Make it a heavenly valentine

Once again Valentine’s Day is upon us. With Valentine’s falling on Wednesday night this year I know many of you are celebrating in advance this weekend. Without a doubt, Valentine’s Day is great for greeting card and candy sales, florists, restaurants, jewelers, media folks, and many others. Even though a great number of folks, including yours truly, see it as a “forced” commercial holiday, you still have to celebrate it with that special someone.

All the usual gifts and that romantic dinner are great, but if you want to make Valentine’s 2018 really heavenly I know a way, and it won’t drain your wallet. Arrange a date with the one you love, or the one you are trying to love, under the stars, maybe after dinner. I know it’s winter, but with the right combination of sweaters, winter coats, and hats, along with a whole lot of snuggling, you’ll be set. You certainly don’t have to stay out all night, and after you’re done a fireplace or a late nightcap will round out a stellar evening!

Pack some reclining lawn chairs and warm beverages and head out to the countryside where you can really see the stars, or just go out to a dark part of your backyard or even a city park, but avoid those streetlights! Get a map of the February evening skies. Check out last week’s Starwatch column for the February star map or you can download one from my website www.lynchandthestars.com.

Shortly after sunset, around 5:30 p.m., gaze toward the low southwest sky Marshall sky and see if you can spot the planet Venus. Normally Venus is a very bright star-like object, but it’s much fainter when it’s barely above the horizon. The window of opportunity isn’t very long for seeing Venus because it will slip below the horizon by around 6:20. Consider this a celestial love challenge because this next-door neighbor planet of Earth is named after the Roman goddess of love. How about that for starting off a romantic night of stargazing? Venus is the second planet out from the sun, and this week it’s nearly 160 million miles from Earth. Venus is nearly the same size as the Earth, right around 8,000 miles in diameter, but that’s where the comparison ends. There’s nothing lovely about the goddess of love. It’s your basic celestial hell hole. Venus is so bright because it’s covered by a very thick cloud deck, which is a very good reflector of the sun’s light. Planets have no light of their own so the only way we see them is due to sunlight reflecting off of them, and the cloud shroud of Venus does this very well!

Underneath these poisonous clouds made up of carbon dioxide, sulfur, and other wonderful stuff, the temperature at the surface of Venus can be as high as 900 degrees F. It’s even hotter than Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, because the thick clouds of Venus are producing a greenhouse effect that’s literally gone mad. Solar radiation can reach the surface, but outgoing terrestrial radiation is very slow to leak out of the clouds, so global warming is an undisputed fact on our Venusian neighbor. It’s hardly a paradise!

After you’re done with Venus and Mercury turn your celestial sights to the southeast toward the constellation Orion the Hunter, my favorite constellation. On the upper left corner of Orion, above the three bright stars in a row that make up the hunter’s belt, is what I call “the star of love.” I’m talking about Betelgeuse, the second brightest star of Orion. Betelgeuse is an Arabic name that roughly translates to English as “Armpit of the Great One.” That’s right, Betelgeuse marks the armpit of Orion.

So what does Betelgeuse have to do with love? The answer is three fold. First of all, you can easily see it’s a distinctly orange-red hue, which gives it that Valentine look. Secondly, Betelgeuse behaves like a beating heart, only a lot slower. Betelgeuse pulsates in size in a six-year cycle, as it goes from over 400 million miles in diameter to almost a billion miles in girth! Thirdly, Betelgeuse is a big heart star, because even at its smallest it could cram over more than 150 million of our closest star, the Sun, inside of it!

Some other great celestial valentine treasures are the constellations Cassiopeia the Queen and Cepheus the King. In February the royal pair is hanging in the north-northwestern sky. I don’t have space to share the entire Greek mythology story. The gist of it is that Queen Cassiopeia, the queen of ancient Ethiopia, ticked off Hera, the queen of the Greek gods, because Cassiopeia claimed she was much more beautiful than Hera was. Hera tied her up in her throne and flung her up into the sky to be an eternal prisoner of the heavens. In fact, the bright constellation looks like an upside down W or a right side up M. That W or M is supposed to resemble Cassiopeia’s throne. King Cepheus was very upset and couldn’t bear being on Earth without his wife. He begged Zeus, the king of the gods, to hurl him up into the sky right next to Cassiopeia. At first Zeus resisted, but Cepheus wore him down with all his whining and crying and not being able to take it anymore. Zeus catapulted the king to the heavens. To this night, Cassiopeia and Cepheus are unwilling prisoners of the night sky, but very willing prisoners of love! By the way, Cepheus the constellation doesn’t look anything like a king, but rather like a house with a steep roof pointing to the upper left. Cepheus isn’t as bright as Cassiopeia, but is still pretty easy to search for with the one you love!

If it’s cloudy this coming Wednesday night, postpone that celestial date with your sweetheart. Hopefully you’ll spend many future nights under the stars together!

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul and is author of the book, “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications available at bookstores at http://www.adventurepublications.net.

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