Heads UP! for February 2014

It’s the time of year, when you go outside about mid-evening, your head points straight out of our galaxy. Turn to the northeast and you’ll be facing the direction our solar system is moving around the center of our galaxy. Look down and use your imagination to see the center of our galaxy. Think of yourself as a spoke on the great wheel of our galaxy, with five-sided figure of Auriga overhead framing your view across the outside arms of our galaxy and into extra-galactic space. In front of you, you might see the bright star Denab on the horizon. So, get outside and start surfing our galaxy, no telescope needed!

Now that we have our bearings for our galactic voyage, it’s hard to keep our eyes from the wonders of the winter sky extending from the tiny formation of hot, young blue stars in the Pleiades, through the V-shaped star cluster called the Hyades, and down past outstanding Orion. Don’t forget Canis Major; it has Sirius; seriously, the brightest star in the sky. To the upper left of the big dog, the little dog Canis Minor may have nothing exciting going on in his neighborhood, but it does have one of the brightest stars in the sky- Procyon. The Little Dog is often depicted on star maps as a single line connecting its two brightest stars, thus making it a handy response if someone challenges you to draw a constellation as quickly as possible.

Procyon is from two words in Greek that combine to mean ‘before the dog’. Thousands of years ago, Egyptians noticed each year’s first sighting of Sirius, the ‘dog star’, occurred just before the annual flooding of the Nile. So seeing the bright ‘before the dog’ star rising just before Sirius let them know the big dog was about to arrive, so it was time to get everybody out of the way as the rising Nile brought its annual give of silt to refresh the farmers’ fields.

Next up are the twins, Gemini, with Jupiter blazing brightly and inviting us to get the telescope out to see if the Great Red Spot has really become easier to see and if the giant planet has both its major dark cloud belts. A bonus is the four brightest moons shuttling back and forth from night to night.

The Moon on the 10th looks like it is being kicked out of the way by the feet of the Twins. The brightness of the Moon is likely to drown out fainter stars nearby, making it harder to see this scene. Perhaps we are also blinded by Jupiter, playing the part of a photographer’s bright flash? Also around the 10th, the Sun will be rising on the Jade Rabbit rover in Mare Irbrium. Will Yutu have survived another lunar night?

The galaxy M82, out ahead of the Big Dipper as it rises in the evening sky, is the site of a supernova. You’ll need a telescope to find the galaxy, with the supernova looking like a star in front of the galaxy.

Mercury starts the month by completing its best appearance in the evening sky for the northern hemisphere this year, low in the southwest. Mercury gets dimmer and dives to the horizon during the first week in February. Look for it as the brightest object in SOHO’s C3 camera around the 15th. Mercury comes back into view, joining the rest of the bright planets in the morning sky, but rising less than an hour before sunrise. Mercury stays low, but stays a long time, hanging out in the morning sky into April. On the 27th, the Moon proves it can be hard to find, too, when the faint crescent passes just to the upper right of Mercury. It’s worth looking for in binoculars.

Venus also stays low to the horizon before sunrise in February; and in March, April, May, June, July, August and September. Venus is brightest at magnitude minus 4.9 at midmonth, only 5½ light minutes away from Earth. In apparent size, Venus looks larger than mighty Jupiter until midmonth. On the 26th, the Moon looks like a baseball mitt ready to catch Venus, a nice photo op for any camera, if you have a clear southeast horizon.

Mars brightens up from magnitude +0.3 to minus 0.5 this month. It’s still tiny, only one-quarter the apparent size of Jupiter, but by the end of the month some details are in the reach of our telescopes. The Japan chapter of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers hosts photos of the planets taken by observers around the world. To see if Mars’ north polar ice cap has survived into Northern Hemisphere Summer, check out http://alpo-j.asahikawa-med.ac.jp/Latest/index.html .

Saturn is up in the southern sky in the morning. The planet’s shadow cast against the rings, open 23 degrees wide, makes a wonderful sight in a good telescope.

The International Space Station is an evening sight, passing over us almost every night this month. Check heavens-above.com for times each night.

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