"Eight stars of gold on a field of blue,” Are you singing yet? The song “Alaska’s Flag” starts with a description of our star-studded flag. Pictured on the flag are the seven most prominent stars of the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and the North Star (Polaris).
Alaska’s flag predates statehood. Territorial Gov. George Parks thought having a flag would advance the cause of statehood, and in 1926 he initiated a contest to design a flag for Alaska. The winning design came from a seventh grader at a territorial school in Seward.
John Ben “Benny” Benson was born in Chignik and later was sent to Unalaska and then Seward as a resident of the Jessie Lee Home orphanage. The 13-year-old Alutiiq boy designed the flag with a blue background to represent the color of forget-me-not flowers and the Alaska sky.
Of the star motif, he wrote: “The North Star is for the future of the state of Alaska, the most northerly in the Union. The dipper is for the Great Bear — symbolizing strength.” When Alaska became a state in 1959, the iconic flag became the official state flag.
Family programs at the UA Museum of the North this month focus on stars. Stars have a prominent place both on our flag and in our daily life. We have entered into the season when dark skies dominate. As November begins, we have nearly eight hours of daylight in Fairbanks. By the end of the month, that dips to less than five.
The long dark hours of fall and winter make for easy night sky viewing and last well into March. By mid-March, day length reaches 12 hours per day and then begins to outpace the darkness. During the summer season, we transform into “the land of the midnight sun.” Then one star dominates our sky viewing: the sun.
The sun is the nearest star to Earth. It is 93 million miles away from Earth. If you were to drive to the sun traveling 60 miles per hour, it would take 175 years to get there. However, since light travels so much faster, sunlight only takes eight minutes to reach the Earth.
Our star, the sun, is the source of energy for life on Earth and keeps our solar system together with its gravity. There are billions of stars like our sun across the Milky Way galaxy. Stars come in different sizes and compositions. Our star is over 864,340 miles in diameter. Some stars are 1,500 times larger. And some are only 12.4 miles in diameter. Usually, the larger a star, the shorter its life.
Most stars last billions of years. Stars are born in dust clouds of galaxies. Stars are where elements like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen are made and distributed throughout space.
For thousands of years, humans have used stars for navigation. We can utilize stars easily seen from Earth for navigation. The Big Dipper — or the Big Bear, Ursa Major — as pictured on our flag, is prominent in northern skies.
Two stars in the dipper point to the North Star, Polaris, which is part of the Ursa Minor constellation, also known as the Little Dipper. Because Polaris is situated nearly directly over the Earth’s North Pole, it is the one star in the sky which appears fixed in place throughout the night. As the Earth rotates on its axis during a 24 hour period, the stars will appear to move around Polaris.
In different Alaska Native cultures, the rotation of the stars around Polaris is used to mark time and helps travelers find their way. In the summer, it is the position of the sun that serves this purposed. Navigators have taken advantage of stars to help them find their way for millennia.
Stars are also used as navigational tools by NASA scientists. Don Hampton, research associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute, studies space physics and the Earth’s upper atmosphere. He says, “The stars are a great way to confirm the direction that our cameras are viewing. The stars, for all intents and purposes, are fixed in the sky, and many people have spent lots of time and effort to figure out exactly where they are.”
With knowledge of the time and location of pictures taken and the well-known position of the stars, scientists can locate the aurora or tracer clouds emitted by rockets to calculate how winds in the atmosphere are behaving.
An upcoming rocket launch from UAF’s Poker Flat Research Range aims to determine how much nitrous oxide is in the upper atmosphere. This gas cannot be observed directly. Hampton, the optical science manager at Poker Flat, says that “it does not glow like some of the reactions that create oxygen. But one thing you can do is look at how much the nitrous oxide absorbs starlight at certain wavelengths. The more it absorbs the more nitrous oxide is between you and the star.” A stable bright star that can be pointed at during the rocket flight is key to the scientists’ calculations.
Stars have been important to human civilizations all around the world throughout time. They guide us and inspire us. Taking time to view the stars connects us to each other and to the mysteries of the universe.
Jennifer Arseneau is the education and public programs manager for the UA Museum of the North. She can be reached at 474-6948.
To try at home
• Star painting. Create your own starry scene using paints or markers. Include constellations you recognize or want to learn. Make stars of different colors. Hotter stars are bluer and cooler stars are redder.
• Ode to the sun. Discuss our nearest star, the sun. Without the sun, there would not be life on Earth. Show thanks for the sun with a poem or artwork. Challenge holiday guests to write a sun-themed haiku.
• Observe the sky. Look at the night sky. What patterns do you imagine in the stars?
If you go
Discover stars at UA Museum of the North’s hands-on programs in November.
• Early Explorers, for children 5 and younger, meet in the Creativity Lab from 10 a.m. to noon on Nov. 15 and 22.
• Teens are invited to participate in an ARTSci Workshop focused on optical illusions on Monday. Preregistration is required for the workshop at bit.ly/uamnartsci.
• At Family Day: Stars, from noon to 4 p.m. Nov. 23, guests can explore how different cultures view the sky, investigate how scientists study stars, make a solar viewer, create glow-in-the-dark artwork, and more. All ages are welcome and admission for children 14 and under is free on Family Days thanks to support from TOTE Maritime Alaska.
For more information about the museum’s programs and events, visit www.uaf.edu/museum or call 474-7505.