Heads UP! for February 2010

This month, Jupiter drops out of the sky as we hide from it behind the sun, but it’s replaced by Venus low in the evening sky.  Mars is a bright reddish dot in the east after sunset.  But don’t worry about Venus – this summer, Venus will be brilliant in the evening sky.

In February, the Moon lines up with various planets in breathtaking views, but they happen in narrow corners of the twilight evening and morning sky.

Let’s start with the brightest stuff in the sky.

Mars is the bright red dot on the opposite part of the sky from where the sun sets.   Compare it to some of the brightest stars and you’ll see that its light is steadier.  The stars are so far away that they are the tiniest of pinpoints.  The planets are dots not pinpoints and look steadier in the sky.  You’ll need a telescope to see any detail on Mars.  Pick out the polar ice cap at one end and then look for subtle gray markings in the center of the disk.  When Mars is higher in the sky, with its light passing through less atmosphere, the faint details are more evident.

Saturn rises later in the evening.  Use an interactive star map, where you can set the time and date and print it out so you can pick out Saturn from bright stars competing for attention.  (A number of web sites have interactive sky maps – heavens-above.com and Sky and Telescope are just two of them.)  Use a telescope for Saturn’s rings, which are looking thinner again.

There are some rewarding sights to see if you want to peer deep into the bright twilight before sunset and after sunrise.  On the 16th, about 5:45pm, just after sunset, spot the moon about one-third of the way up from the horizon.  Use your binoculars and move slowly down toward the horizon.  Just above the horizon are two bright white dots, Jupiter and Venus.  If you really like this game of ‘find the planets’, then try it two days earlier on the 14th when the moon will be in the same binocular field as Jupiter and Venus very low in the brightest part of the sky right after sunset.  Harder to find, but even prettier.

In the morning sky, the moon hangs with Mercury from the 10th through the 12th, 30 minutes before sunrise.  Mercury will be to the lower left of the moon on the 10th and 11th and both will be hard to see in the brightest part of twilight on the 12th.  The Sky and Telescope web should have good finder charts in their weekly sky report.

Find a minor planet

Vesta is a pain in the neck this month – the neck of Leo the lion.  Get any good star chart and find Leo and its brightest star, Regulus in the lion’s front leg.  Go outside late in the evening and follow the stars that curve around the lion’s neck and mane.  (They also look like a backwards question mark.)  While you can look anytime this month, (see the finder chart at Sky and Telescope’s web site) Vesta passes through an easy-to-find pair of stars on the 16th and 17th.  Have your binoculars ready and follow the front of the lion up two bright stars from Regulus.  This is the star in the neck of the lion.  Now use your binoculars or small telescope to see Vesta, which will be a readily visible, fainter dot between two moderately bright stars.  Check again the next night and see how Vesta has moved.

I’ll have a separate post on the upcoming Shuttle launch, planned for 4:45am on the 5th.  This is the last nighttime launch scheduled for the Shuttle program and it will be visible low in the southeast that morning, with a crescent moon in the scene.

The International Space Station is visible for a few minutes on many mornings pre-sunrise during this month.  Check heavens-above.com for times for your location.

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