Fred Barrett | Feb 03, 2016
Is there a Planet X out there? Gravitational irregularities are shaping the orbits of some very distant Kuiper belt objects far out in the outer Solar System.
Researchers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown at Caltech hypothesize that a very large planet some 5000 times the mass of Pluto, gravitationally dominates the area in its neighbourhood and has nudged six extremely distant objects into elliptical orbits that all point in the same direction in space even though their orbital speeds are all different. That rarely occurs. They are also all tilted downwards at a 30 degree angle and that is an extraordinarily rare and improbable occurrence in celestial mechanics!
Planet X, if it exists, is posited to be a gaseous planet and similar to Neptune and Uranus. The hunt is on to actually see and observe this possible planet. It is extremely difficult to discover an object that is so distant that the best guess for its orbital period is between 10,000 and 20,000 years. It is moving so slowly in its orbit that it is very hard to measure changes in its position over short time periods. Astronomers won’t acknowledge the existence of an astronomical object unless they can find it and see it. For now, Planet X will have to remain something possible but not provable in the short term.
You are in for a special treat during the first half of February about an hour before dawn. Grab your binoculars (you should always have them with you when you go out at night; you can be sure that astro fanatics like me always do! Well, maybe not all the time…) and marvel at the display of Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus and Mercury on display above the horizon and stretching from west to east. Mercury is hardest to find but Jupiter and Venus will be very obvious.
A large, imposing and beautiful sight to see from early evening on is the hourglass shape of the constellation Orion! A special jewel that is easy to find in the sword that hangs from Orion’s belt, is the Orion Nebula, M42. It’s hard not to find it in a pair of binoculars! Follow the line of Orion’s belt up and to the right to discover the Hyades open star cluster. Imbedded in it and part of the constellation Taurus, is the star Aldebaran, the baleful red eye of Taurus the Bull. If you continue on to the upper right you will discover the Seven Sisters, an open cluster also called the Pleiades. Taken from Greek mythology, the constellation is named for the seven divine daughters of Pleione. It must be noted that an observer with normal eyesight can easily see 7 stars in this open cluster. Binoculars will show a smorgasbord of many more bright young stars.
I have mostly Moon notices this month – and there’s nothing wrong with that!
February 6: Mercury, Venus and a waning crescent Moon make a beautiful triangle just before dawn. If you’re up at 3 am, the Moon passes 4 or 5 degrees north of Venus.
February 8: New Moon
February 10: The Moon is at perigee or its closest approach to Earth (36,229 Km) at 9:40 pm EST.
February 16: The Moon passes just north of Aldebaran around 3 am EST.
February 22: A full Moon occurs at 1:20 pm EST. This Full Moon is called the Full Snow Moon. February is usually the snowiest (and coldest) month of winter (except during Ottawa’s Winterlude). We’ll see this year! It is also called the Full Hunger Moon. Hunting for game to eat is much more difficult and grub is running pretty low.
February 23: The Moon passes just south of Jupiter around 11 pm EST.
February 26: The Moon is at apogee or its farthest point from the Earth (493,030 Km) at 10:28 pm EST.
There is a Comet in the sky during February. Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) passes a few degrees above the North Star Polaris on February 1. As the month progresses, it moves southward (upward) as the month progresses and passes between Camelopardalis, the Giraffe, and Cassiopeia. Binoculars should bring out this 6th magnitude comet under dark sky conditions. It’s a new visitor from the Oort cloud and it’s a help that it is passing through an area with no bright stars. Look for the fuzzy glow that marks the coma around its nucleus. Good hunting! Let me know how you do finding this visitor.
The Beginner’s Observer’s Guide by Leo Enright is available at the Sharbot Lake Pharmacy or by contacting the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada www.rasc.ca/publications, subscriptions for our very own excellent Canadian astronomy magazine, Sky News, are also available from RASC..