Waning sights leaves stargazer feeling creative

Posted: Sunday, March 04, 2007


  Graphic courtesy of Andy Veh

Graphic courtesy of Andy Veh

The stars of winter aren’t quite gone yet. But the days are getting noticeably longer. I consider Leo to be the constellation that heralds spring as it becomes very prominent in March, then moves quickly across the sky over the next weeks and by the time it’s out of sight it’s almost summer.

Leo is positioned now prominently high above the eastern horizon and can be pictured facing to the right with the bright star Regulus as the front paw, the hind leg to the left, a tail, a back and above the right shoulder with a faint mane.

An interloper may add some confusion to its outline: Saturn resides in or near Leo through 2009. If you have good binoculars, prop your arms on a car roof to stabilize yourself and you might be able to see its rings and probably its largest moon Titan.

During dusk and shortly thereafter find bright Venus above the southwestern horizon. Mercury has become a morning planet but only makes for good views for observers on the southern hemisphere. The same holds for Mars, Uranus and Neptune, as all four of these are situated in Capricornus and Aquarius, which are constellations that hardly rise above the horizon for observers in Alaska. Jupiter isn’t much better off, but mainly due to its brightness it can be glimpsed as a luminous speck low in the south during predawn hours.

Still prominent above the southwestern horizon, find the great constellations of winter centered on Orion with its brightest stars, red Betelgeuse and blue Rigel, its belt and sword containing the Orion nebula — a great target for binoculars. To Orion’s lower left lies Canis Major with the sky’s brightest star Sirius. To its left the star Procyon is in its imperceptible constellation Canis Minor. To its upper left is Gemini with its stars Castor and Pollux, and above it Auriga is in the shape of a pentagon with Capella. To Orion’s upper right is Taurus with red Aldebaran in the arrowhead-shaped open cluster Hyades and the most prominent open cluster, Pleiades.

Every half year Earth enjoys a couple of eclipses. A total eclipse of the moon is visible from everywhere in the world, except Alaska. Canada and the Lower 48 are able to see it in progress on the East Coast, or almost done on the West Coast. A partial solar eclipse happens March 19, and is visible from most of Asia. Due to the international dateline, it can be observed on March 18 in the late afternoon just before sunset from Barrow and Prudhoe Bay. Do not use binoculars to view. Use welder’s glasses, or discarded CDs are safe for naked-eye observations, but become dangerous when used together with other optical equipment.

I wish I had the time to write an astronomy column every day. But while holding down a serious and respectable full-time job, it’s hard to compete with astrologers, getting paid to make up stuff. I assume that from a reader’s perspective, horoscopes are nice entertainment, just as I read the cartoons and Dear Abby on the same page and do the Soduko. I wonder how it looks like from the astrologers’ side. Maybe it’s a hard job after all, since inventing short stories does require quite a bit of creativity.

Anyway, I figured that I’d try myself on casting some horoscopes. The dates refer to the correct definition of the sun entering and leaving a constellation. Aries (April 18-May 12): In the morning you’re likely to get up, in the evening you’re probably going to rest. Taurus (May 13-June 19): The stars in the Hyades clusters move toward the same vantage point. Gemini (June 20-July 19): This is hard. I admit that astrologers do have a tough job, pulling adjectives and nouns out of thin air. Cancer (July 20-Aug. 9): My situation of concocting bon mots hasn’t improved. Leo (Aug. 10-Sept. 15): Well, hm. Okay, I got it. You’ll be surprised to see a bright object in your constellation. Then again, if you have read my astronomy column, you won’t be surprised. Virgo (Sept. 16-Oct. 29): you have a more rigid, theory-oriented approach to life. You are very organized. Libra (Oct. 30-Nov. 22): If you have kids, they will want to play. Be aware that they’ll refuse to go to school today. Scorpius (Nov. 23-28): Travel south. Then look out for something new and something really big. In fact, currently Jupiter resides in your constellation and a bright Nova has popped up. Ophiuchus (Nov. 29-Dec. 16): Beware the ides of March. Advice to the wise: carry snakes. Sagittarius (Dec. 17-Jan. 18): Three square meals, possibly served on round platters, are awaiting you today. Capricornus (Jan. 19- Feb. 14): What’s a sea goat? Aquarius (Feb. 15-March 10): You are poetic. On the other hand, you know nothing of the scientific world (yep, that must be me). Pisces (March 11-April 17): You possibly will celebrate a birthday this month. I cast the bold prescience that it will be confined between 1 and 99.

As an exercise of applying the scientific method to outrageous claims, I had a couple of classes (about 25 students) in the past year try to match up horoscopes blindfolded. The success rate was at 10-15 percent, slightly higher than the expected 8 percent random match. “Slightly higher” shouldn’t be taken as encouragement for the accuracy of horoscopes, as there is still a failure rate of 85-90 percent.

Andy Veh is the physics and astronomy instructor at Kenai Peninsula College. He can be reached at aveh@uaa. alaska.edu.

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