Starstruck Tonight (Winter version)

What follows is the text of Starstruck Tonight, the Winter sky version, my first and favorite planetarium show produced when I directed the OBU Planetarium. The only document I have is a draft in a very old version of MacWrite or perhaps Microsoft Word, which won’t open in modern versions. Hopefully this summer I’ll be able to convert the word processing file using the History of Science Collections’ computer collection. This summer I’ll make a renewed effort also to to recover the soundtrack of the show, or at least takes of some of the different paragraphs below. So with a lot of luck, and with the help of Robin Noad and the Fine Art Media Resource Center, maybe we can extract the audio narration from the old Foster RD-8’s. If so, I will revise these posts here with audio files, and with images indicating the visuals corresponding to each paragraph in the text. The final form of the text also differed somewhat from the following; this version dates to before the final fact-checking and polishing of the prose. Can these voices live again?

Candace Magruder narrated the show. If you were one of the many readers of the quotations, would you please drop me a line so that I can include a “Voice of…” credit after each quotation? Or let me know if you remember who read any particular quote. Please also let me know if you worked in the planetarium during the time when we wrote or produced this show. Thanks!


Introduction of the star projector

A planetarium is a magical place, brought to life by the odd-looking machine you see in the center of the room. That complicated device is a star projector, which places images of the stars, Sun, Moon, and planets on the dome overhead, just as they would appear at night from anywhere on Earth, on any day of the year, at any time past, present, or future. In a very real sense, then, the planetarium is a time machine, and as we tour the sky as it appears tonight we shall also travel back in time to hear some ancient stories of the stars.

photo: star projector

Introduction of the stars

In modern times it is possible to live one’s life without ever really noticing the stars. Although we stay up later than ever before, our roofs, street lights, televisions, and Oklahoma haze conspire to hide the enchantments of the night sky. Carlyle spoke for all of us when he lamented…

“Why did not somebody teach me the constellations, and make me at home in the starry heavens, which are always overhead, and which I don’t half-know to this day?”
(Voice of Bill Mitchell)

Common human heritage

Generations of humans have turned their eyes heavenward and made the starry vault a regular part of their lives, patterning earthly affairs after the symmetry and order of the stars. The medieval Islamic astronomer Al-Biruni observed:

“He whose roof is heaven, who has no other cover, over whom the stars continually rise and set in one and the same course, makes the beginnings of his affairs and his knowledge of time depend upon them.”

The night sky, the common heritage of humanity, need not be a stranger to us. Lord Byron wrote:

“The night hath been to me a more familiar face than that of man,
and in her starry shade of dim and solitary loveliness,
I learned the language of another world.”

With Longfellow may we come to say:

“Night interpreted to me
all its grace and mystery.”

Taurus the Bull

Taurus the Bull is easily spotted. Its head is the Hyades, a V-shaped cluster of stars.

His horns point outward from the V.

Aldebaran is the red eye of the Bull as he charges down upon us.

In the fourth millenium before Christ, the ancient Akkadians recognized a band of constellations they called the Furrow of Heaven, ploughed by the Bull of Heaven, as mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh. At that time Taurus the Bull contained the Sun on the first day of spring.

Like bright jewels on the back of Taurus sit the Pleiades, a tiny cluster of brilliant stars.

Tennyson wrote:

“Many a night I saw the Pleiades
rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies
tangled in a silver braid.”

Most people can see 6 stars nowadays, but in antiquity 7 were visible. With binoculars or a telescope you can see many more.

In the year 1054 a massive star near the tip of the horn of Taurus exploded. This supernova explosion has

Orion the Hunter

Equally spectacular are three stars in a line which, at sunset in the autumn, appear to rise straight up on the horizon. These are the belt of Orion the Hunter.

Bluish Rigel is Orion’s left foot, the 7th brightest star in the sky. In a comical ballad called “The Star-Splitter,” Robert Frost described a man outdoors splitting firewood after the first frost of autumn:

“You know Orion always comes up sideways.
Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,
And rising on his hands, he looks in on me
Busy outdoors by lantern-light with something
I should have done by daylight, and indeed,
After the ground is frozen, I should have done
Before it froze, and a gust flings a handful
Of waste leaves at my smoky lantern chimney
To make fun of my way of doing things.”

