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Make it a heavenly valentine!

Starwatch

Once again, Valentine’s Day is upon us. With Valentine’s falling on a Wednesday this year, I know many of you are celebrating in advance this weekend. Certainly, Valentine’s Day is great for greeting card and candy sales, florists, restaurants, jewelers, and, of course, lovers young and old!

All the usual gifts and that romantic dinner are great, but if you want to make Valentine’s 2024 really heavenly, I know a way, and it won’t drain your wallet. Arrange a date with the one you love, or the one you are trying to love, under the Butler stars, maybe after dinner. Yes, it’s winter, but you'll be set with the right combination of sweaters, winter coats, hats and a lot of snuggling. You certainly don’t have to stay out all night, and after you’re done, a fireplace or a late nightcap will round out a stellar evening.

Pack some reclining lawn chairs and warm beverages and head out to the countryside where you can easily see the stars. You can also go to a dark part of your backyard or even a city park — but avoid those streetlights! Get a map of the February evening skies. Check out last week’s Skywatch column for the February star map.

We don’t have a full moon on Wednesday night, but the moon is putting on a nice show with the bright planet Jupiter. The new crescent moon will be in a tight celestial hug with the brilliant planet Jupiter. You can’t miss it in the southwestern sky.

Not to spoil the mood, but the moon and Jupiter are nowhere near each other. They just happen to be in the same line of sight. The moon is just over 229,000 miles away, but Jupiter is over 480 million miles away. Astronomically, Jupiter and the moon are said to be in conjunction, but that’s not nearly as romantic as a celestial hug!

After you’re done gazing at Jupiter and the moon, turn your celestial sights to the southeast toward the constellation Orion the Hunter, my favorite constellation. On the upper left corner of Orion, above the three bright stars in a row that make up the hunter’s belt, is “a star of love.” I’m talking about Betelgeuse, the second brightest star of Orion. Betelgeuse is an Arabic name that roughly translates to English as “Armpit of the Great One.” That’s right, Betelgeuse marks the armpit of Orion. Maybe you don’t want to mention that ... it could be a real mood killer.

So, what does Betelgeuse have to do with love? There are two reasons … First, you can easily see it’s a distinctly orange-red hue, giving it that Valentine's look. Second, Betelgeuse behaves like a beating heart, only a lot slower. Betelgeuse pulsates in size in a six-year cycle, going from over 400 million miles in diameter to almost a billion miles wide! Our own sun isn’t even a million miles wide!

Some other great celestial Valentine treasures are the constellations Cassiopeia the Queen and Cepheus the King. In February, the royal pair hangs in the north-northwestern sky. I don’t have space to share the entire Greek mythology story. The gist of it is that Queen Cassiopeia, the queen of ancient Ethiopia, ticked off Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea because Cassiopeia claimed she was much more beautiful than all his daughters. Poseidon was so enraged that he tied her up in her throne and flung her into the sky to be an eternal prisoner of the heavens. The bright constellation Cassiopeia resembles an upside-down W or a right-side-up M. That W or M outlines Cassiopeia’s throne.

Cassiopeia’s husband, King Cepheus, was distraught and couldn’t bear being on Earth without his wife. He begged Zeus, the king of the gods, to hurl him up into the sky next to Cassiopeia. At first Zeus resisted, but Cepheus wore him down with all his whining and crying and not being able to take it anymore. Zeus catapulted the king to the heavens. To this night, Cassiopeia and Cepheus are unwilling prisoners of the night sky but very willing prisoners of love! By the way, Cepheus the constellation doesn’t look anything like a king, but rather like a house with a steep roof pointing to the upper left. Cepheus isn’t as bright as Cassiopeia, but it is still pretty easy to find with the one you love!

Hopefully you’ll spend many future nights under the stars together.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Contact him at mikewlynch@comcast.net.

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