Biding Time At Night

As the continent goes dormant, people have a lot of time on their hands. We can watch events on the same metronome of life that we previously tolerated, or we can find events on longer time scales that we're now willing or at least time-enabled to watch. I don't purport to know what I'm talking about here, for I'm a newbie to pandemic responses. However, I propose we collectively watch a few celestial events unfold over time as we are unaccustomed to observing.

We only have a few months left to witness the rise of a giant. The bright reddish star Betelgeuse denotes the eastern shoulder of Orion the Hunter, a prominent constellation in the winter sky that is sinking into the glow of western sunset. In February 2020, Betelgeuse surprised astronomers by doing something no one had ever seen before--the brilliant star faded so much its muted self is readily discernible to the casual observer.

That's right. One of the most brilliant stars in the sky plunged in brightness. The red giant Betelgeuse is a variable star, so it has a few normal dimming cycles, but this was exceptional. Jupiter dropped from its normal magnitude of about mag=0.56 to a mere mag=1.6, where it bottomed out. I'm omitting an explanation of magnitudes, but for now take it on my word that it got to be nearly identical to the brightness of Orion's other shoulder star Bellatrix, also about mag=1.6. Two shoulders equal in brightness.

I saw Betelgeuse drop in February until it appeared equal to Bellatrix (with a slight color difference between the stars) when I observed it March 8. While other people were bemoaning daylight saving time, I was celebrating "night saving time." At the same hour from the previous week, Orion was "backed up" in the sky a little, so I got an extension on observing Orion during reasonable hours.

Eleven years ago, thousands of students in the PHM School Corporation followed Orion keenly during the Let There Be Night program. I encourage us all to resurrect Orion observing skills and look skyward the next couple months. Follow the three belt stars down and left to Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Look around to compare the darkness of the sky when much human activity is shut down, and compare it down the road to the sky when we are back humming. There is change in the silence.

The winter constellation Orion will soon be gone as the starfield shifts eastward about one degree per night. (After 365 days the seasonal sky has made it through 360 degrees.) Watch Orion to see if Betelgeuse indeed rises in brightness to its original grandeur, which it should. Apparently this is not its time to blow up. Rather, it may be our time to recalibrate our internal metronomes.

More:

  • April 3, Venus passes by the lovely Pleiades, a cluster also known as Subaru. (Check out the logo for the car company--yep, same cluster of stars.)

  • See Corona rising and the Lyrid meteor shower as Earth Day Includes Earth Night on April 22, 2020.

  • For a summary of each month's celestial sights, watch David Fuller's current Eyes on the Skies video.

  • Just maybe in April and early May we'll get a peek at Comet ATLAS (C/2019 Y4) rounding the sun. Comets are fickle, though, as demonstrated when Comet ISON vaporized on Thanksgiving Day, bringing an abrupt poof to the Comet Festival. Details at https://theskylive.com/c2019y4-info

  • For another long-range observing activity, make a solargraph this next June solstice, 2020 June 20.

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