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The Sky This Week, 2019 January 22 - 29

Ancient stars, ancient stories.
Orion and Sirius rising over the Catalina Mountains, Catalina, Arizona
Orion and Sirius rising over the Catalina Mountains, Catalina, Arizona.
imaged on 2019 January 14 with a Canon EOS Rebel SL2 DSLR.

Fresh from her trip through the Earth’s shadow, the Moon wanes in the morning sky this week, passing the Last Quarter phase on the 27th at 4:10 pm Eastern Standard Time.  You’ll find Luna close to the bright star Regulus during the wee hours of the 23rd.  You’ll find her near the star Spica before dawn on the 26th and 27th.  She ends the week closing in on Venus and Jupiter, currently prominent in the gathering twilight.  

If you braved the cold and wind to view the lunar eclipse last week you deserve a bit of self-congratulation.  The cold conditions here in the Washington area did provide for very clear skies, and the Moon was perfectly placed near the meridian at mid-eclipse.  If you missed it, we’ll get several more chances to see a lunar eclipse starting in 2021.  The first is a very deep partial eclipse that will occur before dawn on November 19.  For this eclipse about 98 percent of Luna’s disc will be covered by Earth’s shadow at around 4:00 am EST.  2022 brings us two eclipses, both of which are total.  The first occurs on the night of May 15th – 16th, with mid eclipse occurring just after midnight, EDT.  The second occurs on November 8th, once again taking place just before sunrise.  After this “flurry”, we’ll have to wait until 2025 for our next one.

As the Moon slips into the morning sky the chill of the winter nights is brightened by the multi-colored stars of winter.  They are well-placed near the meridian by 9:00 pm EST, when the familiar figure of Orion, the Hunter crosses the mid-point of the sky.  Orion was one of the first constellations that I identified as a child, and even at this young stage I could imagine the outline of a regal figure surrounded by a bevy of bright stars.  Orion is visible from all of the inhabited parts of the globe, and he appears in the sky lore of just about every culture that has existed throughout history.  Depictions of him date back thousands of years to the earliest records of ancient Egypt, where the constellation was identified as the celestial personification of Osiris, their god of the underworld.  Egyptian funerary rites sought to link the deceased with Osiris, and we find texts in tombs and papyri that describe the various pitfalls of this journey.  Some of the oldest of these can be found in the “pyramid texts” that first appeared at the end of the Fifth Dynasty, dated to around the year 2400 BCE.  We find him depicted as a striding, regal figure in the famous Zodiac of Denderah, carved some two millennia later.  Here we see him sailing on his celestial bark across the sky, leading the solitary bright star known as Sothis, which today we call “Sirius”, the brightest star in the sky.  The Orion figure that we see today comes to us from Greek and Roman mythology and depicts a powerful, prideful hunter who was one of the sons of Neptune, god of the sea.  Many stories lead to his placement in the sky, but the most prominent one was his downfall due to his pride.  He was killed by a lowly scorpion, and when he was placed in the sky the scorpion was also put there, but on the opposite side of the celestial sphere so they would never encounter each other again.  Indeed, both constellations have bright red-hued stars that distinguish them, Betelgeuse and Antares.  For all time when one star rises the other sets, so they are never visible at the same time.

The early evening still finds ruddy Mars doggedly plowing eastward against the faint stars of Pisces.  He is currently about as bright as Betelgeuse in Orion, and you’ll find that they are quite similar in hue.  Mars will continue to linger in the west for the first half of the year before he disappears into the evening twilight in June.  

Venus and Jupiter start the week in fairly close proximity in the pre-dawn sky.  I’ve been watching them grow closer together for the past several mornings, and they will continue to be an attractive pairing for the rest of the week.  If you watch their progress you’ll see that Venus will increase the gap between the pair while gradually inching closer to the rising Sun.  She will close inn on Saturn in another month. 

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