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

iStock
iStock

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.

The Geminid Meteor Shower Peaks This Week: Here's When and Where to See It

iStock.com/sripfoto
iStock.com/sripfoto

Star-gazers are in for a treat this week with the Geminid meteor shower set to light up skies across the globe. According to Space.com, the shower produces consistently stunning light shows this time each year, with meteors that are fast, frequent, and bright depending on where they're viewed. Whether you catch the spectacle every December or you'll be watching it for the first time, there's some important information to know before the 2018 event.

While most meteor showers are the product of our planet passing through the tail of a comet, the Geminid meteors come from something different: A small, rocky asteroid called 3200 Phaethon that leaves a wake of fiery debris like a comet. Its orbit brings it very close to the Sun, and when this happens, bits of rock break off in the heat and trail the object through space. (Some astronomers refer to 3200 Phaethon as a "rock comet.")

When the Earth passes through the tail, the debris burns up in the atmosphere, producing a bright show that's visible from the ground. And because the matter that trails 3200 Phaethon is denser than what you'd find behind a comet, it takes longer to burn up, creating a brighter spark and sometimes breaking up into multiple meteorites. This year viewers can expect to see more than one meteor a minute with up to 100 meteors per hour at the shower's peak.

The shower peaks the night of Thursday, December 13 and early Friday morning on December 14. The best time to watch is when the skies are darkest, usually around 2 a.m. local time. Unlike two years ago, when the Geminids coincided with a supermoon, the Moon will set around midnight on Thursday so viewing conditions will be ideal.

The Geminid meteor shower is visible around the world, though it's most prominent in the northern hemisphere. As is the case with all celestial events, people who live as far away from cities as possible will get the best view, but even people watching from the suburbs could catch as many as 30 meteors an hour.

[h/t Space.com]

Did NASA Ever Consider Women for the Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo Programs?

Russell L. Schweickart, Keystone/Getty Images
Russell L. Schweickart, Keystone/Getty Images

C Stuart Hardwick:

Unambiguously, no.

This was not sexism. NASA decided early on, and quite correctly, that early astronauts must all be experienced high-performance jet test pilots. To anyone who understands what the early space program involved, there can be little question that choosing all men was the right call. That's because there were zero women in the country with high-performance test flight experience—which was due to sexism.

You may have heard of the so-called “Mercury 13” or the Women in Space Program, both of which are misleading monikers invented by the press and/or American aviator Jerrie Cobb.

Here’s what happened:

Randy Lovelace’s laboratory tested astronaut candidates to help NASA select the initial seven Mercury astronauts. He later ran Jerrie Cobb through the same Phase I (biomedical) tests (though not through the other tests, as he didn’t have access to equipment owned by the military). Contrary to some reports, Cobb did not test superior to the men overall, but she did test as well overall. And while that should not have been a surprise to anyone, it was in fact a surprise to many.

Lovelace published a paper on the work in which he suggested that women might actually be preferable candidates for space travel since they weigh less on average and consume less oxygen, water, and other consumables, a fact which I exploited in my book, For All Mankind, and I can tell you that on a long duration mission (of several months) the difference really does add up.

This had no effect on Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo, all of which were short little jaunts in which the mass of the astronauts wasn’t terribly critical, and all of which were always going to be flown by high-performance test pilots anyway.

However, it attracted the attention of famed aviation pioneer Jackie Cochran, who agreed to fund further research on the suitability of women for space.

Pioneer American aviator Jacqueline "Jackie" Cochran in the cockpit of a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter plane
Jackie Cochran in the cockpit of a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter plane
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Cochran and Cobb recruited several more women, mostly from the ranks of the Ninety-Nines, a women aviator’s professional organization founded by Amelia Earhart. These women also went through the initial biomedical testing, and 13 passed at the same standard as met by the Mercury astronauts.

So far so good. Cobb, Rhea Hurrle, and Wally Funk went to Oklahoma City for an isolation tank test and psychological evaluations, and Lovelace secured verbal agreement through his contacts to send another group to the Naval School of Aviation Medicine for advanced aeromedical examinations using military equipment and jet aircraft.

However, no one had authorized the use of the military facilities for this purpose—or the costs that it would entail. Since there was no NASA request behind this effort, once Lovelace tried to move forward, the military refused his access.

Meanwhile, Cobb had been enjoying the attention she was receiving and, according to some, had gotten it into her head that all of this was going to lead to some of the women actually flying in space. In fact, I’ve found no evidence that Lovelace ever implied that. This was a small program of scientific study, nothing more. Nevertheless, Cobb flew to Washington, D.C. along with Jane Hart and was given a meeting with then-vice president Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson was congenial—Cobb has always claimed he pledged his support—but immediately afterward, he sent word to have all support for the experiments withdrawn.

Far be it from me to defend the motives of LBJ, but consider this: The president had publicly committed the nation to returning a crew from the moon by the end of the decade—and this was at right about the same time when enough work had been done for Johnson to have a handle on just how hard that was going to be. He may or may not have supported the idea of women astronauts in general—we have no idea—but Jerrie Cobb standing before the press, pushing for “women in space” was definitely, irrefutably a distraction he didn’t need. And any resources devoted to it were being pulled directly away from the moon shot—which, to Johnson, was the goal.

Jerrie Cobb poses next to a Mercury spaceship capsule
Jerrie Cobb poses next to a Mercury spaceship capsule
NASA, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Cobb has always maintained the women were misled and betrayed. I’ve found no evidence of that. Testimony of many of the other participants suggests that Cobb simply got carried away—not that anyone could blame her. Let’s remember that at that time, she couldn’t have known what was really involved in space flight or what the program would look like over the next decade. No one did.

Of course, American women did start flying in space with the Space Shuttle. Do not for a moment think this means they didn’t face the same prejudices at NASA that they did everywhere else. The first class of women astronauts was, according to my sources, invited to help design an in-flight cosmetics kit—an offer they immediately and forcefully shot down. Thirty years later, women remain a distinct minority in the U.S. astronaut corps ...

The bigger question is not whether Cobb was betrayed, but why, in 1961, not a single U.S. woman had been hired to work in high-performance flight test—considering that so many (like Cobb, for example) had performed test flight and ferry duties during the war.

Why weren’t women welcome in the post-war aerospace economy, and why—even today—are so few women granted degrees in engineering of any sort? I don’t know the answer, though sexism is unquestionably in the mix, but it’s a question we need to address as a nation.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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