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The Night Sky of February

Dr. Wayne Wooten
Professor of Astronomy

For February 2014, the Moon will be a slender waxing crescent, 4 degrees north of Mercury in evening twilight on February 1st; look for them about an hour after sunset low in the SW. The moon is First Quarter on February 6th, then passes 5 degrees south of Jupiter as a waxing gibbous moon on February 11th. The full moon is on February 14th; this is the "hunger" moon in Native American tradition, when most of the food store up for winter was almost gone. The last two weeks find the moon waning in the morning sky. The waning gibbous moon passes 3 degrees south of Mars on February 19, with both rising in the SE about 10 PM. The last quarter moon occults Saturn of February 21st, but this disappearance will only be visible in the Indian Ocean area. By the time both arise about midnight locally, the moon will already be east of Saturn. The waning crescent moon occults Venus on February 26th, but again, only folks in the Indian Ocean basin will witness this spectacular event. The moon will be well east of Venus when both arise about 5 AM for us then. The waning crescent moon passes Mercury again on February 27th, passing three degrees north of it in the dawn. Note Mercury has moved from the evening into the morning sky in just four weeks.

Mercury is briefly visible just after sunset in the SW, with a nice grouping with the crescent moon on February 1st. It passes between us and the Sun on February 15th. Venus has now moved into the morning sky, and dominates the dawn. It is pulling away from the Sun and earth, and thus becomes smaller but more fully lit this month; she is 13% sunlit as February begins, but 36% sunlit by March 1st. Mars rises about midnight in Virgo as the month begins, and gets brighter and closer as we overtake it this month. It will be at opposition, with us overtaking it and passing between it and the Sun on April 8th; this will be the best time to study the red planet in the telescope for the next two years. Jupiter dominates the night sky, high up in the NE at sunset in Gemini.

Check out the four Galilean moons in a scope, and the belts and zones and Great Red Spot on the disk of the largest planet with it high in the sky in the evening sky. Saturn is now in Libra, and rising about midnight by monthís end. The ringed planet will be coming to opposition on May 10th. The rings are much more open than last year, and are open about 20 degrees now, compared to 27 degree when fully opened at Saturnís solstice in 2016; when this open, the huge reflecting surface of the ringís ice boulders will double the planetís brightness.

The constellation Cassiopeia makes a striking W in the NW. She contains many nice star clusters for binocular users in her outer arm of our Milky Way, extending to the NE now. Her daughter, Andromeda, starts with the NE corner star of Pegasusíí Square, and goes NE with two more bright stars in a row. It is from the middle star, beta Andromeda, that we proceed about a quarter the way to the top star in the W of Cassiopeia, and look for a faint blur with the naked eye. M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy, is the most distant object visible with the naked eye, lying about 2.5 million light years distant. Overhead is Andromedaís hero, Perseus, rises. Between him and Cassiopeia is the fine Double Cluster, faintly visible with the naked eye and two fine binocular objects in the same field. Perseus contains the famed eclipsing binary star Algol, where the Arabs imagined the eye of the gorgon Medusa would lie. It fades to a third its normal brightness for six out of every 70 hours, as a larger but cooler orange giant covers about 80% of the smaller but hotter and thus brighter companion as seen from Earth.

At Perseusí feet for the famed Pleiades cluster; they lie about 400 light years distant, and over 250 stars are members of this fine group. East of the seven sisters is the V of stars marking the face of Taurus the Bull, with bright orange Aldebaran as his eye. The V of stars is the Hyades cluster, older than the blue Pleiades, but about half their distance.

Yellow Capella, a giant star the same temperature and color as our much smaller Sun, dominates the overhead sky. It is part of the pentagon on stars making up Auriga, the Charioteer (think Ben Hur). Several nice binocular Messier open clusters are found in the winter milky way here. East of Auriga, the twins, Castor and Pollux highlight the Gemini. UWF alumni can associate the pair with Jason and the Golden Fleece legend, for they were the first two Argonauts to sign up on his crew of adventurers. In 2014, giant Jupiter sits in the middle of the constellation, far brighter than either of the twins.

South of Gemini, Orion is the most familiar winter constellation, dominating the eastern sky at dusk. The reddish supergiant Betelguese marks his eastern shoulder, while blue-white supergiant Rigel stands opposite on his west knee. Just south of the belt, hanging like a sword downward, is M-42, the Great Nebula of Orion, an outstanding binocular and telescopic stellar nursery. The bright diamond of four stars that light it up are the trapezium cluster, one of the finest sights in a telescope.

Just east of Betelguese is the obscure constellation Monoceros the Unicorn, notable this month for the beautiful cluster and nebula visible faintly with binoculars as NGC 2244 on your SkyMap chart. While the cluster is not as pretty as many others, it is so young it is still surrounded by the red hydrogen rich nebula giving birth to it, the Rosette Nebula, a fine cosmic rose for your Valentine. Our fine portrait is by EAAA member John VeDepo with a long exposure photo to bring out the fainter outer regions of the nebula.

In the east rise the hunterís two faithful companions, Canis major and minor. Procyon is the bright star in the little dog, and rises minutes before Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Sirius dominates the SE sky by 7 PM, and as it rises, the turbulent winter air causes it to sparkle with shafts of spectral fire. Beautiful as the twinkling appears to the naked eye, for astronomers this means the image is blurry; only in space can we truly see "clearly now". At 8 light years distance, Sirius is the closest star we can easily see with the naked eye.

When Sirius is highest, along our southern horizon look for the second brightest star, Canopus, getting just above the horizon and sparkling like an exquisite diamond as the turbulent winter air twists and turns this shaft of starlight, after a trip of about 200 years!

To the northeast, a reminder of Spring coming; look for the bowl of the Big Dipper to rise, with the top two stars, the pointers, giving you a line to find Polaris, the Pole Star. But if you take the pointers south, you are guided instead to the head of Leo the Lion rising in the east, looking much like the profile of the famed Sphinx. The bright star at the Lionís heart is Regulus, the "regal star". Fitting for our cosmic king of beasts, whose rising at the end of this month means March indeed will be coming in "like a lion".

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