Night Watchman: Love, Celestial Style

If you're smitten, even a cold winternight holds the promise of love

By Bob Berman|Sunday, February 01, 1998
RELATED TAGS: SOLAR SYSTEM
Looking to create the perfect Valentine’s evening? Poetry and a candlelit dinner are romantic, but for a nightcap there’s nothing like a moonlit or starlit stroll.

Unfortunately, that’s not such a good idea for most of the United States, where a starry walk this month would be like an Arctic experience. But let’s say some saccharine bromides under the stars must be part of your special night. Is there anything amorous about the icy February sky?

This year the answer is an easy yes; 1998 offers the most romantic celestial February in decades.

The logical starting point, of course, is Venus—the goddess of love. By chance, that dazzling Earth-size globe reaches its greatest brilliance this very month, a brightness that won’t be seen again until summer 1999. Last month Venus passed between us and the sun and then raced into the morning sky, its crescent phase growing fatter as it pulled away from us. Now the right balance of exposed sunlit surface and proximity to Earth helps the planet reach its personal best. Venus is so dazzling, at magnitude -4.7, that it will cast faint shadows on snow (or any light surface) if you’re far from artificial lights.

The lovely planet doesn’t rise until just before dawn. So if you and your sweetheart wake up just as morning twilight begins creeping over the horizon, or if you haven’t yet retired for the night, gaze to the southeast and the riveting Morning Star. Here’s where you clear the sleepy cobwebs from your mind and say, That’s Venus, darling. A perfect, eternal symbol of our love. (Okay, so it’s not Keats. But it’s a better line than the one on the greeting card you lamely handed out.)

No inclination to get up at six in the morning? Not to worry. On February 14, of all days, the lunatic moon—the celestial embodiment of passion—rises precisely due east and sits in the constellation of Virgo, the virgin maid. To the ancient Babylonians, she was Ishtar, the goddess of fertility. It’s a quantum leap more romantic than the moon rising into Taurus the Bull. Symbolically, it’s a night made for Eros.

That the moon comes up precisely due east is more unusual than it might seem. The moon’s tilted orbit, added to our own tilt, allows it to rise over a vast range that extends from the northeastern skyline all the way to the southeastern. It’s a huge sweep, encompassing 57 degrees of azimuth, or more than 100 times the moon’s diameter. Choosing this particular night to rise precisely in the cardinal direction of east is a fascinating coincidence (which has nothing to do with romance, unless your loved one is a surveyor).

But we’re not finished. Our desperate attempt to squeeze love out of a dark February night also takes us to classical feminine constellations. Andromeda, the princess with diaphanous robes, now floats in the northwest, as does Cassiopeia. Retell their legends to your valentine—Andromeda, daughter of Cassiopeia, was saved from being a sea monster’s snack by the love-struck Perseus. It might just do the trick. Or, if you live east of a diagonal line extending from Wisconsin to San Diego, impress your valentine with the odd but thoughtful gift of shade-14 welder’s goggles, to watch the partial solar eclipse on February 26.

But you won’t need them. After seeing dazzling Venus and the moon (which unite for a spectacular, don’t-miss conjunction later in the month, around 5:30 a.m. on February 23), your valentine will welcome your embrace. If just to convince you to come in from the cold.
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