It's been a great week for astronomy. It's been a bad week for the raccoons.
Twice this week, raccoons have sacrificed themselves upon the electrical altar of the same high-voltage transformer, throwing half of our town into darkness. Both times, this happened well after sunset, with a ziiiit-boom, and flash of light that could be seen for miles in the instant before everything went black. No house lights. No street lights. No nothing! Both times I rushed outside into the frigid night to gaze into the sky. Oh my, but it was lovely. Not for the poor raccoons, of course, but for stargazers like me it was gorgeous.
The skies were severe clear both nights. The new moon wasn't yet bright enough to interfere with viewing. High in the western sky Venus is the brightest object visible, and will remain so through March. Directly overhead, is the red eye of Taurus, Aldebaran, and the Pleiades he guards. In the southeastern sky, Orion is riding high with Sirius and Procyon, the noses of his hunting dogs, bounding at his heels.
A few bits of trivia: Sirius is the brightest star that we can see from Earth, and quite a close neighbor, only 8.6 light years distant. The Greeks gave us the term "dog days of summer" from this star. It was the rising of Sirius with the dawn, which told the ancient Egyptians that the Nile was about to flood, and that they would have abundant food for the coming year. Sirius, Procyon, and Betelgeuse in Orion's shoulder, make the Winter Triangle.
Viewing all of that clearly was wonderful. However, the great thing for me was that, for a brief while, it was dark enough to see the Milky Way. That doesn't often happen in our light polluted world. Right now, in the early evenings, it stretches from the southeast to the northwest, moving to the west as the evening progresses. If you can follow a path near to Sirius, Orion, Gemini, Auriga, Perseus, and Cassiopeia, then you are in the neighborhood of the Milky Way. I hope that you get a chance to see it. It's worth it.
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