The February night sky
Happy New Year, Chinese-style that is, on the first of February. And do not forget to check your shadow along with Punxsutawney Phil on the second.
It seems that I was out of town for a very interesting event on the morning of January 11. David Jones, of Placitas, and his wife were out for a predawn walk. About 6:15 a.m., a light so bright that it cast a shadow of them from behind. Both of them instinctively moved to the side if the road and turned to face the oncoming car. Instead, they saw a volleyball-sized object streaking from west to east in the southern sky. Even after the object disintegrated, there was a distinctive trail in the sky.
Even though I have been unable to find an official report of the event, this was most likely a large meteor, not any larger than your fist. Several chunks of rock this size enter the Earth’s atmosphere every month; some are bright enough to be seen in daylight. A few have been mistaken by spy satellites for nuclear detonations.
But a quick check of other instruments revealed the origin as a meteor explosion in the upper atmosphere. Fireballs like these are capable of releasing hundreds of thousands to several million tons of TNT in their final seconds of existence.
This month, one of the most recognizable constellations is high in the sky around 9:00 p.m. Orion is very easy to find. Start by looking for the four stars that form the shoulders and feet. Then find his belt, consisting of three almost equally bright stars. Under dark skies, you can actually see Orion’s sword hanging from his belt.
Orion is known as the Great Hunter. In Greek mythology Orion is the son of Poseidon. He was known to make several boasts, including the one that immortalized him in the sky. He once pronounced that he was so powerful that he could defeat every animal on Earth. Gaea, the goddess of the Earth, was alarmed by his statement. To prevent Orion from carrying out this threat, she sent a giant scorpion to sting Orion to death. After a fierce but short battle, the scorpion was able to deliver a deadly blow, stinging Orion in the right foot (Rigel). Orion and the scorpion, Scorpius, were given honored places in the sky, but placed opposite each other.
Orion’s right shoulder is marked by Betelgeuse (pronounced “beetlejuice”). This is a giant of a star, 650 times the diameter of our Sun and ten thousand times brighter. Even at 430 light years away, it is one of the brightest stars in the sky. Because of its size and mass, Betelgeuse has already quickly burned through the majority of its hydrogen fuel and is well on its way to the star graveyard.
Bellatrix is the right shoulder of Orion. Bellatrix is Latin for “female warrior” and is sometimes called the Amazon Star. This ordinary blue giant star is about 245 light-years away and is hotter and larger than our Sun.
Rigel denotes Orion’s left foot. There are actually three stars here, but Rigel A is the one we can see unaided. This is a super giant that is visibly blue in color. At 770 light-years distance, this bright star is forty thousand times brighter than the Sun.
The right foot is Saiph. The name is from Arabic, meaning “the sword of the giant.” This is another super giant blue star—about six thousand times brighter than the Sun and is about 720 light years away.
From Orion’s left to right, the belt stars are Mintaka, Arabic for “the belt,” Alnilam, Arabic for “string of pearls,” and Alnitak A, meaning “the girdle.”
I am saving the sword of Orion for another installment. There are several nebulas that deserve special attention in this part of the sky.