57:12 10° ENE Visible
24 Jan -0.9 06:04:09 15° N 06:04:14 15° N 06:06:16 10° NE Visible
25 Jan -1.8 06:48:34 13° NNW 06:51:01 29° NNE 06:53:57 10° E Visible
26 Jan -1.4 06:00:13 21° NNE 06:00:27 21° NNE 06:03:04 10° ENE Visible
27 Jan 0.1 05:11:53 11° NE 05:11:53 11° NE 05:12:04 10° ENE Visible
27 Jan -3.0 06:44:40 18° NW 06:46:56 62° NNE 06:50:11 10° ESE Visible
28 Jan -2.2 05:56:22 37° NNE 05:56:25 37° NNE 05:59:30 10° E Visible
29 Jan 0.0 05:08:06 13° ENE 05:08:06 13° ENE 05:08:37 10° E Visible
29 Jan -3.0 06:40:53 24° WNW 06:42:33 50° SW 06:45:44 10° SE Visible

Iridium Flares
OK, so what’s an iridium flare? Iridium flares are relatively new ultra bright objects in the sky, produced by the glancing reflection of the sun’s rays off a particular type of satellite–the Iridium satellite. Because the main mission antenna are pointing towards Earth, at predictable points in their orbit, they pickup the sun’s glare and direct it towards the Earth, producing the “flash”. Because they flash so quickly, here are the dates and times to look fast:

Time                     Brightness                     Altitude                     Azimuth                 Satellite                 Distance to flare centre                 Brightness at flare centre                 Sun altitude
Jan 22, 18:18:55 -0.5 31° 198° (SSW) Iridium 46 33 km (W) -7.0 -7°
Jan 23, 18:12:57 -2.6 31° 200° (SSW) Iridium 49 17 km (W) -6.9 -6°
Jan 23, 19:48:44 -0.9 34° 155° (SSE) Iridium 58 34 km (W) -7.6 -24°
Jan 24, 19:42:42 -3.7 35° 156° (SSE) Iridium 55 14 km (W) -7.6 -22°
Jan 25, 19:36:36 -0.1 34° 155° (SSE) Iridium 31 40 km (E) -7.6 -21°

For these and other updates realted to satellites (natural and human-made):

To find out where the International Space Station is in relation to you, enroll at to get alerts for your specific area

Find yourself looking at the night sky with your cell phone in hand? Use to “GoogleSky” to help you navigate the view.

* Michael Stegina/Adam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF

** Satellite images taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) aboard NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope