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The Sky This Week, 2014 January 28 - February 4

You're not really going to watch the Super Bowl, are you?
IC434_140101_0400_02small.jpg

IC434, the "Horsehead Nebula", & NGC 2024, the "Flame Nebula" in Orion
Imaged 2014 January 1 from Morattico, VA


The Moon plays hard-to-get this week, visible just before sunrise as the week opens and just after sunset as it closes. In between, the second New Moon for the month of January occurs on the 30th at 4:39 pm Eastern Standard Time. If you’re up before the Sun on the morning of the 29th, look for the very thin lunar crescent low in the southeastern sky at around 6:30 am. The lunar sliver will be about six degrees below and to the left of bright Venus. At 6:30 pm on the 31st, look for a similarly slender day-old Moon in the southwest, about five degrees above the horizon. Look another five degrees to the left and slightly up to spot the elusive planet Mercury.

Forget the Super Bowl; the truly significant event on February 2nd is Groundhog Day, one of our more popular "semi-holidays". It is similar in character to Halloween in that most everybody is aware of it and "observes" it in some fashion, but they’re not really sure why they do. We’re all familiar with the annual ritual of a group of nattily-dressed gentlemen in top hats and tails gathered on a small hilltop in rural Pennsylvania to await the outcome of a certain large indigenous rodent’s ability to "see his shadow" and therefore predict the coming of spring. Once a year atop Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, PA the eyes of the world settle on Phil the Groundhog as dawn breaks. If Phil casts a shadow, then there will be six more weeks of winter, and if he doesn’t, well, there will still be six more weeks of winter! Groundhog day falls mid-way between the winter solstice and the Vernal equinox, and since the average season is 12 weeks long the answer either way is a sure bet. Despite the modern exploitation, the roots of Groundhog Day date back well over a thousand years to a Celtic feast called Imbolc, which celebrated the coming of spring and the beginning of the "lambing season". The spread of Christianity then linked it to the feast known as Candlemas which celebrated the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple 40 days after his birth. This was one of the so-called "cross-quarter" days of ancient timekeeping tradition, which, along with the quarterly seasonal markers, were the dates when serfs paid rent to their feudal lords. Halloween is the other cross-quarter day that’s still widely observed here in America, and Europeans still observe May Day. Lammas, the final cross-quarter day, falls on August 1st, which is the traditional start of summer vacation days in many parts of the world.

Shortly after sunset look to the southwestern sky for the hard-to-find planet Mercury, which reaches greatest elongation east of the Sun on the 31st. This is the first of two good evening apparitions for the fleet planet. Start looking with binoculars about half an hour after sunset. Mercury is currently moving through the sparsely populated constellations of autumn and will be the brightest object visible in this part of the sky. The very slender crescent of a day-old Moon will be nearby after sunset on the 31st.

The mid-evening sky now finds Orion and his cohorts from the Great Winter Circle crossing the meridian during the prime skywatching hours. Dominating all of these bright stars is the gold-tinted glow of Jupiter. Old Jove can be seen shortly after sunset high in the east, and throughout the hours before midnight he’s well-placed for telescopic viewing. Small telescopes and binoculars will easily show the planet’s four large Galilean moons. As you increase the size of the telescope, more detail becomes apparent in the planet’s turbulent atmosphere. A good 6- to 8-inch instrument on a night with steady air will show considerable detail in the dark parallel cloud bands, and the planet’s rapid rotation will continually change the view. Look for the famous Great Red Spot crossing the planet’s disc at around 10:00 pm on the evening of the 30th and 7:30 pm on the evening of the 2nd.

Three other planets are now visible in the morning sky if you feel like braving the chill to spot them. Mars is just west of the meridian at 6:00 am, with his distinctive ruddy tint contrasting nicely with the blue hue of the star Spica, now just five degrees to the red planet’s south. A bit farther to the east is yellow Saturn, which currently forms a triangle with the second-magnitude stars Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali in the obscure Zodiacal constellation of Libra, the Scales. Finally, bright Venus may be found low in the southeast in the gathering glow of morning twilight. With a little effort and an early morning alarm you should have a great week to spot all of the planets known to the ancients.

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