The shortest month of the year holds a lot of promise when it comes to the nights sky and whether you are making plans for Valentine’s Day or still wondering how we have reached February already, it is worth pencilling in a few nights for stargazing this month.
For the past few months, Jupiter has been gracing our skies, if you haven’t had a chance to see it yet in all its glory, this month is definitely the time to take the opportunity. On the 6th of February Jupiter will be at its closest approach to the Earth at 404 million miles or 650 million kilometres. Jupiter comes into opposition with the Earth every 13 months but this close encounter at so mere a distance won’t happen again until 2019. It will be fully illuminated at this time making it the best time to observe the gas giant. If you can get hold of a medium-sized telescope, the bands will even be visible but that doesn’t mean a pair of binoculars won’t leave you awe-struck from the details on Jupiter’s surface and surrounding moons.
Throughout the month of February there will be a treat in the night’s sky for observers, and this comes in the form of a green comet. Comet Lovejoy has been lighting up skies from before Christmas, however prime viewing location was in the Southern Hemisphere. Throughout January Comet Lovejoy has been visible in the Northern Hemisphere and up until the 24th of February it will be visible by telescope.
Comet Lovejoy was first spotted by its namesake and Australian astronomer Terry Lovejoy. It was first viewed at a very low magnitude and through the 8 inch lens of his backyard telescope. Although the comet wasn’t predicted to be visible to the naked eye until January or February 2015, it has been a welcome surprise to everyone able to admire its beauty in the night’s sky. With this in mind, it is important to remember that comets are unpredictable as the surface is chaotic with heating and melting occurring as it approaches the Sun. Due to this, it is difficult to predict when a comet will be visible.
Despite Comet Lovejoy only being discovered on the 17th of August 2014, this is not its first visit to the inner Solar System. It is a long period comet and originally Comet Lovejoy orbited the Sun every 13,500 years however it is now estimated to orbit the sun every 11,500 years. To enhance the unpredictability of comets further, it is expected that due to planetary perturbations that the orbit will adjust once more to around 8000 years.
From the 2nd of February, Comet Lovejoy will be passing through the constellation of Triangulum, a small and lesser-known constellation before coming to a close conjunction with a double star called Almach in the constellation of Andromeda. Further into the month, around the 18th of February and into the early hours of the morning, Comet Lovejoy will be moving into the constellation of Serpens. Although Comet Lovejoy at this stage cannot be seen with the naked eye, it will be visible with binoculars until the middle of February. For telescope owners, there will be another few weeks after this to track the comet’s progress; of course this depends on the ever variable chance of clear skies.
The 20th of February marks the New Moon when the Moon will be directly between the Earth and the Sun. This means the Moon will not be visible, however opens up the opportunity to look at more distant and fainter objects in the night’s sky. Located in the renowned zodiac sign and popular animal in the night’s sky Taurus is the beautiful and famous star cluster of the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters. With a bit of luck and a cloudless sky, this beautiful star cluster will leave observers awe-struck. The amazing fact about the Pleiades is that this is a young star cluster of only 100 million years old, it is gradually expanding and many scientists theorise that planets could form around the stars in this cluster in a few million years.
If star clusters aren’t for you, there is plenty more to see in the dark night’s sky. Close to the Plough is an interesting galaxy that as of last year became popular worldwide. The galaxy M82 is visible through any size telescope in a dark area away from light pollution and cloud cover. It became of particular interest in January 2014 when students at University College London where learning how to use a campus telescope. Upon photographing the M82 with a CCD Camera, they soon realised they had imaged a supernova. Soon after astronomers has worked out the students has imaged a Type-1a Supernova, the result of a white dwarf star collecting material in a binary star system.
The M82 is a bright and irregularly shaped galaxy. At five times brighter than the Milky Way, it is known as a starburst galaxy as star formation within is taking place at a rapid rate. Scientists believe this is the after effect of a galaxy collision a few hundred million years previously.
February 22nd leaves viewers with a rare event as Mars and Venus come into conjunction. This is when the two planets come within a close distance of each other and on this date specifically the two planets will appear with only a half degree of each other from the Earth in the western nights sky. So if you are interested in seeing both the red planet and planet of love, look in the direction of Pisces the Fish at around 7pm on the 22nd of February. Strangely although Mars and Venus appear side by side in the night’s sky, these planets are not close together in space. However if you were on the planet Mars at this time, interestingly you would see the planet Earth and Venus close together as well. The good news is that these planets can be seen through binoculars, so if you get a clear, dark night make the most of this opportunity as these planets won’t be close to each other again until October.
Neptune appears at a solar conjunction in the sky this month, from Earth this means the furthest planet in our Solar System will look very close to our Sun as it passes around the far side of the solar system. Due to its position on the 26th of February, it will not be observable for many weeks as it will be blanketed by the Sun’s glare. It is important not to point a telescope at Neptune when it is in solar conjunction as it is far too close to the sun and can cause damage to eyes or even blindness. At this stage Neptune will also be at its furthest position from the Earth as the two planets will be on opposite sides of the solar system. However over the next few weeks, Neptune will reappear to the west of the Sun and become visible for longer periods of time. The movement of this distant world will be an interesting journey and one to keep checking up on throughout the year.
So wrap up warm, make a warm flask of hot chocolate and take to your back garden to enjoy the wonders of the February skies.
(Article by Samantha Steed, Education Support Officer)