In 1964 the Kinks released the hit song All Day and All of the Night, a title I’m flagrantly appropriating because there’s good stuff to see in the sky this month from start to finish. Still a great tune, BTW. First, you can’t pass up Venus and Mercury together in the western sky at dusk. Still around 3° apart, they punctuate the salmon glow of twilight low in the west about 45 minutes to an hour after sundown. Venus is lower and brighter. Look a couple fingers above it to spot Mercury. Last night, the pair was plain to see and added a cosmic touch to the sprucey landscape.
As twilight merged into night, the tall cone of zodiacal light tilted up from the western horizon and reached past the Pleiades cluster into Taurus for a total height of 7 fists or 70°! Wider and brighter at its bottom than top, the foggy-looking shape stood up in the west until more than 2 hours after sunset. The zodiacal light is a real thing in our solar system — a compilation of dust, mostly sloughed off by comets but also dust from asteroid collisions — made visible by sunlight. Sunlight scatters off the dust and makes it glow. The glow follows along the ecliptic (path of the planets, sun and moon) and fades the further away from the sun we look, the reason it’s brighter near the western horizon and fainter the higher up you look.
It’s best between about 1 hour 45 minutes to 2 hours 15 minutes after sunset when the moon is out of the sky, which it will be through about March 19. Seek a dark, rural location or at least a place with no light pollution in the western sky.
At twilight’s end, I got my first look at the Humanity Star, a meter-wide satellite launched into orbit on Jan. 21. The brainchild of Peter Beck, founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, the Humanity Star is a geodesic sphere, made from carbon fiber with 65 highly reflective panels. Spinning rapidly as it orbits the Earth, it mimics a disco ball. Although predicted to flash with the brilliance of a planet, it’s fainter than that. But I didn’t know for sure how much until last night. I picked it up with binoculars exactly where Heavens Above predicted it would pass and saw it twinkle erratically as it moved quickly to the north.
Since some of the flashes looked bright, I lowered the binoculars and found that I could easily see the brightest (about magnitude 2) with the naked eye. They reminded me of the pop of a strobe, quick and white. Click on the Heavens Above link, select your city and then return to the opening page and click on the Humanity Star link in the left column of highlighted links. Next, click on the date in the table of passes and you’ll get a map that shows the satellite’s track (and little boxes marking each minute) across the sky. Choose one of the brighter, higher passes to increase your odds of seeing Humanity Star.
As the stars rolled west and the temperature dropped into the single digits, I wore the night like a favorite coat. It felt good to be out, to move in the dark, to see the early spring stars in the east. Around 10:30 p.m. the aurora even put in an appearance, the first time around here in a couple months. Once I finagled a good northern view, a bright arc glowed just above the horizon along with a few faint rays. Hey, welcome back!
After getting to bed late, I figured there was no chance of seeing a sunrise, but I was wrong. Finding myself up at 6 a.m. I suited up and drove down to Lake Superior with minutes to spare. A few other photographers and sunrise devotees clambered on the sharp ice along the shore when the sun rose as a jumbly segment of palpitating light at the eastern horizon. For about 20 seconds I could stare right at it, but when half a sun’s worth finally rose into view, the glare was too much.
Like an owl finished with the night hunt, I quietly sped back home, closed my eyes and welcomed sleep again.