Frost’s poetic tale reminds us that Orion’s rising on the eastern horizon at sunset is a marker of autumn. However, for early risers it is visible all summer.

Ancient Greeks marked the Mediterranean harvest seasons with Orion’s positions. The poet Hesiod admonished his nephew farmer to watch for the early summer rising of Orion at sunrise:

“Forget not, when Orion first appears,
To make your servants thresh the sacred ears…”

Late in summer, at the time of the grape harvest, Orion rises at midnight. And when Orion rises at sunset in autumn, sailors knew that the time had come to bring their ships to port:

“…then the winds war aloud,
And veil the ocean with a sable cloud:
Then round the bank, already haul’d on shore,
Lay stones, to fix her when the tempests roar…”

Since Orion’s belt of three bright stars lies upon the celestial equator, Orion is visible from every inhabited part of the globe.

A sword hanging from his belt at first sight looks like three stars… but the middle one is ill-defined. With binoculars you can tell that it is not a star, but a cloudy region, called the Great Orion Nebula. A powerful telescope reveals the nebula to be a giant cloud of luminous gas, a cosmic nursery where stars are now being born. Through the Hubble space telescope the Great Orion Nebula becomes a colorful and awesome spectacle, over 20,000 times larger?? than our solar system.

Orion’s right shoulder is Betelgeuse, a red giant that is one of the largest of stars in the sky. If Betelgeuse were our Sun, its surface would reach beyond the orbit of Mars!

Canis Major the Big Dog

Orion the Hunter appropriately faces the red eye of Taurus. His two hunting dogs follow behind:

The Big Dog or Canis Major, with the bright star Sirius.

And the Little Dog, or Canis Minor, with the bright star Procyon.

“What do you hunt, Orion,
This starry night?
The Ram, the Bull, and the Lion,
And the Great Bear, says Orion,
With my starry quiver and beautiful belt
I am trying to find a good thick pelt
To warm my shoulders tonight,
To warm my shoulders tonight.”

In Egyptian mythology, Orion was the abode of Osiris, a pharoah-god who was slain by his jackal-headed brother, Set. Osiris conquered death and, once resurrected, came to reside in Orion. His wife?, Isis, dwelt on Sirius.

Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, rises on the eastern horizon just before the Sun once each year. This following a period of complete invisibility lasting about 70 days (during which time it lies in the daytime sky). Egyptian inscriptions describe the last appearance of Sirius in the night sky as its death; its daytime invisibility as purification in the embalming house of the nether world; and its rising with the Sun as a resurrection. Accordingly they calibrated the process of mummification to this celestial cycle, completing it in exactly 70 days.

The pharoahs, so it was believed, began their journeys in the celestial realms with a visit to Osiris and Isis in the regions of Orion and Sirius. Many peoples have located their greatest gods here. Yet consider Solomon, who said when dedicating David’s temple:

“But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens—even the highest heaven—cannot contain you.”

The Winter Hexagon

The night sky of winter is dominated by a giant hexagon pattern. Start with Aldebaran in Taurus, pass on to Rigel in Orion, and come down to Sirius in Canis Major.

Continue upward to Procyon, in the Little Dog.

Trace on to Pollux and Castor, the two stars of Gemini, and past them to the top of the hexagon, bright yellow Capella, lying almost straight overhead, in the constellation Auriga the Charioteer. Auriga looks more like a pentagon than a Chariot, perched on top of the horns of Taurus.

The Winter Hexagon contains an unrivalled collection of stars:

  • Sirius, below, is the brightest star in the night sky.
  • Capella, above, is the 6th brightest.
  • Rigel is the 7th.
  • Procyon the 8th.
  • Betelgeuse the 10th.
  • Aldebaran, Pollux, and Castor are also among the night’s 25 brightest stars.

“Sharp is the night, but stars with frost alive
Leap off the rim of Earth across the dome.
It is a night to make the heavens our home…”
(George Meredith, “Winter Heavens”)

Gemini the Twins

The two bright stars Castor and Pollux together form one vertex of the Winter Hexagon. To the Greeks, Castor and Pollux were the twin sons of Zeus and the mortal woman Leda. Homer’s Iliad tells how the beauty of their sister Helen “launched a thousand ships” in the Trojan war. With the oath “By Jiminy,” sailors revered the Gemini twins as the Protectors of ships. Castor, on the Capella side, is actually six stars in one, ceaselessly revolving around one another in an intricately-choreographed cosmic dance.

