Status Report

The Sky This Week: 29 Jan – 4 Feb 2003

By SpaceRef Editor
January 30, 2003
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The Moon returns to the evening skies by the end of the week, providing pleasing views of the thin crescent in the twilight hours. New Moon occurs on February 1st at 3:48 am Eastern Standard Time. Luna climbs quickly through the dim stars of the autumnal constellations, which are now relegated to the early evening hours.

February 2nd marks a special day in the astronomical year. Many of us will awaken early on Sunday to learn if a large North American rodent in a small town in Pennsylvania emerged from its burrow to spy its shadow. The groundhog’s prognostication will determine our collective mood for the rest of the winter, whatever length it turns out to be. This quaint tradition has roots in medieval Europe, when serfs paid rent to their feudal lords. The dates for these payments were fixed by the stars, and were rendered on the dates of the beginnings and mid-points of the astronomical seasons. The mid-points were known as “cross-quarter days”, and the traditions surrounding a few of them made the passage to America with immigrants. Groundhog Day is one such date, midway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox. We still unwittingly observe two others, May Day and Halloween. The fourth cross-quarter day, Lammas, has disappeared from most traditional calendars.

Early evening skywatchers can spot yellow-hued Saturn high in the south as darkness falls. The ringed planet stands just above the head of Orion, the sky’s most recognized constellation. Saturn lies in the center of the Great Winter Circle, an asterism made up of 9 of the 25 brightest stars in the sky. While he may be outshone by a number of these stars, Saturn dazzles the eye when seen in a small telescope. I had a spectacular view of his wonderful rings through a 50 year-old 3-inch telescope last weekend, and even a small spotting scope will show you that there’s something very unusual about this distant frozen planet.

By the end of evening twilight, most people will now easily spot Jupiter rising in the east. The giant planet reaches opposition on the 2nd at around 4:00 am. He’ll rise at sunset and set at sunrise for several days around this date, and late night skywatchers will have several hours to enjoy him as he beams down from the barren starfields of Cancer, the Crab. Jupiter is another treat for the telescope, and the 3-inch easily revealed the famous Great Red Spot, which seems to be making a long-awaited comeback to prominence.

In the pre-dawn sky, go out at around 6:45 am and look to the southeast. You’ll see the dazzling glow of Venus dominating the skyline, but take the time to look for two more planets as well. About 20 degrees to the right and above Venus you’ll see a pair of dimmer ruddy objects. The upper one is Mars, the lower one is Antares, the ‘rival of Mars’ in the constellation Scorpius. Going the opposite direction from Venus will bring you to Mercury, which reaches his greatest western elongation from the Sun on the 4th.

SpaceRef staff editor.