So we have come to the shortest month of the year; we made it through the most depressing month of the year (according to science) and are within touching distance of spring. The days are getting longer and longer, but we still have plenty of time to get out stargazing while it’s dark early and we can still go to bed at a reasonable hour (9pm promptly for me).
One of the first celestial events in the shortest month of the year is the full moon on the 9th, and not only do we get a lovely bright moon in our sky, this full moon will be the first supermoon of the year! Supermoons occur when the moon is at 90% or more of its closest approach to Earth. The February full moon even has two names, The Snow Moon and The Hunger Moon. These names were given to this full moon by early Native American tribes because of the large volume of snow at this time of year, and because hunting was difficult due to the harsh weather.
In the southern sky in the evenings, the constellation Lepus the hare hops across the sky close to the horizon. This constellation is made up of eight major stars and some think that it represents the hare being chased by Orion and his hunting dogs.
In other cultures the constellation is associated with lunar mythology – in the far east there is a mythical rabbit or hare who lives on the moon, grinding endlessly away at a mortar and pestle, whose contents differ from culture to culture. In China, where the myth is thought to have originated, the rabbit (or hare) is a companion of the moon goddess Chang’e (who the Chinese series of moon landers are named after) , and is making the elixir of life for her (maybe we should look to rabbits for the secret to longer lives?).
There is a very interesting object within the borders of the constellation Lepus, a globular cluster named Messier 79. This is one of the few globular clusters visible in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter, most of them are only visible in the summer as they orbit the centre of the milky way, which we are facing in the summer.
Globular clusters are very old spherical groups of stars, which are held together by gravity. Globular clusters contain no gas or dust, just really old stars. Most of the stars in M79 are red giants.
Another constellation on view in the February Night sky is Auriga. The name Auriga means ‘the charioteer’, because the stars that make it up form a shape similar to that of a charioteer’s pointy helmet. The charioteer is depicted as holding a goat in his left arm and the chariot’s reins in the other, and although the charioteer is thought by some to represent the inventor of the four-horse chariot, Erichthonius, none of the stories about Erichthonius contain a goat. Neither are goats associated with other figures that Auriga is said to depict, such as Hephaestus (coincidentally father of Erichthonius), who supposedly invented the chariot to help him get around, as he could not walk without a cane. Another story (again missing the all-important goat) which is associated with the constellation Auriga is that of Myrtilus, who, by the order of King Oenomaus, challenged all suitors of Hippodamia (Oenomaus’ daughter) to a chariot race (the story doesn’t end there and in fact involves a lot more death, cheating and cursing of names, but I’ll leave that for another time).
So, despite the stories of the charioteers containing no goats whatsoever, the brightest star in the constellation of Auriga is called Capella, meaning ‘she-goat’ and represents Amalthea, the goat who was the foster mother of Zeus. There were some unusual family dynamics going on in ancient Greece. Capella is the 6th brightest star in the night sky and is actually a binary star system. The two stars can be seen separately with a telescope.
There are also three messier objects to look out for in Auriga, M36, M37 and M38. All three are open clusters of stars which were all born at the same time and will spread out as they age.
Auriga also has the distinction of being the constellation which holds the galactic anti-centre. This is the point which is opposite in the sky to the galactic centre (centre of the milky way). So when we are looking this way in winter we are taking a peek outside our own galaxy. Even though the only thing we can see outside our galaxy in this direction (with the naked eye) is darkness. Never…ending…darkness…
Moving on we come to a rather magical constellation in the sky. Although there are no bright stars in this constellation, it has some interesting objects within it, and it’s worth looking at just for the fact that it is a unicorn. Or Monoceros in Latin (pronounced like rhinoceros, pleasingly). And just in time for valentine’s day, one of the objects in Monoceros is M50 – the heart-shaped cluster! This is yet another open cluster (boring by now) and while it might be hard to make out its heart shape with the naked eye, with a big enough telescope you can see at least 40 blue-white stars.
When looking out for planets this month, look out for Mercury on the 10th, where it will be at its greatest eastern elongation. I tried to explain the mathematics in simple terms but failed to even explain it to myself. So, basically, this means that Mercury will be at its highest point above the horizon in the evenings. However, Mercury will still be quite low in the sky, and it will appear in the west.
Mars can also be seen at this time of year in the west of the sky in the constellation of Pisces the fish at the start of the month, moving into Aries towards the end of the month, in the evenings before it sets below the horizon. And, at the very start of the month, right before dawn, Venus and Jupiter will appear next to each other and both very close to the horizon. Venus will stay close to the horizon and only visible right before dawn all month, while Jupiter will move away from Venus and South, becoming further from the horizon as the month goes on. On the 18th of the month Saturn will come close to Venus in the southeast, and again, this will be just before dawn and just above the horizon.
Finally, nearing the end of the month, we have the new moon, which is the best time to look at the stars, with no light from that pesky old moon getting in the way. So get going and have a go at stargazing, break out the telescope you got for Christmas or treat yourself to a pair of binoculars and make the most of the cold, early nights of winter. Don’t forget the gloves (if you even need them, what with global warming and all)! On that cheery note, have a great February!