Starwatch: Wish upon a star this Valentine's Day
Here we go again — Valentine's Day is coming! It's what my mother calls a "Hallmark Card" holiday. Nothing against Hallmark cards or any other card, but let's face it, Valentine's Day, a truly lovely day, has been inundated commercially by the media in all its forms.
As soon as the Christmas decor leaves the stores, usually by about Dec. 26, the Valentine's Day cards hit the shelves. Reservations for finer restaurants are already nearly impossible to get for this coming Saturday night.
I don't want to come on like the Valentine's Day grinch. All of the flowers, candies and cards are fine, but how about doing something different this year — something truly cosmic? Arrange a date with the one you love, or the one you are trying to love, under the stars. Sure, it's winter and it's cold, but trust me. The right combination of sweaters and winter coats, along with a lot of snuggling, will chase the chill away.
Shortly after sunset, gaze toward the low southwest sky and see if you can see the first star of the night popping out. You can't miss it — it's very bright. It's actually not a star, though, but the planet Venus, named after the Roman goddess of love. How about that for starting off a romantic night of stargazing?
Venus is the second planet out from the sun, and this week it's just over 135 million miles from Earth. Venus is nearly the same size as the Earth, right around 8,000 miles in diameter, but that's where the comparison ends. There's nothing lovely about the goddess of love. It's your basic celestial hell-hole. Sorry to break up the mood here!
In fact, the reason Venus is so bright is that it's covered by a very thick cloud deck, which is a very good reflector of the sun's light. Planets have no light of their own, so the only way we see them is due to sunlight reflecting off them, and the cloud shroud of Venus does this very well.
Just above Venus and little to the left, look for a moderately bright reddish star, appropriate for Valentine's Day. Or is it? It's actually the red planet Mars, named after the Roman god of war — not so appropriate for Valentine's Day, after all.
Nonetheless, Venus and Mars make a nice contrasting pair in the early evening skies. It reminds me of the old book, "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus." If women did actually come from Venus, they could certainly handle the heat, with surface temperatures over 900 degrees in some spots.
After you're done with Venus and Mars, turn your sights to the southeast, toward the constellation Orion the Hunter, my favorite constellation.
On the upper left corner of Orion, above the three bright stars in a row that make up the hunter's belt, is what I call "the star of love." I'm talking about Betelgeuse, the second brightest star of Orion. Betelgeuse is an Arabic name that roughly translates to English as "Armpit of the Great One." That's right, Betelgeuse marks the armpit of Orion.
So what the heck does Betelgeuse have to do with love? The answer is three-fold. First of all, you can easily see it's a distinctly orange-red hue, which gives it that Valentine look. Second, Betelgeuse behaves like a beating heart, only a lot slower. Betelgeuse pulsates in size in a six-year cycle, as it goes from about a half a million miles in diameter to almost a billion miles in girth! Third, Betelgeuse is a big-hearted star, because even at its smallest, it could fit more than 160 million stars the size of our sun inside it.
After you're done with Betelgeuse, keep stargazing with the one you love. Hopefully it will be a Valentine night you'll never forget.
By the way, if it's cloudy this coming Saturday night, postpone that celestial date with your sweetheart. Hopefully you'll spend many future nights under the stars together!