Leo the Lion

East of the Gemini twins lies Leo the Lion. Find the bowl of the Big Dipper. From the two stars on the handle-side, trace a line back to Leo and its bright star Regulus.

Regulus, the star of kings, is the point beneath a backward question mark. This backward question mark, or sickle, represents Leo’s mane.

His flank is a triangle of stars farther east.

Leo is perhaps as ancient a constellation as Taurus the Bull, and was associated with kings of Mesopotamian city states in the third millenium B.C.

Regulus, whose very name in Latin means royalty, obtained much of its significance as a prominent marker of the yearly path of the Sun. The Sun now passes through Leo in late August.

In mid-November every year, a shower of meteors originates from the sickle area of Leo. Meteors or “shooting stars” are the flaming trails of dust and debris left in the wake of a comet, burning up as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere.

One of the Ten Commandments of astronomers is never to build up false expectations for a meteor shower. Will the Leonid meteor shower put on a dramatic show this year? No. Most of the night nothing will happen, except your fingers and toes may grow cold. If the sky is clear, you may see 8 to 10 meteors per hour. If you are lucky, they may appear green or blue as well as white, and leave long-enduring trails.

Yet the Leonids were dazzling in 1833. Astronomer Agnes Clerke described that shower as follows:

“On the night of November 12–13, 1833, a tempest of falling stars broke over the Earth…. The sky was scored in every direction with shining tracks and illuminated with majestic fireballs. At Boston, the frequency of meteors was estimated to be about half that of flakes of snow in an average snowstorm. Their numbers… were quite beyond counting….”

Some of the meteors were said to be as bright as streaking full moons. The sudden and awful display prompted fervent prayers of repentance in the belief that the day of judgment was at hand.

Common heritage of humanity

The night sky is filled with hundreds of stories which remind us that a knowledge of the heavens has always been part of what makes us human. In the fifth century B.C., the Greek philosopher Empedokles answered one who asked him why he was alive:

“That I may behold the stars; take away the firmament, I will be nothing.”

A century later, Plato thought that humans were made to walk upright in order that we might comprehend the heavens.

A challenge to all of us is found in the Hebrew book of Job:

“Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades?
Can you loose the cords of Orion?
Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
or lead out the Bear with its cubs?
Do you know the laws of the heavens?”

The next time you reach to turn on the television, remember that the best show broadcast tonight may be the one taking place above your roof! Ralph Waldo Emerson reminded us of the spectacular sights available to anyone night after night:

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how men would adore them; and preserve for generations the remembrance of the City of God which had been shown. But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”

Seasonal changes

As the Earth flies through space on its yearly orbit, the constellations we see tonight will be replaced by the stars of another season.

Isaiah spoke of the faithful order of the changing heavens:

“To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
and calls them each by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.”

Shelly wrote,

“Heaven’s utmost deep
Gives up her stars, and like a flock of sheep
They pass before his eye, are number’d, and roll on.”


From night to night over the winter months remember to look up for the Winter Hexagon: Taurus, Orion, the Big Dog and Little Dog, Gemini, and Auriga. Watch for meteors, and look out for Leo.

Who knows what might happen? On a starry winter night as you stand outdoors, with gloved hands and steaming breath, stamping your feet to keep warm, you may discover that you hear far-off the music of the heavens, the universal heritage of humanity on this earth in space. Perhaps before your next visit to the planetarium, the winter universe will bend down to your own backyard, and leave you starstruck with the night.

old planetarium script, by Kerry Magruder
Console Action
Hercules Action
Presenter, Assistant, or
Pre-recorded narration.
Pertinent information

Turn on Video Projector
Pre-show setup (20 minutes before show setup).

MQ >>>Manual Cue<<>>Manual Cue<<>>Manual Cue<<>>Manual Cue<<>>Manual Cue<<>>Manual Cue<<>>Manual Cue<<<

Turn on the Flourescent peripheral lights to enable you to clean up the room. Turn off the rack and power panel as instructed elsewhere. Make sure that all lights are off, all power circuits are off, and all doors are locked before leaving!

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