The long dark nights continue through February, but this does give us a chance to see some interesting objects in our night sky. This month features several planets. Sinead McNicholl has the details.
The planet Jupiter is still visible and impossible to miss as it is still shining brightly towards south-west just after sunset. However is will be quite low in the sky and you do need to be quick to catch a glimpse of this giant gas planet! It will set four hours after the Sun sets at the beginning of the month and by the end of February it will be setting only two hours after the Sun.
We do have another giant planet to spot this month. Saturn, the second largest planet, waits until its giant sibling has set before making an appearance. The ringed planet will be quite bright, but unlike Jupiter it will not be the brightest point of light in the sky, this accolade will return to Sirius which is the brightest star in our night sky in the constellation of Canis Major. To find Sirius use the three stars of Orion’s belt and follow them down in a straight line down towards the horizon and you will come to the brightest star in the heavens. The constellation of Orion is one of the most recognisable patterns and is still visible in our February night skies (see Colin Johnston’s January night sky guide for more information on this warrior of Greek mythology).
If you have a telescope I strongly suggest you point it towards Saturn as it will provide a spectacular sight. At the moment it has a unique feature in its clouds, a bright spot, which is actually a storm. This storm has truly excited astronomers as it seems to be expanding in size. It was first spotted by amateur astronomers before the NASA Cassini spacecraft took a closer image of this phenomenon. The picture below shows the storm brewing on Saturn’s surface.
If you are an early riser then you will be in for another treat during February as Venus will be shining brightly in the south-east during the morning. It does look like a brilliant shiny jewel just before dawn and will be on display for many months to come, vanishing in the predawn twilight in early July 2011. The planet is named after Venus the Roman goddess of love and is a sight worth getting up early to view especially with Valentines Day coming soon! Also keep an eye out on February 28 as it will team-up with the waning crescent Moon producing a dazzling display!
The Moon on February 11 passed close to the Pleiades star cluste,r also known as the ‘Seven Sisters’ located in the constellation of Taurus. They are called the Seven Sisters because on a clear night, if you have good eyesight and dark skies, you can see seven of them, although there may be more than 1400 stars in the cluster! They are mere youngsters at around 100 million years old, now, this does sound very old to us, but for stars they are actually very young, compare this to the age of our Sun which is 4.5 billion years old! In Greek mythology they were Seven Sisters placed into the heavens to protect them from the advances of Orion.
Seven days later on February 18, the Moon will be in its full Moon phase. For centuries, full Moons have been given specific names by various cultures from around the world. These special names helped people keep track of the seasons and were often inspired by nature. February’s full Moon was known by early Native American tribes as the Full Snow Moon as the heaviest snows usually fell during this time of the year. Since hunting is difficult during winter months it has also been known by some tribes as the Full Hunger Moon or Little Famine Moon. Forced to chew on bones and drink bone marrow soup for sustenance, the Cherokee named it the Full Bony Moon. The Celts called February’s Moon the Moon of Ice, while the more optimistic Chinese named it the Budding Moon as they eagerly looked forward to spring.
So there are lots of interesting objects to keep you looking to the skies this month. Make sure and take advantage of the dark evening skies as the equinox is on its way in March when daylight will gain on the darkness!
Article by Sinead McNicholl.