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The Shallow Sky

Close Encounters with the Six Lazy Boys

Akkana Peck

The Pleiades Star Cluster. Picture Credit: Mount Wilson Observatory


Over the holidays I read a Barbara Kingsolver novel called “Pigs in Heaven”. The title comes from the Cherokee name for the Pleiades, the star cluster we call the Seven Sisters. The Cherokee call it Ani'tsutsä (The Boys). According to legend, there once were seven boys who were disobedient and played games rather than helping their mothers. Scolded by their mothers, the boys danced to call the spirits to support them. The spirits responded by drawing the dancing boys into the sky. Their mothers tried to grab hold and save them; one succeeded, but the other boys rose into the sky and became the six bright stars we see today.

(Where do the pigs come in? Kingsolver's version of the story has the boys turning into pigs before they become stars, but other versions I've found skip that part.)

In February, several planetary spirits have close encounters with the six lazy boys and some of their fellow pigs — er, stars.

Just after midnight on the night of Feb 5-6, the moon passes through the Pleiades in a near-repeat of last month's close encounter. This month's will be even better, though (despite the less convenient time of evening): this time we should be able to see the disappearance of some of the brighter stars of the cluster as the moon's dark side covers them. Reappearance will be much more challenging, since the bright side of the first quarter moon overwhelms the light from the second and third magnitude stars of the Pleiades.

Then around the middle of the month Mars passes only a couple of degrees from the Pleiades — probably not close enough for most telescopes to show both at once, but it should make a nice binocular view.

Mars moves into Taurus this month, offering a nice comparison between the red planet and the nearby red star Aldebaran. Mars has faded to roughly magnitude .5, not that much brighter than first-magnitude Aldebaran. How do the colors compare? Can you easily tell with the naked eye which is a planet and which a star?

Saturn is perfectly placed for observing this month: high in the sky at nightfall and remaining high for most of the evening. Throughout the first week of February it continues this month's theme of planets near bright open clusters, passing very close to the Beehive cluster (M44) — a very nice combination for either visual or photographic observers.

The second half of February gives us the best evening apparition of Mercury that we'll have all year. Start looking for it in early twilight around mid-month, and watch its height above the sun at sunset increase as the month progresses. It moves from gibbous to roughly half phase during this time.

Jupiter rises shortly after midnight and is visible until morning, but it's fairly far south so it never gets very high this month.

Venus emerges into the morning sky as a slim crescent early in the month, rising earlier as the month progresses.

Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto are all too close to the sun for good observing this month.

So focus your attentions on Saturn, Mars, and the moon this month - and if your mother needs your help this month, think of Ani'tsutsä, the Boys, before going off to play games.


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