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Winter Meteors, Valentine's Day Star, and a Black Moon: A Guide to the February Night Sky

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February isn't the most active month of the year for skywatching, but depending on your location, there are definitely a few wonders in the sky worth making time for. From meteor showers to a beating heart in space, here are the best celestial shows to be seen on February nights.

FEBRUARY 7–8: ALPHA CENTAURID METEORS

If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, just after midnight leading into February 8, you might be in for a treat: the Centaurids meteor shower will peak, bringing with it a handful of shooting stars per hour. This isn't a major meteor shower, so if you really want to see the good stuff, you're going to need to find an area of little-to-no light pollution, and give your eyes a good hour to adjust to the darkness. (Turn off your phone; no one is going to call you at that hour anyway, and your smartphone camera isn't going to see a thing.)

The origin of the meteors is a bit of a mystery. We know the meteors are caused by the Earth slamming into the trail of debris left behind by a comet—but we don't know which comet. On the upside, we're well aware that the meteors appear to originate in the constellation Centaurus, which means you can find them in the sky. If you are familiar with the "Southern Cross," the most famous of that hemisphere's constellations (and the only star pattern on the celestial sphere to have merited a Crosby, Stills and Nash song), you can locate Centaurus, which is directly adjacent to the Southern Cross (a.k.a. Crux).

FEBRUARY 14: VALENTINE'S DAY STAR

On the evening of February 14 at 8:00 p.m., take your true love outside and have that lucky someone look south. You will notice on the constellation Orion's shoulder a red star. This is the brightest red star in the night sky visible with the naked eye, and on that day, at that time, it reaches its highest point in the sky. On every other day of the year, we call it Betelgeuse. On this particular day, however, it's the Valentine's Day star. As years go by, it even "pulses" as the red supergiant's atmosphere expands and contracts. The Valentine's Day star was first popularized by public television astronomy staple Jack Horkheimer, who said, "If you want to give your beloved a really big Valentine, well, this is about as big a one as you'll ever find."

FEBRUARY 15: BLACK MOON RISING AND A PARTIAL SOLAR ECLIPSE

January ended with a "blue moon"—that is, a second full moon in a single month—and it was an eclipsed blue moon at that. (To keep things confusing, the blue moon turned red because of the eclipse.) Not to be outdone in matters of hue, February 15 offers a "black moon."

Though the finer points of calendars themselves have been modified with great enthusiasm over the last few millennia, the ancient Sumerians have a fair claim for having established the 12-month year, based on the Moon's phases. The word "month" derives from the word "moon," as a lunar cycle is just over 29.5 days in length. Every once in a while, the month of February comes up short with respect to full moons. That is to say: It doesn't have one. This is one of those years.

What is a black moon? There are two somewhat contradictory definitions. One says it's only new moon in a month that also lacks a full moon. That would be the case here. By that metric, February is the only month that can host a black moon, as the others all have too many days. But another definition of a black moon says it's the second new moon in a month. And by that measure, February is the only month that can't have a black moon, because it has too few days. Go figure.

So what will you see in the sky on February 15? Not much of the black moon itself. But if you have a clear, cloudless night, a black moon makes stargazing even easier, because the reflected light of the Sun is shining on the side of the Moon facing away from the Earth. There's less light to interfere with your view.

If you are one of our avid readers in Antarctica, I have some very good news: on that same day, February 15, you will be able to put on your NASA-approved eclipse glasses and check out a partial solar eclipse. The very southernmost parts of South America will be able to enjoy the show as well, so Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, and southern Brazil should start making plans now. Maximum eclipse will occur at 20:51:29 UTC, at which point the Moon will reduce the Sun to a giant Cheshire Cat grin.

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Look Up! Residents of Maine and Michigan Might Catch a Glimpse of the Northern Lights Tonight
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The aurora borealis, a celestial show usually reserved for spectators near the arctic circle, could potentially appear over parts of the continental U.S. on the night of February 15. As Newsweek reports, a solar storm is on track to illuminate the skies above Maine and Michigan.

The Northern Lights (and the Southern Lights) are caused by electrons from the sun colliding with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. The solar particles transfer some of their energy to oxygen and nitrogen molecules on contact, and as these excited molecules settle back to their normal states they release light particles. The results are glowing waves of blue, green, purple, and pink light creating a spectacle for viewers on Earth.

The more solar particles pelt the atmosphere, the more vivid these lights become. Following a moderate solar flare that burst from the sun on Monday, the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center forecast a solar light show for tonight. While the Northern Lights are most visible from higher latitudes where the planet’s magnetic field is strongest, northern states are occasionally treated to a view. This is because the magnetic North Pole is closer to the U.S. than the geographic North Pole.

This Thursday night into Friday morning is expected to be one of those occasions. To catch a glimpse of the phenomena from your backyard, wait for the sun to go down and look toward the sky. People living in places with little cloud cover and light pollution will have the best chance of spotting it.

[h/t Newsweek]

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10 Facts About the Dwarf Planet Haumea
Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0
Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0

In terms of sheer weirdness, few objects in the solar system can compete with the dwarf planet Haumea. It has a strange shape, unusual brightness, two moons, and a wild rotation. Its unique features, however, can tell astronomers a lot about the formation of the solar system and the chaotic early years that characterized it. Here are a few things you need to know about Haumea, the tiny world beyond Neptune.

