Heavenly Valentines, 2020
Valentine’s Day is coming. Love is in the air and the Marshall night sky! This year the celestial timing is almost right. I say almost because the full moon this month is this weekend, but not on Friday for Valentine’s Day. That would add to the romance, but maybe you can get your Valentine celebration going a little early this year, or at least give it a head start!
All full moons have nicknames that are either Native American, colonial American, or European in origin. The most commonly known name for a full moon in February is the “Snow Moon” for pretty obvious reasons. The Wishram Tribe in the Pacific Northwest has a name for the February full moon that I think is more appropriate for Valentine’s. They call it the “Shoulder to Shoulder Around the Fire Moon.” I think snuggling around a campfire with a full moon overhead does sound pretty good, as long as there isn’t too much wind chill!
Besides the full moon, there are many signs of love and romance in the starry skies, and this year we have a bonus. It’s the planet Venus, named after the Roman goddess of love. How’s that for starting a romantic evening of stargazing? Venus pops into view in the southwestern sky during evening twilight and you can’t miss it! It’s the brightest star-like object in the early evening sky. The goddess of love has some company this month. I don’t know if it’s a love interest, but the planet Mercury has been approaching Venus in the evening over the last few weeks. Right now it’s shining a little below and to the right of Venus. Mercury appears as a moderately bright star close to the southwestern horizon. You can easily see it with just your eyes. Make sure you gaze at the lovely planetary couple as soon as you can in the evening twilight before Mercury slips below the horizon.
In the southern evening sky, the majestic constellation Orion the Hunter is proudly holding court. Without too much imagination, you can see that the constellation outlines the torso of the mighty hunter. Three bright stars in a row make up Orion’s belt. To the upper left of the belt is a more brilliant star I like to call “the star of love.” I’m talking about Betelgeuse, the second brightest star of in Orion. Why do I call it the star of love? First of all, you can easily see its 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 about a six-year cycle. During that time it goes from about a half a million miles in diameter to almost a billion miles! Even at its smallest, you could fit over 160 million stars as big as our sun inside of it!
There are two pairs of constellations in the northern sky that are considered romantic. The first pair is Cassiopeia and Cepheus, the queen and king of ancient Ethiopia. This royal couple was a great example of the theory that opposites attract. They were very, very much in love with each other, but what a difference in personalities! Cepheus was a humble man and a really nice guy who really didn’t care all that much about being king. Cassiopeia, on the other hand, was as vain and power-hungry as they come. She would continuously boast of her beauty. One day she went way, way too far. She claimed that she was more beautiful than Hera, the queen of the gods. Hera went on a rage when she heard this and tore down from Mount Olympus. She got right into Cassiopeia’s face, tied her up in her throne, and flung her high into the sky. Cassiopeia is still tied on in her throne in the heavens in the W-shaped constellation we see in the night sky. Cepheus was distraught when he heard what happened. He begged Zeus, the king of the gods, to throw him up into the heavens next to his wife so they could be together forever! Cepheus the constellation is fainter than Cassiopeia’s and resembles a house with a very steep roof.
Just above the constellation Cassiopeia is a delightful celestial couple that’s absolutely wonderful to observe with a small telescope or even a pair of binoculars. It’s the Perseus double cluster, a pair of young clusters of stars over 7,000 light-years away. It’s one of the loveliest things you’ll ever see. By the way, just one light-year equals almost 6 trillion miles!
Another romantic pair of constellations is Perseus and Andromeda. Flying on his way back from killing the horrible monster Medusa, Perseus saw a beautiful young lady on a beach. A huge sea monster was approaching Andromeda with a great desire to make her his lunch. Perseus quickly flew down, grabbed Andromeda, and flew her to safety. He then found out that Andromeda was a princess and daughter of Cepheus and Cassiopeia. They fell deeply in love and married. Tragically, shortly after their honeymoon he was slain in a barroom swordfight. I wish that story had a happier ending
I sure hope that doesn’t happen to your sweetheart! I hope you spend many joyful nights together under the stars!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is also the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and at adventurepublications.