Home News In Depth Astronomy

February sky highlights

IMPORTANT news this month.

So who managed to see any Aurora recently?

If you aren't aware, the Sun has finally started to perform as it should as it approaches 'Solar Maximum'. This means that we get a chance to see the Northern Nights, especially if you live in such places as Scotland or Scandinavia or Alaska.

The Solar System is going to be giving us lot's to observe this month. There's more detail about what's going on with the planets a little later...

The constellations of Spring as starting to come into view later in the evenings, while those of Winter still shine brightly in the early evenings...

There are lots of celestial goodies to view, especially the constellation of Orion the Hunter which now sits due south in the mid evening. Orion is easily recognised by his three belt stars and hanging down from this is a line of stars that has a 'fuzzy' patch of light. This is the Great Orion Nebula and so is visible with the naked eye. Binoculars will show up its curving shape...

Another naked eye object that will reward a view with binoculars is the star cluster M44 otherwise known as the Beehive Cluster, a good description for it as the stars do look very much like a swarm of bees buzzing around a hive. The ancient Chinese had another name for it altogether and much more macabre they called it 'the exhalation of piled up corpses'. I think I'll stick to the 'Beehive Cluster'!

The Moon This Month

The 1st February sees the Moon displayed just past its 'first quarter' phase. If you are interested in having a go at taking pictures of our nearest neighbour in space, then around this phase is always a good time to experiment as you get long shadows around the 'terminator', the line which divides the lit and unlit portions of the Moon. The shadows help to make the craters and mountains stand out and appear more 3-dimensional.

Full Moon is on the 7th of the month and the Moon is now in the constellation of Cancer the Crab heading towards Leo. The bright star Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo should still be visible to the east (left) of the Moon, although the glare will wash out most of the other stars in this region of sky.

Two days later on the 9th the Moon will pass 10-degrees to the south (below) the planet Mars. Mars should still be visible, like the star Regulus, in spite of the glare from the almost full Moon.

New Moon occurs on 21st February. This is when the Moon and the Sun are in the same region of the sky, although as you might expect you do not always get a Total Solar Eclipse when this occurs due to Moon being slightly above (or sometimes below) the disc of the Sun. Over the next few days

If you would like to know more about the Moon, then there is loads of information on my website here.

The Planets This Month

The first interesting occurrence for the planets this month is on the 8th. If you have a small telescope, take a look at the bright planet Jupiter hanging in the south-western sky in mid-evening. At around 19:50 UT (same as GMT) you should be able to observe the four Galilean moons of the giant planet, but if you look closely using a medium to high magnification, you should be able detect a small dark spot on the cloud tops of Jupiter. This is the shadow of Jupiter's moon, Europa. It will transit the disc of the planet and is a fascinating event to watch.

The 9th February will see the very bright (magnitude -4.0) planet Venus makes a close approach to the much fainter planet Uranus (magnitude +5.9). If you have binoculars or a small telescope and have never seen the faint planet Uranus before, this is a good opportunity to hunt it down. Uranus will be found just under half a degree to the north east of Venus and has a small, faint greenish disc. Be careful that Venus doesn't dazzle you such that you can't see faint and distant Uranus. Venus show a 75% illuminated disc at the beginning of the month that decreases and gets more interesting to 64% lit at the end of the month.

Mars is now well on show in the constellation of Leo from the 4th and gets steadily better as we go through the month. It is easily seen with the naked eye as a salmony-pink coloured star in the south-east around midnight. It will increase in apparent size as the month progresses, but will still be quite small. It will take a medium to large sized telescope to show much detail although even a small scope should be able to detect the bright polar cap. An orange or red colour filter will help to bring out any visible features.

Deep Sky Highlights of February

Interesting objects in the late winter skies...

The first small object of desire I would like to point you to is Messier 1 (M1) in the constellation of Taurus The Bull. It lies quite near the star zeta Taurii, the star at the southernmost tip of the Bull's horns. M1 can be found about 1-degree (about the width of your thumb) to the north of zeta Taurii. This is a supernova remnant, a star which blew itself to pieces and was seen and recorded by ancient Chinese astronomers back in 1054AD. It was bright enough then to be seen in daylight. It is much fainter now and can be quite tricky to spot in anything less than a 3-inch aperture telescope. It is known as the Crab Nebula. One look through your telescope will show you why.
Next, if you move due east along the Zodiac into Gemini The Twins you can find the star Castor. What is interesting about this is that it is not just one star, but two. This is a binary or double star which can be split using a small telescope and each star is also a spectroscopic binary. This is where we can't see the other stars but know that they are there by splitting the light of these stars up into their constituent spectra. So Castor is in fact a quadruple star system.

Moving east once again along the Zodiac, takes us into the constellation of Cancer the Crab. I already mentioned the open star cluster M44 or the 'Beehive Cluster', but there is another interesting star cluster nearby that is often overlooked to the south of M44. This is Messier 67 (M67). This is interesting because it is though that the age of the stars in this cluster are around the same age as that of the Sun, so by studying these stars we can learn a little more about the history of stars like our own. Again this cluster can be found easily in binoculars, but has more to offer the telescope owner.

Finally, if you drop down low into the south find the bright star Sirius (you can't really miss it!), and keep going a little further south (about 4-degrees and you should come across the open star cluster Messier 41. This is easily visible in binoculars even though it is quite near the horizon from the UK. A small scope will show it well. It contains about 100 stars.

For those of you who have already bought or who are thinking of buying some of the eBooks and eCourse on our website, there will be some changes as to how we present and distribute them coming very soon. If you already own one or more of these, don't worry, we'll be getting in contact with you so that you can keep enjoying and using these products.

I'm delighted to say that my novel 'In The Lion's Paw' is selling well. I've been getting some really great reviews on Amazon too! If you've already read it and haven't done a review yet, please do, it really helps... So thanks in advance. This is it! Available in Kindle format from Amazon UK and Amazon USA and if you (like so many) prefer to hold the book in your hand and turn the pages, you can get the print version here

This Newsletter is now available as a 'Podcast'. Yes, that's right you can download an mp3 file with my dulcet tones giving you the lowdown on what can be seen in the sky this month. Put it on your iPod and take a tour of the skies in real time! So give it a go here... It's also now to be found broadcast on 'Astronomy FM' Internet Radio Under British Skies I did an interview for them about my book too, which will be broadcast at 8:00pm on 19th February!

If you would like to keep up to date on a more immediate basis than just the monthly Newsletter, then you can join my Facebook group Astronomy Know How with Ninian Boyle by clicking 'like' on that page, or follow me on Twitter. I put more up to date news and events on there. It would be great if you could join me!

I wish you clear skies,