On and Off Earth

This week The Central Virginian introduces a new column by Randy Holladay, a retired Louisa County High School Earth Science teacher. Stay tuned for more of his insights like the following about life in Louisa, on and off the ground.

I consider myself lucky to live in the rural Piedmont of central Virginia, even more so because I get out on Earth for a walk or two every day and have for years. Every day is different from the last and I hope I can encourage you, if you don’t already, to get out and check out your planet.

While February is the shortest month, it gets a leap day longer in 2020. That day is added every four years to keep our calendars in synch with our orbit around the sun. With or without that extra day, we gain over an hour of daylight in February. Since the winter solstice back in December, our orbit has been tilting us ever so slightly back toward the sun. With less tilt, the sun is able to peak around the edge of Earth a minute earlier each morning and a minute later each evening. Less tilt also means more direct sunlight, which begins winter’s wind-down and leads us to spring.

With a big boom and shake on Feb. 3, Earth gave many local residents an early-morning reminder that we still live in the Central Virginia Seismic Zone. The magnitude 2.7 quake’s epicenter was near Quail, literally in my backyard, and about four miles west of the epicenter of our magnitude 5.8 quake back in 2011.

We live on very old, tilted, stacked and faulted or broken layers of rock here in the Piedmont and pressure from inside a still-hot Earth slowly build over time. The release of that pressure and the slipping between those rock layers we feel (and hear) as an earthquake. We will have more, no one knows when.

My late-afternoon walks usually don’t end until after sunset and that timing allows me to watch the stars appear in the darkening sky. Since back in October, the first “star” in the sky, now high up in the southwest, has been our planetary neighbor, Venus. It’s brilliant and hard to miss.

As the evening sky grows darker, looking south, the bright winter stars begin appearing with blue-white Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest. Sirius is near the bottom of a big circle of bright stars with Orion, the Hunter, in the center of the star circle. Three stars in a row mark Orion’s belt, and point down toward Sirius. Orion’s belt points up toward reddish Aldebaran in Taurus, the Bull. The star marking the right shoulder of Orion, the red super giant star, Betelgeuse, has dimmed of late, perhaps a sign it’s about to go supernova, or blow itself up. It would be the first supernova easily visible from Earth in over 400 years and big news.

For those up before sunrise, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are all visible in the pre-dawn sky, somewhat in a line, east of Sagittarius, which looks like a teapot. Jupiter is the brightest of the three and in the middle, Mars, highest of the three, is reddish-orange and sits east of its rival, the red giant star, Antares, the heart of Scorpio. Saturn, lowest of the three, rises about an hour before the sun. The three planets will be near each other, shifting slightly, into spring and will get a visit from the waning crescent moon for several mornings in the middle of next week.

How to tell a planet from a star: stars twinkle, planets don’t. And, planets are always on or very near the ecliptic, the arcing path the sun takes through the sky. The sun begins February well into the constellation Capricorn. As our solar revolution continues, the sun will appear to move into Aquarius on the 17th.

Next month: daylight savings time returns, followed by the spring equinox. Until then, get outside, take a walk (could be a good way to break up your work day), and have a look around, on and off your planet.

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