Thursday, February 9, 2012

Astronomy: The February Night Sky

Here are some objects for the unaided eye for the month of February. All of these objects, although small, should be visible without the help of binoculars or a telescope, so long as you have clear dark skies.

Light pollution is a killer for seeing these objects with your unaided eye. To find out how dark your location is, use the Google Map Overlay of light pollution. If you are in a blue, gray or black area then you should have dark enough skies. You may still be able to see some of these objects in a green location. If you aren’t in a dark sky location you may still be able to see these objects with a pair of binoculars or telescope. Snow will add more light pollution due to light reflecting off of it.

You can find help locating the night sky objects listed below by using one of the free sky charts at (scroll down to Northern Hemisphere Edition and click on the PDF for February 2012). The map shows what is in the sky in February at 8 pm for early February; 7 pm for late February.

If you are not familiar with what you see in the night sky, this is a great opportunity to step outside, look up, and begin learning the constellations. The sky is beautiful and filled with many treasures just waiting for you to discover them. Once you have looked for these objects go through the list again if you have a pair of binoculars handy, the views get better!

New note: Measuring Degrees with your hands, proportionally works for people of all ages. With your arm fully extended out:
Width of your pinky finger is 1°
Width of your ring, middle, and index finger equals 5°
Width of your fist equals 10°
Width from tip to tip of index finger and pinky finger stretched out equals 15°
Width from tip to tip of your thumb and pinky finger stretched out equals 25°

The Moon
February 9th – Close encounter of the Moon and Mars. Look for the moon in the east after 8:30pm, Mars will be about 10° to the left glowing a red.

February 12th and 13th – The moon pairs up with another planet, this time it’s with the ringed planet Saturn. Saturn will be about 11° down and to the left of the moon on the 12th, and about 9° above the moon on the 13th.

February 14th – The last quarter moon, visible from midnight into the morning.

February 21st – New moon, best night to go out and enjoy the stars without the light of the moon washing out the skies.

February 22nd – If you can find the one day old very thin crescent moon after sunset, Mercury will be 5° to the left. Mercury may be a bit difficult to spot, and both objects may be too low on the horizon to see with the Adirondack mountains.

February 25th – The moon and Venus pair up in the west-southwest just after sunset. The moon will be 3° to the right of Venus.

February 26th – The moon pairs up with one more planet before this months end. After sunset in the southwest you will see Jupiter about 4° to the left of the almost crescent moon.

February 29th – First Quarter Moon.

Near the end of February you can find Mercury 10° above the horizon in the west after sunset. Early to mid month Mercury will be too low to see.

Venus will be very prominent in the west-southwest after sunset. Venus will be the brightest object about 30° (three fist-widths) above the horizon. Venus sets around 8:15pm.
On February 9th if you have a pair of binoculars look for Venus, to the left in the same field of view will be a blue-green star, that star is actually the planet Uranus.

Mars rises in the east after 8pm just under the back end of the constellation Leo.

The gas giant is high in the sky at sunset and will finally set around 11pm

Not rising until about midnight in the constellation Virgo. Saturn will be close to the brightest star in Virgo, Spica.

In the south around 8pm you can find the constellation of Orion. The red supergiant star Betelgeuse in the upper left of the constellation making Orion’s shoulder. Below it you will see 3 stars going from left to right creating Orion’s Belt. Below Orion’s belt you will find 3 dimmer stars perpendicular to the belt. If you look at the middle star of those 3 you may notice a slight haziness surrounding it. That haziness is referred to as a stellar nursery and is the Orion Nebula. This nebula contains a group of new stars within a dust cloud. This is where and how solar systems are born.

Up and to the right of Orion is the constellation Taurus. A bright orange star, Aldebaran is the eye of Taurus the bull. Also within this constellation near Aldebaran is a grouping of stars that you can see with your naked eye, even in moderately light polluted areas; this cluster of stars is known as the Hyades.

Within the constellation of Taurus you can also find a closer grouping of stars known as the Pleiades (also known as the 7 Sisters or Subaru – Look at the logo for the Subaru vehicle, it is very similar to this cluster). Looking at it has always reminded me of a smaller version of the little dipper. In dark locations you can see anywhere from 5-7 and possibly a few more stars in this grouping. It has also been called the seven sisters and is actually a Messier object, number 45. These are very hot blue and extremely luminous stars that have formed within the last 100 million years. This grouping of stars has quite a bit of history in mythology. It rises about 45 minutes earlier than Orion in the East.

Up and to the left of Orion you can find the Gemini twins. The two brightest stars within this constellation are Pollux and Castor, forming the heads of the brothers.

Canis Major
Below and to the left of Orion is the constellation Canis Major – The Dog. One of the most defining features of Canis Major is the brightest star in our sky, Sirius. Sirius can be seen twinkling in the southern skies, and may even appear different colors as you look at it; from blue, to green, to white. This flickering is due to the earths atmosphere. Sirius is roughly 8.5 light-years away making it one of the closest stars to us.

The Double Cluster, cataloged as NGC 869 and NGC 884 is a beautiful cluster that shows quite a group of stars with the unaided eye which appear faint and fuzzy.
Look for a grouping of stars around the brightest star in Perseus, Mirphak.

Ursa Major
Very low on the horizon at sunset and not rising back into the sky until after midnight. Mizar and Alcor is a double star in the handle of the Big Dipper. Was once used as a test of good eyesight before glasses. Mizar resolves into a beautiful blue-white and greenish white binary (double star system). They are labeled on the map I linked to above.

Photo Above: Image of the constellations Gemini, Taurus, Orion, and Canis Major from the astronomy freeware Stellarium.

Michael Rector is an amateur astronomer with his own blog, Adirondack Astronomy.

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Although he now lives in Clinton County, amateur astronomer Michael Rector has fond memories of spending time at Great Sacandaga and West Canada Lake where the skies are dark and the Milky Way is bright.

Michael writes about astronomy on his own blog Adirondack Astronomy and is interested in getting together with other star-gazers around the region. If you are interested in getting together for an occasional star party feel free to contact him at [email protected]


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