Starwatch: Groundhog Day began with CeltsAs we tough it out through the dead of winter we get one ray of light: Groundhog Day, when most of us hope the national rodent in Punxsutawney casts about vainly for his shadow so we can look forward to an early spring.
By: Deane Morrison, University of Minnesota, Lake County News Chronicle
As we tough it out through the dead of winter we get one ray of light: Groundhog Day, when most of us hope the national rodent in Punxsutawney casts about vainly for his shadow so we can look forward to an early spring.
No such luck. He saw his shadow Tuesday and we’re in for six more weeks of winter.
The minor February holiday started with the ancient Celts, who called the day Imbolc, or lamb’s milk, because it coincided with the start of lambing season. It was one of four “cross-quarter days” falling midway between a solstice and an equinox.
The Celts considered heavy clouds auspicious, because they foretold warmth and rains to soften the fields for planting. But bright, sunny weather presaged cold, hence our tradition of six more weeks of winter if the groundhog sees its shadow.
In the night sky, this weeks reveals a brilliant Mars above the lovely Beehive star cluster. A beacon just east of Gemini and the other bright winter constellations, the Red Planet will appear about three degrees north of the cluster.
Known as Praesepe, or the manger, in Latin, the Beehive appears close to two brighter stars at its eastern edge. These are the Aselli, or donkeys, feeding at the manger. The cluster contains perhaps 1,000 stars, all born in the same cloud of interstellar gas and drifting through space about 600 light-years from us. It’s a bit on the dim side, though, so grab the binoculars to fully appreciate its beauty.
As for Mars, Earth swept past the planet January 29 and is now leaving it behind. So it’s fading rapidly, but still retains a ruddy luster.
With Mars now in the rear-view, Earth closes in on Saturn en route to passing it in March. The ringed planet rises about four hours after sunset as February begins; by month’s end the interval shrinks to about an hour and a half. To find Saturn, start with Mars and look to the east. First you’ll see the bright star Regulus, in Leo, and then Saturn just past the lion’s hindquarters.
Jupiter and Venus trade places this month. Jupiter drops from the evening sky, passing an ascendant Venus very low in the sun’s afterglow on the 16th. Venus keeps climbing, though, on its way to a new reign as a bright “evening star.”
February’s full moon arrives the morning of the 28th. It’ll set in the northwest about 6:30 a.m., however, so get out early to see it at its best. This moon was known to many Algonquin Indians as the full snow moon, as the heaviest snows tend to fall around this time.
The snow also made it harder to hunt, and so some tribes called it the full hunger moon. If you’re out in mid-evening, be sure to take a look at Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, as it rides high in the south below Orion. Try between about the 3rd and the 15th, when no moon will dampen its glory.
The University of Minnesota Duluth offers public viewings of the night sky. For more information and viewing schedules, visit the Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium at www.d.umn.edu.