Hey, hey, sky fans! Well, it’s a big week in the skies. Everyone’s favorite spaceship of 2016, the cloud-skimming Juno probe, is back in the nighttime skies! Huzzah! Welcome back! From here, half a billion miles away, though, we’ll only see it as the giant, comet-swallowing, reflective ball of gas it’s been orbiting since last summer. Jupiter’s been in the early morning skies for the last couple of months, turning the planetary keys to the solar system’s nights over to Mars and Venus. Now, it’s just starting to make its way back into the night skies before midnight. It’ll be rising earlier and earlier over the next few weeks.
So, if you’re out and about late enough on these still cold-and-messy February nights, have a look, not to the west where Venus and Mars have been, but, this time, to the eastern skies just before midnight. You’ll see the bright glow of Jupiter, 45 light minutes away, punching a hole in the darkness. If you have a small telescope or a big pair of binoculars, you can point them at it and maybe see a couple of its four big moons.
Right alongside the Stripey Giant will be the bright star Spica, which I pronounce with a long I, “Spy-ca,” but, “Speak-a” is apparently okay, too, you know… if that’s your thing. Spica’s the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, the 16th brightest in the night sky, and is about 250 light years away. Along with Regulus and Arcturus, which are two of my favorite stars of all, Spica forms one of the corners of the Spring Triangle, and it’s the last of the three to make it up into the night. The Spring Triangle is one of the lesser seasonal shape asterims. All the same, I think of these as sort of the groundhogs of stars. When I see them showing their faces in the late nights’ eastern sky, spring is right around the corner. I guess that really makes me, not them, the groundhog, but, details.
It’s been really cloudy at night since the start of the year around where I live, and I realized the other day that I don’t think I’ve been able to see the stars more than a couple of times all winter. It’s a shame, isn’t it? This time of year has some of the best stuff of all. Under good skies, it’s an inspiring sight, and it’s tough to know it’s there, but not be able to see it.
Maybe you can look at the sky for me since I’ve had no luck. If you can, keep an eye on the eastern skies just before midnight this week. Over the next couple of days, you’ll see the moon, in its waning phases, cut eastward through Leo and down into Virgo. Tonight, February 13, the waning gibbous will look to be near Leo’s third brightest, Denebola, which forms the lion’s tail, and actually means, “lion’s tail” in Arabic. Denebola’s one of those terrific sort of off-brand,second-tier stars that we’ve talked about before. The fun takes a break for Valentine’s day. Then on Wednesday, the 15th the Moon, Spica, and Jupiter will be very close together. By Thursday, the Moon will have moved out a bit, but the three will make for a slightly elongated isosceles triangle.
If you’ve had the same sort of winter I have, I really hope things open up a bit for you. It’s been too long, and I love these waning moon phases. They’re gorgeous and welcoming, a little bit of a challenge. Hanging there, slightly off-kilter, over the piles of fresh snow we’ve had over the last few days is a spectacular sight even without the extra bonus of Jupiter and some of the bright stars of spring. Together, they’ll be something else.
Thanks for stopping by, happy Valentine’s Day, and clear skies, everyone!