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Skywatch for the week of February 1, 2021




High in the northern sky this evening there is a somewhat obscure constellation called Auriga, the Charioteer, in legend and myth, an early king of Athens, the son of the blacksmith god Hephaestus or Vulcan, and the inventor of the chariot. Another story portrays him as Phaeton, whose father was the sun god Helios, and who drove the solar chariot on a reckless path across the sky. Now if you're good at imagining constellation shapes, you'll immediately see Auriga in all his glory - a man, driving a chariot, while holding on to a whip in one hand, and a bunch of small goats in the other. But if you have that kind of imagination, then I probably didn't have to tell you all that. For the rest of us, Auriga looks like a pentagon shape - a five-sided figure of stars, marked by a bright yellow star - Capella, the head of the charioteer. Look for the goat kids also, a few tiny bright stars just to the south of Capella.


Tue Feb2 2021 GROUNDHOG’S DAY – crossquarter day

Today is Candlemass Day, celebrating the presentation of Jesus in the temple and Mary's purification, as observed in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. This is also the midpoint of the winter, and, according to an old saying, “If Candlemass be fair and bright, Come Winter, have another flight; if Candlemass brings clouds and rain, Go, Winter and come not again.” So paradoxically, sunny weather is bad, and cloudy weather is a good harbinger. From this came our observance of Groundhog's Day. According to folklore, if a woodchuck sees his shadow on Candlemass Day, we get six more weeks of winter. Which of course is untrue, because winter does not officially end until 12:15 PM, Eastern Daylight Savings Time on March 20th, when the sun's rays fall most directly on the earth's equator. Anything else you hear is just a lot of groundhogwash.


Wed Feb 3 2021 from Wed Feb 12, 2020 SIRIUS

There are many bright stars in winter’s early evening sky; most of them can be found in the south, in and near the constellation Orion. The very brightest star is in the southeast, and it’s called Sirius, a name derived from the Greek “seirios,” which means, scorching, or sparkling. So you could say Sirius is the star you meant when you recited “Twinkle, Twinkle” as a kid. This brilliant white star does twinkle, owing to the effects of our earth’s atmosphere, which cause its image to dance and flash. Sirius is also called the Dog Star, because it's supposed to mark the nose of the Big Dog in the sky, Canis Major. Stars have different brightnesses. Some are bright because they're close to us; others are bright because they're either hotter or bigger. In the case of Sirius, it's a little of both - a big, white-hot star, very close to us – only nine light years, or 54 trillion miles away.



Clyde Tombaugh, born on February 4th, 1906, was just 24 years old in 1930, when he discovered a planet beyond Neptune, dubbed Planet X. He found it on one of thousands of photographs of starfields, in Gemini the Twins. This constellation is visible in the east after sunset tonight, but Planet X has since wandered off into the other half of the sky, and can now be found in the constellation Sagittarius. After Tombaugh’s discovery, a naming contest was held: the winning entry for the newly found world was Pluto - in mythology, the brother of Jupiter and god of the far-flung underworld. Tombaugh died in 1997, just nine years before the New Horizons probe was launched to Pluto, and the same year – 2006 - that the International Astronomical Union voted to downgrade Pluto to dwarf planet status. New Horizons reached Pluto in July, 2015 and sent back incredible pictures of this distant world, as well as its five moons.



The French science fiction writer Jules Verne was born on February 8th, 1828. He wrote of journeying to the earth’s center, and of circumnavigating the world in a submarine; and he also wrote, "From the Earth to the Moon," all about an "impossible" voyage of a three-man "space capsule" to our lunar neighbor. In his novel Verne envisioned the launch taking place in Florida. After rounding the moon the space travelers splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean, where a ship picked them up - all this a hundred years before we actually went there. In a sense, traveling to the moon has once again become an impossibility. The last manned moon mission was in 1972. In 2006, NASA’s Constellation project was established to return men, and women, to the moon by the year 2020, but in 2010 that mission was cancelled by the last administration; now, finally, it looks like we’re going back to the moon.