Sky Events for February
Winter skies of February have much to offer. Orion is still dominating the constellations, and its' bright stars can be used to find other constellations. Jupiter and Saturn are up most of the night.
If you've ever wanted to start stargazing, this month is a great time to have a go. Besides some of the brightest stars being visible, there are two planets worth watching and one of them will have an encoun with the moon.
Orion has more bright stars than any other constellation, and in February it's as high as it will get in the southern sky. Four of Orion's bright stars make a lopsided rectangle. Midway up in the rectangle are the three bright stars making up Orion's belt. These stars run from upper right to lower left. Orion is easily recognizable and we can use its' stars to find other stars.
Orion symbolizes a great hunter in mythology. The upper stars in the rectangle mark his shoulders and the lower two stars mark his feet. Some say he is battling with Taurus the bull, the constellation to his right. If you extend a line through Orion's belt to the right, about the length of two fists held at arm's length, you will come to a bright orange star Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus the Bull.
Aldebaran is part of a "v" shaped group of stars rather close together, all part of an open cluster called the Hyades. A bit further up on the right, you will see a small cluster of stars so close together you could cover them with your fist. These are the Pleiades, or seven sisters though you can actually see only six stars. Incidently, if you drive a Suburu, this group of stars is on your car . Suburu is Japanese for Pleiades! Both the Hyades and Pleiades are rewarding for binoculars and telescopes. Also lurking near these stars is Saturn.
Now go back to Orion's belt. Extend the line down to the left and you will come to the brightest star in the sky, Sirius. This is the jewel of the constellation Canis Major, the greater dog.
Nearly overhead is another bright yellowish star Capella, in Auriga the charioteer. Near that is what at first looks like an even brighter star, but is in fact Jupiter. On the opposite side of Jupiter from Capella is Procyon, brightest star in Canis Minor, the lesser dog.
Just about the opposite side of Jupiter from Orion are two fairly bright stars, Pollux and Castor. These mark the heads of Gemini the twins.
If you have high powered binoculars or a small telescope there are a number of bright star clusters all fairly close together and worth looking at. Refer to the maps on starryskies.com. There are three in Auriga: M38, M36, and, brightest of the three, M37. Not far from Jupiter in the sky, right off Gemini's northern feet, is M35 - a dim glow in binoculars and a vast stellar swarm in a telescope. And don't forget the Orion nebula down from the middle star in Orion's belt.
Binoculars of telescope will show Jupiter and it's four brightest moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. These are known as the Galilean moons after Galileo who first saw them through a telescope.
Saturn is not as bright as Jupiter but it's rings are in a great angle for viewing and they're worth looking at. Even a small telescope in fairly dark skies will show a difference between the brighter and broader inner B ring and the thinner outer A ring. These bright rings span more than 21 Earth diameters across.
Saturn and the Moon have a close encounter worth watching. Early in the evening on February 20th we will get to see a waxing gibbous Moon occult Saturn. The ringed planet will disappear spectacularly behind the Moon starting on the dark edge. You can see this with the naked eye but binoculars or telescope will give a fantastic show!
Venus passes with 0.7 degrees of Uranus
Copyright © 2001 Kathy A. Miles and Charles F. Peters II