What’s Up in the Night Sky? - February 2018

Written by  Wednesday, 31 January 2018 13:17
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I must apologize for not providing a column for the last 2 months. Some family matters needed to be addressed. But, I’m back.

If this column arrives at your mailbox before January 31st, be aware that a second Full Moon for January will occur on that date. It’s called a Blue Moon when 2 Full Moons occur in the same month. It is also a full lunar eclipse. Sadly our area is too far east and for us the eclipse begins around 6:45 am. The Moon sets long before it can reach totality. Don’t grieve too much. There’s another total lunar eclipse of the Moon due in July.

It’s Orion’s time of year. If you go outside about 7 pm in the evening, it is gloriously high in the south. It’s one of the highlights for winter observing. There are plenty of objects to explore and I’m going to point out some of them in Orion and nearby Taurus. Orion has an hourglass shape. Across the middle is a belt of 3 stars. Facing Orion, you will see on the left end of the belt, east, a few stars going downward.

This is known as Orion’s sword and at its end is the spectacular Orion Nebula. It can be viewed by eye but it is truly a sight in 7X50 wide field binoculars. By the way, the hourglass shape is only part of Orion’s full outline of stars. It would be more accurate to call the hourglass part an ‘asterism’. Many patterns of stars that resemble everyday objects are often named by what they resemble. They are often used as landmarks (or skymarks!) to help you find your way about the sky. An example would be that part of Ursa Major the looks like a big pot or dipper. Everyone calls it the Big Dipper. At the top of the hourglass of Orion are 3 stars that look like a roof. Draw a line from the leftmost star, Betelgeuse, through the middle star and follow it for about 15 degrees. You will arrive at Aldebaran, the baleful red eye of the constellation Taurus. Aldebaran is situated in the V shape cluster of stars known as the Hyades. In actual fact, Aldebaran, at 68 light years, is only half as far as the Hyades star cluster. It just happens to be in the line of sight.

Go straight north from the top of Orion for some 20 or so degrees and you will arrive at the constellation Auriga. It appears, while you face south, as an upside down house. Within its area are several star clusters – M35, M36, M37, M38. There is also a nebula – M1, the Crab Nebula, It is the expanding remnant of a supernova explosion that occurred in 1054. I was documented by Chinese, Korean and Japanese astronomers. Get your binoculars out and find them. They are quite easy.

If you continue on the same line you mentally drew from Orion for another 15 degrees, there is a second famous cluster in Taurus – the Pleiades. It is nicknamed the Seven Sisters. A keen eyed observer can see at least 7 stars naked eye. In binoculars many more can be found.

Taurus is considered to be one of the oldest constellations known and with the Pleiades, recognizable in cave drawings dating back to 12,000 BCE. In Greek myth, the god Zeus was transformed into a bull, Taurus. This was meant to capture the attention of Princess Europa. Pretty difficult to ignore a love struck bull! The Hyades cluster was meant to represent the sisters of Hyas, a great archer. When their brother was killed, their loss was so extreme, they died of grief. Zeus placed them in the sky to honour their mourning.

There are no meteor showers from early January to late April but an intrepid observer can go out on a clear night and see 6 to 12 meteors an hour. A special treat during the first half of February is the Zodiacal light. It continues into March but in the first half of February, it is more viewable because the Moon is out of the early evening sky. Miniscule particles of dust and debris line the plane of the Solar System along the positions of the Zodiac constellations.

Look to the western horizon and you will see this debris as a pyramid or cone shaped soft glow of light rising up into the sky. We haven’t had planets in the sky for a few months but February offers a few. Look west in late February just after sunset and you will see bright Venus about 5 degrees above the horizon with fainter Mercury just below it. Just before dawn Mars, Jupiter and Saturn assemble in the morning sky and provide exceptional views until the Sun comes up. Jupiter rises about 2 am in early February and by midnight by the end of the month. The dance of its 4 main moons is fascinating to follow from night to night. Mars follows Jupiter about an hour later. Saturn rises in the southeast about an hour before sunrise on February 1st. By the end of the month, Saturn is about 15 degrees high at twilight.

Feb, 7: Last quarter Moon.

Feb. 8: The waning crescent Moon is half way between Mars and Jupiter. The Moon passes 4 degrees north of Mars at midnight.

Feb. 11: The Moon is at apogee – 403,344 Km.

Feb. 15: New Moon.

Feb. 23: First quarter Moon.

Feb. 27: The Moon is at perigee – 361,819 Km.

Keep looking up!

“The Beginners Observing Guide” by Leo Enright is an invaluable companion to find adventure in the sky. It contains star charts and is packed with information. It can be purchased at the Sharbot Lake pharmacy or can be ordered from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada at www.rasc.ca/publications. A subscription to our very own excellent Canadian astronomy magazine, SkyNews, can be ordered at the RASC website as well. Email me at fred.barrett2@sympatico,ca to ask questions or report any unusual sights in the sky.

Clear skies, Fred

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