By Mike Lynch
The night sky is the window to the rest of our universe, but it’s also made for lovers. The full moon only happens for a few days in a given month, and it isn’t the only member of the heavens that can add to romance. Around every Valentine’s Day I love to point out other great signs of love in the Northwest sky.
Perennially there are the constellations Cassiopeia and Cepheus who, according to Greek and Roman mythology, were the king and queen of ancient Ethiopia. Queen Cassiopeia’s vanity was only eclipsed by the wrath of Hera, the queen of the gods.
In a fit of temper, Hera tied Cassiopeia up in her throne and tossed her into the sky. When Cepheus found out what happened to his wife he begged Zeus, the king of the gods, to heave him up into the heavens next to his beloved so they could be together for all time.
They’re still a nice couple and this time of the year they start out the evening in the high northwestern sky, although Cassiopeia is still bound to her throne. The W-shaped formation of stars we see that is the constellation Cassiopeia is supposed to outline the throne of the banished queen.
Another regular is the bright star Betelgeuse, the second brightest star in Orion the Hunter. Betelgeuse has a reddish hue and reaches its highest point in the sky at midnight on Valentine’s Day (Tuesday).
Betelgeuse literally behaves like a giant beating heart, one of the single biggest things you’ve ever seen. It pulses in size in roughly a six-year cycle, and at its maximum it’s about a billion miles in diameter. By comparison, our sun is just under a puny million miles in girth.
Most astronomers believe that within the next 100,000 to 1 million years, Betelgeuse will suffer the ultimate heartbreak when it explodes in a colossal supernova.
This Valentine season the planets Jupiter and Venus are running next to each other, getting closer and closer from night to night in the southwestern sky. They’re the brightest starlike objects in the evening sky. Appropriately enough, Venus is named after the Roman goddess of love and Jupiter is named in honor of the king of the gods.
Since late last autumn Jupiter and Venus have been in a hot, passionate pursuit of each other. This week they’re within 30 degrees of each other, or about three of your fist widths held at arm’s length.
By mid-March they will be in their closest celestial embrace at just 3 degrees separation, the width of three of your fingers held together at maximum arm length. In reality, the two planets are a long, long way from each other. Venus is right around the celestial corner at 93 million miles away while Jupiter is nearly 500 million miles.
You don’t have to tell the one you love all of the astronomy behind the approach of the bright planets. If you want to make real romantic points just tell the one you love that the approaching planets are a true sign this Valentine’s Day that the two of you are meant to draw closer and closer to each other as the days, nights and years go by.
Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, “Washington Starwatch,” available at bookstores. Check his website, www.lynchandthestars.com.
The Everett Astronomical Society: www.everettastro.org/.