I was out for a walk the other night during a new moon and crystal clear sky.
I happened to look up, and WOW! There was the Milky Way, the “backbone of the sky,” in all its glory. We need to look up more often!
It is hard to put it into perspective, but the Milky Way is our home, our galaxy. We live here among the 400 billion stars, dust, and gasses that compose the Milky Way. The enormity of it all is even is even more pronounced when you consider that our Milky Way is just one of perhaps a billion galaxies in the universe.
The stars in the Milky Way are so far away that all we see is a milky patch of sky above us. Our solar system is close to the galactic plane of the Milky Way, so when you observe it at night, it roughly divides the sky into two equal hemispheres.
The Milky Way is no small neighborhood. From the sun to the center of the Milky Way is about 30,000 light years, and our solar system is about one-half of the way out from the center. Our nearest spiral galaxy (M31) in the constellation Andromeda is two million light years away. That is a long way; in fact, I don’t think you can get there from here.
As you might expect, the Milky Way has been a part of many cultures mythology and spirituality. According to at least one source, the Lakota referred to the Milky Way as the “Spirit Way.” The Spirit Way continuously moved around in the sky to avoid the bad spirits. Good spirits, however, were guided to the Spirit Way by the wind.
The origin of the term Milky Way is based on Greek mythology. In Greek mythology, Hera is the older sister and wife of Zeus. Although there is apparently more than one version of the origin, all have the Milky Way forming from milk from Hera’s breast. One version has a spilling occurring while suckling Heracles, while another version has it commemorating the milk of Hera. There are probably other versions as well.
The next opportunity you get, take a few moments to gaze up at the Milky Way and consider the mythology and spirituality associated with it. Then consider the scientific aspects of it. It is an amazing place all the way around.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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