Now hopefully any January blues are well and truly dispersed by now and you are prepared to take full advantage of the dark February night sky. Although special events may be sparse within the shortest month of the year, maybe we can use February as you would a favourite book or movie. Just like reading your favourite Jane Austen novel for the hundredth time or sitting down to yet another Star Wars marathon, we can hunt the skies in February for some of the most impressive patterns and the most interesting objects that we can find in the chilly February darkness! And for any romantics out there, we are in the Valentines month so let’s mix some of the favourites together with the most romantic and beautiful objects and patterns that grace the night sky this month.
So let’s begin with a small history lesson in astronomy. You most likely know that the constellations we have in the sky today were created long ago by Babylonians and people in Mesopotamia, with Romans and Greeks adopting them years later, creating myths and legends about them to help remember them as well as adding a sense of drama to the night sky. When sifting through the many stories surrounding the constellations there is a real mixture of betrayal, death, epic battles, sorrow and most of all forbidden and difficult love stories that usually involve all of the aforementioned! Many of our favourite objects and constellations are flowing with the dramatic and tragic love stories that have, quite literally, been written in the stars!
To start us off we can look quite close to home for educational, unrequited love story surrounding the Moon and her constant admirer, the Sun. The Moon has been the subject of many myths and legends but a very sweet story is that the Sun was madly in love with the pale-faced Moon and wanted to marry her. The Moon was quite reluctant and came up with an idea that if the Sun could give her a gift that would fit her size she would marry him. Well the Sun got her the most beautiful Robe that anyone had ever seen, but it did not fit her. So the Sun got another in a different size but again, it didn’t fit. The Sun could not understand the Moon’s trick, that the Moon is a different size every day as she goes through her phases, from Full Moon to the New Moon, and to this day is still trying to find a cloak that will fit. So our Moon alone offers the romantic stargazers out there a fantastic valentine’s story. It is roughly 238 000 miles to our natural satellite and although the Moon is something that most of us may take for granted as something we see most clear nights, for any who have never lifted a pair of binoculars or a small telescope to gaze at this unbelievably amazing natural wonder, you are truly missing out. Binoculars alone reveal impressive craters and ‘seas’ called maria, created long ago when the Moon’s interior was once molten and when asteroids hit it would create seas of lava that have cooled to create smooth dark sea beds easily seen from Earth. There are also many craters caused by meteorites and in the younger impacts you may see a “splash” effect around them. The light areas tend to be mountainous areas but all are very beautiful and impressive to look at through binoculars or small telescopes. The best time this month to Moon-gaze is the full Moon on the 24th, so maybe not very optional if your planning some Valentine’s Night star gazing as it will be a limited view on the 14th as a waxing crescent Moon.
The Moon also features in many other love stories in the night sky, including a small feature in the love story of one of the most famous constellations, Orion the Hunter. The myth surrounding Orion is a very sad story indeed with slight variations between the Greek and the Roman myths but necessarily the same heartache. Orion was a great hunter, if not the best in the world. He led a very dramatic life being blinded by his would-be father-in-law King Oenopion and having his sight restored by the god Helios on the island of Lemnos but it was then that he met the beautiful goddess of hunting, Artemis and they fell madly in love. Now Artemis had a twin brother called Apollo and he disliked the amount of time she was spending with Orion, she was constantly late for her job of pulling the Moon across the sky at night. Now there is differing accounts of the story after this. One states that one day Orion was swimming in the ocean, and Apollo, knowing this, challenged Artemis to hit that ‘black dot’ in the sea. Accepting the challenge her deadly arrow killed Orion and his body washed ashore and Artemis was heartbroken. Another is that Apollo sent a giant scorpion to kill Orion and both managed to kill the other. In both cases the heartbroken Artemis shoots an arrow into the night sky placing Orion amongst the stars. And you will never see Orion and Scorpio in the sky together; when one sets the other comes up. Such a sad story for such a bright constellation but thankfully Orion is high in out sky during February to really appreciate one of the best-known constellations. This impressive constellation is bursting with many bright stars and celestial objects. From the bright stars including the beautiful blue giant star of Rigel located at the right foot of the pattern to the impressive Great Orion Nebula located on the sword hanging from Orion’s belt. Clear dark nights will give you the best chance to see the fainter objects and a small telescope will really open up this constellation’s beauty travelling and dominating across the southern sky.
A more sinister ‘love’ story is found in that of Virgo the maiden who is appearing late at night in the sky. Virgo in Greek mythology was believed to be Persephone, the beautiful, virginal daughter of Zeus the King of the Gods and Demeter the Goddess of agriculture. It was told that Hades was so captivated by Persephone’s beauty that he abducted her and carried her off to the underworld to be his wife. Her mother was so devastated that she neglected her duties and famine spread across the world. Zeus could not allow this and so struck a deal. That Persephone would spend half the year, from March until August (the time we can see her in the night sky) with her mother and she will perform her duties, but then she will return to Hades after for the other half and so the Earth will remain fallow until her return. A very sinister and sad story but Virgo does come out and shines bright in her six months in the night sky. If you find yourself out past midnight you will see the beginnings of this impressive pattern that is the second largest in the night sky, with lots to look at, including the beautiful bright star of Spica, the 15th brightest star in the night sky. In her hands she holds a large group of galaxies called the Virgo Cluster, many of which are visible to a small telescope. To find Virgo look to the south east after 1 and you will see her rising in the sky.
These are just a few of my personal romantic favourites in the February night sky and hopefully you may find it fun searching around this impressive patterns and objects with the fascinating yet tragic stories in your mind. If anything it really brings the stars to life on their dark sky stage! Hopefully you all have a very enjoyable and star-filled February!
(Article by Kerry Scullion, Education Support Officer)