The magic of October 4 in the History of Astronomy: this week on The Storyteller's Night Sky

Oct 1, 2018

Every once in awhile there’s a particular line up that allows for a convergence of things historic and astronomic, and here’s how it happens this first week of October, 2018:

First, this week marks the 61st anniversary of the launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, on October 4th in 1957. Sputnik completed 1440 orbits of the Earth in three weeks before its batteries died and it went silent. Two months later, Sputnik fell through Earth’s atmosphere with little incident, and though it was no larger than a basketball, it instigated an international mood of competition rather than collaboration in the space race ofthe following decade. 

Because Sputnik was so momentous, the United Nations chose the anniversary of its launch to pass a resolution in 1999 declaring October 4th as the start of an annual “World Space Week”, in order to celebrate how science and technology contribute to the betterment of the human condition.

This year, October 4th also happens to be the date that the planet Venus begins its once every 19-month retrograde, which means the planet of love and beauty begins its westward motion as though the goddess is diving Sunward.

But that’s not all. Also around October 4th, the Parker Solar Probe that was just launched in August will sweep by Venus, to boost its momentum for its first pass close to the Sun, which will happen in November.

One of the most fascinating things about this concurrence of events~the Sputnik launch, World Space Week, Venus’ retrograde, and the close approach of the Parker Solar Probe~is that all four of these things occur on a date that marked a certain “end of time” several centuries ago, when, in the 1580s, Pope Gregory XIII instituted his calendar reform by taking 11 days out of the calendar. When did Gregory institute his change? On October 4th! On that date in 1582, the old calendar ended and when they woke up the next day, it was October 15th!