Heads UP! for February 2011

This month: Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, our Moon, the winter stars and our space station

Three bright planets are easy to find this month. Jupiter continues its fine show as the brightest dot in the evening sky, welcoming homecoming commuters. There’s a lot to look for on Jupiter; steadily held binoculars will show up to four moons, the moons and Jupiter’s dark belts are easier to see with a telescope. Uranus is nearby, easy to see with binoculars, but you’ll need a finder chart (I do!) to pick out Uranus from the other starry objects in Jupiter’s neighborhood.

Venus still blazes brightly, brighter than anything natural in the pre-sunrise sky (except our Moon). If you are waiting for your train before sunrise, look up and to the right of where the sky is staring to glow. Observers with binoculars will not see much special on Venus, since the brightness of this cloud-covered planet makes its shape hard to see. But a finder chart will direct you to the minor planet Vesta, closest in the sky to Venus on the 8th. Near Vesta in the sky, but not visible with any optical aid, is the space probe Dawn, which will pull up alongside Vesta in about 5 months.

To observe Saturn you need to get out before morning twilight or stay up to midnight (perhaps as only as early as 10pm by the end of the month). Saturn is in the southern sky in the morning before sunrise. While Saturn is very bright – only a few stars are brighter – it’s not obvious to the casual observer unless you know the stars in that part of the sky or have a map. Saturn’s rings have opened up a bit, so Saturn is getting its classic look back. If you see a tiny dot nearby in the telescopic view, it may be Saturn’s moon Titan, the second largest moon in the Solar System. When you look at Saturn, you are seeing the top of a thick gaseous atmosphere, an icy ring thousands of miles across, but only as thick as a football field is long and a moon with a surface pressure fifty percent higher than Earth’s. Not bad for one glance though the eyepiece.

For those of us with tree-lined yards and other obstructions, the evening Moon is high in the sky from the 9th through the 14th. Thanks to the long shadows cast by the lunar sunrise, we get to see a wide range of spectacular moonscapes from night to night, ranging from the 15,000 foot high Apennines Mountains to the 55-mile wide crater Copernicus. Nice places to visit with binoculars or any kind of telescope.

The sparkly winter constellations are front and center in the southern sky. This is Orion’s moment to stand up and get your attention during TV’s Prime Time evening hours. In dark skies, the Milky Way is like a see-saw with its balance straight overhead. As the night passes, the Westchester Amateur Astronomers’ favorite constellation, w-shaped Cassiopeia, is on the sinking side of the teeter-totter with the twins of Gemini on the upside. Perhaps Leo the lion, rearing up in the east, is giving the twins a push.

The International Space Station overflies our area in the dawn sky for a few minutes on most mornings though the 13th and during most evenings in the dusk sky starting on the 18th. Space Shuttle Discovery moves back to Pad 39A for another launch attempt at 4:50pm on Feb. 24.

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