February 2012

February is a great month to see the stars, planets

The weather during month of January has been unusual this year. We have had quite a few very warm days with mild conditions during the evenings and overnight. This generally leads to cloudy or very hazy conditions for observers as the air cools down. This means the images of the stars and planets observed in the telescope are rather poor. When we do manage to get a clear night conditions are very cold and the accompanying wind bitter. This time of year I make use of my binoculars as I scan the night sky. Their portability makes them very desirable for my short stargazing sessions, usually about a half hour, during the winter season.

One of my favourite winter constellations and likely the most famous is Orion, the Hunter. It can easily be spotted rising above the southeastern horizon once darkness falls. Many stargazers look for the three stars marking his belt. These three blue-white stars are of very similar brightness. Orion is one of the few constellations that appear as its name sake. When seen in the night sky the orange coloured star Betelgeuse marks the Hunter’s right shoulder. This star is a red supergiant about 600 light-years away. If it was where the sun is its surface would reach the orbit of Jupiter. Held high above Betelgeuse several stars mark the club Orion uses during his hunt. To the right of Betelgeuse is the star Bellatrix. A few fainter stars to the right of Bellatrix mark the Hunter’s shield. Orion’s left foot is the star Rigel. Rigel is a blue-white supergiant star 85,000 times brighter than our sun. Even at a distance of 800 light-years it is the brightest star in Orion. The right foot of Orion is the fainter star Saiph.

One of the more interesting features of the constellation is the Sword of Orion. Contained in this group is the famous Orion Nebula (M42). This is easily seen in binoculars. To find it place the three belt stars in the field of view and slowly scan down below them. You will see what appears to be a fuzzy whitish coloured object come into view surrounded by fainter stars. This will be the nebula. A telescope will reveal more detail (the larger the scope the more detail). The nebula is about 1,500 light-years from us. A nebula is an immense gas and dust cloud formed from stars that have exploded and spread their remnants throughout the surrounding space. This dust cloud is where stars are born. Our sun and even the elements contained in us were formed from nebulae like this. We are literally made from star stuff.

About a half hour after sunset Venus’ white brilliance can be seen above the southwestern horizon. The yellow glow of the planet Jupiter is above and to the left of Venus. The gap between the two planets will close to about ten degrees by the end of February. Just after sunset on February 25 look for a spectacular pairing of Venus and the crescent moon. They will be about three degrees apart. The next night the moon will have moved to a position four degrees to the right of Jupiter. These two nights will provide an excellent photo opportunity. Use a building or trees in the foreground to add depth to your picture.

As Venus and Jupiter descend in the west, the constellation of Leo the Lion rises in the east. Leo hosts an extra “star” for the next five months. This is not a star but the planet Mars. For those who have been watching it they have noticed that it has doubled in brightness throughout January. The Red Planet will double in brightness again in February as the Earth catches up to it. We are close enough now to be able to see the north polar cap of Mars in a small telescope. The near full moon will be to the right of Mars on the night of February 9.

The Ringed Planet Saturn rises around midnight by the middle of February. Saturn’s yellowish glow of magnitude 0.5 is slightly brighter than the star Spica at magnitude 1.0. Spica is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo.

Clear Skies

Ted Bronson