Imbolc, Groundhogs, and the International Space Station, oh my!

Are you ready to celebrate Imbolc?  Or is Groundhog Day more fun for you?  They are one in the same and mark the first “Cross-Quarter Day” of the year.  Have you seen ISS?  If not, this week you have ample opportunity!  Here is your guide to the sky for January 29 –February 4, 2017…

Sun – Earth – Moon

First Quarter Moon takes place on Friday at 11:19 pm.   Sunrise this week is at 6:53 am and sunset at 4:45 pm as we mark the first Cross-Quarter Day on February 2 known as Imbolc to the Celts.   Cross quarter days mark the midpoint in Earth’s orbit between the solstices and equinoxes and were important in many cultures as times of celebration.  Imbolc means lamb’s milk and it was the start of the lambing season in Europe, Gaelic culture celebrated it with a festival to mark the beginning of spring.  As this day is grounded in seasonal change, in recent years it has become known as Groundhog Day, and is considered a day to estimate the time for warmer weather and when to plant crops.   Traditionally it is a good omen if it is cloudy and overcast, which would signal warmer weather ahead and thawing fields.  Bright sunny weather (meaning the groundhog would see his shadow, and duck back underground) meant that snow or frost would continue for 6 more weeks.  But remember the groundhog cannot really predict this, nor does the weather on a single day give an accurate prediction of future weather.


Check out brilliant Venus and Mars when they make a nice triangle with a young crescent Moon on Tuesday evening right after sunset in the western sky.  If you are lucky you might get a glimpse of “Earthshine” where you see the night portion of the Moon lit up by reflections off of Earth’s oceans.   It is easiest to see during the first few days after the New Moon.  Jupiter rises shortly after 10:30 pm in the east.  Saturn rises around 4 am, while Mercury does so at 6 am, less than an hour before sunrise.  You will need an excellent eastern horizon to see it. Thursday the Moon is an aid in finding two objects that require binoculars.  The planet Uranus which is at the limit of human vision at magnitude 6 will be 3 degrees north of the Moon and Ceres which is just below magnitude 9 is 1 degree south of the Moon.  The Moon is between the two, and binoculars will aid in finding these dim object.  Uranus will have a greenish-blue color, while Ceres will be just a white pinpoint of light.  Ceres is the largest asteroid in our solar system and the first one to be discovered back on January 1, 1801.

Constellation of the Week

This week we finish up the tour of the main winter constellations using Orion as our guide.  So far we have had him guide us to Taurus the Bull, Canis Major and Canis Minor – his hunting dogs, and of the Gemini twins.  This week imagine drawing a line from his foot stars, through his shoulders and going straight above him to you come to Capella in the constellation of Auriga the chariot driver.  Auriga in Greek legend is a charioteer who is carrying a goat – very hard to see with stars that basically make a pentagon shape!  In Hawaii this group of stars is called Hokulei meaning the wreath (lei) of stars (hoku).  To me it is much easier to see it that way, instead of the chariot driver.   Auriga marks the last of the constellations in the winter circle or winter ellipse around Orion.  These are the brightest stars visible year round here in the northern hemisphere.  Do get out and see if you can catch all of the constellations around Orion!

Satellites to see

There are chances every evening this week to spot the International Space Station!  So there really is no excuse,(unless the weather is really cloudy, not to see it at least once.  Sunday look for it from 6:44 to 6:47 moving from the southwest horizon going to about half way up (45 degrees) in the sky.  On Monday night try finding it from 5:52 to 5:57 pm moving from southwest to East.  On Tuesday it will be visible from 6:36 to 6:40 pm moving from west-southwest to northwest.  Wednesday from 5:43 to 5:49 is its brightest and best pass.  It will be nearly as bright as Venus cross the sky from south west to northeast passing nearly directly overhead.  Thursday see it from 6:28 to 6:32 pm moving from west to north.  Friday it is visible from 5:35 to 5:42 pm moving from west to northeast, and Saturday from 6:20 to 6:24 pm moving from west-north west to north-northeast.

Whether you check out the planets, watch for the groundhog’s prediction, or catch the ISS this week – do get out there and enjoy our Maine skies!    During February at Emera Astronomy Center our Friday evening public program is STARS which explores the life-cycles of these celestial lights we have gazed at for millennia.  Do come check it out, and as always we include a tour of the night sky with all the constellations, planets, and more.   For now, keep your eye on the sky!

Shawn Laatsch

About Shawn Laatsch

Shawn Laatsch is the director of the Emera Astronomy Center and Jordan Planetarium at the University of Maine. He started his astronomy education career in 1984 and has directed planetariums in university and science center facilities, taught undergraduate astronomy courses, and given numerous lectures around the globe. He serves as President (2017 & 2018) of the International Planetarium Society, Inc. the world’s largest organization of planetarium professionals. Shawn has a passion for sharing astronomy and stargazing with people of all ages.