Highlights of the February Night Sky
By Bob Haskins
Do your part and help preserve the dark skies that we are fortunate to have
in Waterville Estates. Turn off all unnecessary outdoor lighting
Go outside tonight and discover the night sky
The Planets: Evenings on the “Ecliptic” The Sun and the planets all follow an imaginary path in the sky called the ecliptic.
This month, as was January, is not the best month if you want to spot the planets in the night-time sky.
Mars is a shell of itself when compared to last July during its closest approach to Earth. It has since dimmed by almost four magnitudes. Look for it however in the SW halfway up in the sky during the first half of the month.
Mercury can be spotted toward the end of February at dusk in the W
Jupiter, Venus and Saturn line up from right to left on the ecliptic in the SE at dawn. Venus is the brightest of all at magnitude -4.1. On the 16th Venus and Saturn are very close together.
Stars and Constellations
The constellation Orion “The Hunter” is one of the few constellations that vividly suggests what it represents; in this case a mythological figure of a hunter with his club, sword by his side and his shield facing the horns of a charging bull. Look for three equally bright stars, all lined up in a row, in the south (see attached diagram). These stars represent his belt. His sword hangs from his belt and his shield is held by his outstretched arm. The bright star Rigel below the belt is his left foot. The fuzzy object in the sword is called a nebula (M42) or the Orion Nebula (Google it). The reddish star to the upper right of the belt and near his shield is Aldebaran, which represents the eye of Taurus the charging bull.
The bright star Sirius, the “dog star”, is located lower and to the left. If you are in the Estates it should be dark enough to make out the stick figure of a dog standing on its hind legs (refer to diagram). Sirius represents the head of the dog. Try and locate Pollux and Castor the “Twins”. Look south and bend your head back. The two bright stars about 5° apart , 3 finger breadths at arms length, represent the heads of the twins. Castor and Pollux were the mythical sons of the ancient Greek god, Zeus. I have drawn the “Winter Hexagon” , which is called an asterism (informal star pattern) in this month’s diagram which connects most of the important winter stars. See if you can connect the dots.
Last month and thirteen years after its launch , NASA’s New Horizons lived up to its name. The spacecraft had traveled past Neptune and Pluto out to the Kuiper Belt and visited and captured the image of Ultima Thule. This was an historic achievement for NASA. Thule, pronounced “th-u-lah” from the Swedish, meaning “beyond the borders of the known world” is the first image – it is shaped like a snowman – we have of an object in the Kuiper Belt. The late Gerard Kuiper, was the first to theorized in the 1950’s, the existence of these objects beyond our solar system. They were the building blocks of our planets. No pristine examples remain for us to study. They have been swallowed up by planets. Ultima Thule, however has been preserved in the deep freeze of the outer solar system for more than 4 billion years. It is truly a relic of the genesis of our planets.
Comment / Factoid of the Month
We live on a whiling ball of rock that rotates once every 24 hours at 1000 mph. The reason we don’t notice that we are moving is that the Earth is huge and we are pinned to the surface. We have evolved over many generations to think that the Earth is fixed and the sky spins around us. That is why we say the Sun rises. The stars move across the sky because we move under them.
Astronomy Websites to Explore
- heavens-above.com (satellites that are passing overhead)
- com (The evening sky map for the month)
- nasa.gov (sign up for alerts for the International Space Station)