Mar 01

March 2006

Whats Up in the Sky March, 2006

The Eyes of the Virgin

Readers from my generation may recall the TV series That Was The Week That Was. I recently experienced a very remarkable and memorable week. This paper recently ran an article about a Global Village trip sponsored by Habitat for Humanity International in which a group of 10 volunteers traveled to Nicaragua to build houses. I had the extreme good fortune to participate in that endeavor, but this is an astronomy column so I’ll get to the point.

My compadres convinced me to bring along a telescope (I have an Astroscan 4.5-in by Edmund Scientific that fit in my carryon). This turned out to be rewarding and very educational not only for the people in Ojo de Agua, the village in which we worked, but also for the other volunteers and even for myself.

One night I arranged an observing session for our group and the recipient families. Lacking the air and light pollution that permeates the North American night sky, we had outstanding viewing. I had never seen the Milky Way appear so bright in the winter sky. My friends were astounded at the number of stars they could see. We observed Mars, Saturn, the Moon, and the Orion nebula through the telescope and were able to see the Beehive cluster and stars down to fifth magnitude with our naked eyes.

But what I remember most is a story told to me by Regan Downs, volunteer coordinator for Habitat for Humanity Nicaragua, who was our interpreter and escort on this trip and who, through his excellent translation skills, made my observing session possible. He told me of an elderly gentleman friend, Old Zack, who told Regan, I’m going to give you a star. It is called the eyes of the Virgin and it is difficult to find, but when you see it you will see two eyes looking down on the earth. Regan pointed out the star to me. It is right below Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus. He said it took him a while, but he still remembers when he first spotted the eyes – two stars close together.

Now, to me this is just your average dim star, but when I found it in the telescope, sure enough, there were two! No way was this visible to my old naked eyes, but I did some research. The star Regan saw is known as Theta Tauri and it is indeed a double star, the two components separated by 5 minutes of arc (one-sixth the Moons diameter). Since the human eye can resolve things as small as 1 or 2 arc minutes, it is certainly reasonable that he was seeing them both.

Regan told me later that this was the first celestial object he had ever found and now, whenever he looks at it, he thinks of old Zack. It will be a connection for me also as I think about the bonds I formed by observing whats up in the sky.

Here are this months viewing highlights:
Planets this month: Mars can be easily found near the Plieades cluster high in the southwest. Watch it fade and move past the star Aldebaran as the month progresses. Saturn shines brightly in the southeast – binoculars show it near the Beehive cluster. Predawn skies are dominated by Jupiter in the SW and Venus in the SE.

March 1: One hour after sunset, try to spot Mercury below a thin crescent moon near western horizon.
March 5: Nice evening gathering of Moon, Mars, Plieades, and Aldebaran
March 6: First-quarter Moon passes nearly overhead at sunset.
March 8-10: Venus-Jupiter-Saturn span 175 degrees in predawn sky.
March 10: Waxing gibbous moon near Saturn
March 14: Full Moon – Penumbral eclipse of the Moon – best seen from Europe and Africa
March 20: Sun at vernal equinox; Spring begins at 1:26 p.m. EST
March 22: Last-quarter Moon.
March 29: New Moon – total solar eclipse visible across Africa, Turkey, Mongolia.

Peter Burkey – SAAA President