Skywatch for the week of February 5, 2023
Mon Feb 5, 2024 KEPLER THE HITCHIKER
On February 4th, 1600, a poor math teacher from the town of Gratz was dropped off in front of the home of a wealthy nobleman. Johannes Kepler had hitched a ride with Baron Hoffman, Councilor to Rudolph the Second, Emperor of Bohemia. Kepler had been invited by the astronomer Tycho Brahe to work with him at his observatory in the Castle of Benatek outside Prague. Brahe was also a nobleman who had been kicked out of his island observatory in Denmark. Before that happened, though, he had amassed a lot of really good observations of star and planet positions. Kepler stayed with Brahe for about a year and a half. Then in October of 1601 Brahe died and Kepler acquired his observations. The data collected on the planet Mars enabled him to discover the elliptical nature of its orbit. And all this from a shared carriage ride that ended 424 years ago.
Tue Feb 6, 2024 MOON IN CONJUNCTION WITH VENUS
Tomorrow morning before sunrise, you should be able to find the old crescent moon above the eastern horizon. Nearby it you should also find a brilliant star. That “star” is actually the planet Venus. Once a month, the moon passes by our nearest neighboring planet, and this time around, both will only be visible together for an hour or so before dawn. When the sun does rise, see how long you can still see the two as the day begins. Any planet that appears in the predawn eastern sky is called a “morning star,” and there are also two more of these “morning stars” below Venus, hugging the southeastern horizon. Beneath Venus is the planet Mars, appearing as a red star, while right on the horizon is the planet Mercury. But both will be so low in the sky that you’ll likely not see them!
Wed Feb 7, 2024 CLYDE TOMBAUGH
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 along the eastern border of the constellation Sagittarius. After Tombaugh’s discovery, Planet X was given the name Pluto - in mythology, the brother of Jupiter and god of the far-flung underworld. Tombaugh died in 1997. In 2006, the New Horizons probe was launched to Pluto. New Horizons reached Pluto in July, 2015 and sent back incredible pictures of this distant world, as well as its five moons.
Thu Feb 8, 2024 JULES VERNE
The French science fiction writer Jules Verne was born on February 8th, 1828. He wrote about traveling in outer space, "From the Earth to the Moon.” In his novel Verne envisioned the launch taking place in Florida. After rounding the moon the three space travelers splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean, where a ship picked them up - all this a hundred years before we actually went to the moon. In a sense, traveling to our nearest neighbor in space 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. Now, finally, it looks like we may be going back to the moon with project Artemis.
Fri Feb 9, 2024 SIRIUS
There are many bright stars in winter’s early evening sky. In the southeast, down and to the left of the constellation Orion, there’s a star 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 star does twinkle, owing to our earth’s atmosphere, which causes the star to flicker 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. With Sirius, it's a little of both - a big, white-hot star, very close to us, a mere 54 trillion miles away.