Heads UP in the sky for February

Our Westchester Astronomers newsletter for February is out!
Go to http://www.westchesterastronomers.org/

or click on this link to open the newsletter

Here’s the almanac portion for February…
February may be the shortest month, but we have a lot to look at this month and an exciting month of March to prepare for.

Comets are on everyone’s mind. PanSTARRS, the featured comet for March, is too far south to see from our latitude in February. A web site, http://www.aerith.net/comet/weekly/current.html, provides updated forecasts of comet brightness and visibility, using observers’ reports and formulas for predicting the potential brightness of comets. So, we wait and listen for reports from the other hemisphere.

For another month, Jupiter is the star of the show, and seemingly has the stage all to himself. Now it’s the brightest star-like object in the sky, high in the evening sky all month. Spend some time watching Jupiter’s moons go in and out of the planet’s shadow; it really gives the Jovian system that 3D effect (without the 3D glasses!). While you’re in the neighborhood, there is much to see, with the Pleiades (looking like a small dipper) and Hyades (like a large ‘V’) star clusters. Just over to the lower right are the wonders of Orion. Going deeper into Jupiter’s neighborhood, take a look for Vesta and Ceres. At magnitudes 7.8 and 8.1, respectively, and getting fainter, this is a great time to get a good map of their locations and see these star-like points of light that are being investigated by the Dawn spacecraft.

Nearby, you can go really deep and find the Crab Nebula by following the left side of the Hyades cluster’s V, past very bright Aldebaran out to the next bright star – the end of the horn of Taurus the Bull. The Crab is a tiny, faint, cloud, M1 on Messier’s list of comet-like objects. It’s not much to look at, but it’s home to an even fainter super-rapidly pulsating star (too faint for me at mag 16- my eight-inch scope only goes to 14). All this was formed in a supernova explosion in 1054, visible in daytime. But it’s worth a look, since you were in the neighborhood anyway. If you want to fish for more than crab, get your own copy of Turn Left at Orion (now in its 4th edition)!

Venus is very bright at mag -3.9, but racing ahead of us in its inner orbit, it dives deep into the Sun’s glare, surfacing in the evening sky in May. Mars seems to still stubbornly refuse to enter the glare, but is very low in the western evening sky. Mercury passes by on the 8th, its glow of mag -1.0 helping us find Mars, one-seventh as bright at mag +1.2. In a telescope, you can compare tiny Mars’ 4 arc seconds vs. Mercury’s 50% larger 6 arc seconds. How much magnification do you need to see the differences in their colors and phases? Then Mercury moves a bit further out from the Sun, with one of the best appearances in the evening sky for the year through the third week in February. The thin Moon joins the scene, just above them, on the 11th.

Another preparation activity is to prepare now for the partial solar eclipse that will block out half the sun at sunrise on November 3rd. Around February 8th the sun will rise at about the same place on the horizon as on November 3rd. So the 8th is the best time to see where the Sun will be on the horizon when the eclipse will occur, so you can test out framing the sunrise with interesting foreground objects in advance of the eclipse.

Our Moon makes a close pass by Spica in Virgo on the morning of the 28th. Spica disappears behind in Moon as seen from south of the USA border. The Moon is equidistant from Jupiter on the 17th and 18th. Compare this to the nearer passes in January and another near pass upcoming in March. (Get a photo of the couple with any camera or even a camera-phone.) Saturn gets to pair up with the Moon on the 3rd and on March 1st and 2nd. (Better start planning for those early March events, since February will be over before you know it!)

Solar cycle number 24 has been quieter than cycle 23, but we get to see some large sunspots from time to time, with properly filtered telescopes. Check spaceweather.com or photos from one of the solar satellites, like SOHO, to see when it’s worth doing some astronomy with our daytime star. Look while you can, since three distinct methods of predicting future solar cycles all say that the next 11-year cycle, number 25, will be very weak.

The International Space Station makes passes during evening twilight most evenings from the 6th through the 28th. Can you track it with binoculars, or even more challenging, with a wide-field telescope, and see the shapes of its solar wings?

One more thing – an asteroid slips through the Earth-Moon system on the 15th. This 150-foot wide object will pass 18,000 miles from the Earth’s surface during nighttime in Europe, Asia and Australia, close enough to perceptively move while watching it, even in a small telescope. They will see a mag 8 speck in their scopes, but 2012DA14 will be 11th magnitude by the time it gets dark in the eastern USA- getting dimmer and moving more slowly.


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