1. THREE HAUMEAS COULD FIT SIDE BY SIDE IN EARTH.

Haumea is a trans-Neptunian object; its orbit, in other words, is beyond that of the farthest ice giant in the solar system. Its discovery was reported to the International Astronomical Union in 2005, and its status as a dwarf planet—the fifth, after Ceres, Eris, Makemake, and Pluto—was made official three years later. Dwarf planets have the mass of a planet and have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium (i.e., they're round), but have not "cleared their neighborhoods" (meaning their gravity is not dominant in their orbit). Haumea is notable for the large amount of water ice on its surface, and for its size: Only Pluto and Eris are larger in the trans-Neptunian region, and Pluto only slightly, with a 1475-mile diameter versus Haumea's 1442-mile diameter. That means three Haumeas could fit sit by side in Earth—and yet it only has 1/1400th of the mass of our planet.

2. HAUMEA'S DISCOVERY WAS CONTROVERSIAL.

There is some disagreement over who discovered Haumea. A team of astronomers at the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Spain first reported its discovery to the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union on July 27, 2005. A team led by Mike Brown from the Palomar Observatory in California had discovered the object earlier, but had not reported their results, waiting to develop the science and present it at a conference. They later discovered that their files had been accessed by the Spanish team the night before the announcement was made. The Spanish team says that, yes, they did run across those files, having found them in a Google search before making their report to the Minor Planet Center, but that it was happenstance—the result of due diligence to make sure the object had never been reported. In the end, the IAU gave credit for the discovery to the Spanish team—but used the name proposed by the Caltech team.

3. IT'S NAMED FOR A HAWAIIAN GODDESS.

In Hawaiian mythology, Haumea is the goddess of fertility and childbirth. The name was proposed by the astronomers at Caltech to honor the place where Haumea's moon was discovered: the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Its moons—Hi'iaka and Namaka—are named for two of Haumea's children.

4. HAUMEA HAS RINGS—AND THAT'S STRANGE.

Haumea is the farthest known object in the solar system to possess a ring system. This discovery was recently published in the journal Nature. But why does it have rings? And how? "It is not entirely clear to us yet," says lead author Jose-Luis Ortiz, a researcher at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia and leader of the Spanish team of astronomers who discovered Haumea.

5. HAUMEA'S SURFACE IS EXTREMELY BRIGHT.

In addition to being extremely fast, oddly shaped, and ringed, Haumea is very bright. This brightness is a result of the dwarf planet's composition. On the inside, it's rocky. On the outside, it is covered by a thin film of crystalline water ice [PDF]—the same kind of ice that's in your freezer. That gives Haumea a high albedo, or reflectiveness. It's about as bright as a snow-covered frozen lake on a sunny day.

6. HAUMEA HAS ONE OF THE SHORTEST DAYS IN THE ENTIRE SOLAR SYSTEM.

If you lived to be a year old on Haumea, you would be 284 years old back on Earth. And if you think a Haumean year is unusual, that's nothing next to the length of a Haumean day. It takes 3.9 hours for Haumea to make a full rotation, which means it has by far the fastest spin, and thus shortest day, of any object in the solar system larger than 62 miles.

7. HAUMEA'S HIGH SPEED SQUISHES IT INTO A SHAPE LIKE A RUGBY BALL.

haumea rotation gif
Stephanie Hoover, Wikipedia // Public Domain

As a result of this tornadic rotation, Haumea has an odd shape; its speed compresses it so much that rather than taking a spherical, soccer ball shape, it is flattened and elongated into looking something like a rugby ball.

8. HIGH-SPEED COLLISIONS MAY EXPLAIN HAUMEA'S TWO MOONS.

Ortiz says there are several mechanisms that can have led to rings around the dwarf planet: "One of our favorite scenarios has to do with collisions on Haumea, which can release material from the surface and send it to orbit." Part of the material that remains closer to Haumea can form a ring, and material further away can help form moons. "Because Haumea spins so quickly," Ortiz adds, "it is also possible that material is shed from the surface due to the centrifugal force, or maybe small collisions can trigger ejections of mass. This can also give rise to a ring and moons."

9. ONE MOON HAS WATER ICE—JUST LIKE HAUMEA.

Ortiz says that while the rings haven't transformed scientists' understanding of Haumea, they have clarified the orbit of its largest moon, Hi'iaka—it is equatorial, meaning it circles around Haumea's equator. Hi'iaka is notable for the crystalline water ice on its surface, similar to that on its parent body.

10. TRYING TO SEE HAUMEA FROM EARTH IS LIKE TRYING TO LOOK AT A COIN MORE THAN 100 MILES AWAY.

It's not easy to study Haumea. The dwarf planet, and other objects at that distance from the Sun, are indiscernible to all but the largest telescopes. One technique used by astronomers to study such objects is called "stellar occultation," in which the object is observed as it crosses in front of a star, causing the star to temporarily dim. (This is how exoplanets—those planets orbiting other stars—are also often located and studied.) This technique doesn't always work for objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, however; astronomers must know the objects' orbits and the position of the would-be eclipsed stars to astounding levels of accuracy, which is not always the case. Moreover, Ortiz says, their sizes are oftentimes very small, "comparable to the size of a small coin viewed at a distance of a couple hundred kilometers."

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