Sky Notes February 2016

Sky Notes for February  2016            Geoff Mitchell

The mid winter skies herald the constellations of  Leo,  Cancer , Gemini ,  Auriga , Taurus, and  Orion   The Milky Way stretches from  `W ` shaped  constellation  of Cassiopeia , through the constellation of  Perseus high overhead down through Auriga and down into Gemini  in the  south  east.  In the north a binocular visible comet C/2013 US10 (Catalina) passes the Pole star Polaris (Feb 1st) and fades in brightness through the month (see notes). A moderate sized telescope shows a round coma and a hint of a fan shaped tail.

Taurus has the red star Aldebaren and the V shaped Hyades star cluster and the famous Pleiades star cluster (M45) also known as the Seven Sisters cluster.  Taurus can be seen in the east by early evening.

Auriga has the bright star Capella and can be seen overhead and slightly above Taurus.  The rich background of stars of the Milky Way is best seen on moonless evenings from outside the light from the town and the three fine star clusters M36, M37 and M38 can all be seen using binoculars.

In the south  the familiar constellation of Orion can be seen early evening , noted by the three stars of Orion’s belt , the red giant star Betelgeuse  (top left) , the white star Rigel (bottom right ) and the misty patch of the Orion Nebula (M42)  of  the sword  , just below the belt stars.  M42 is a fine object when viewed with binoculars or a telescope, the hot young stars known as `The Trapezium ` light up the surrounding clouds of gas and dust that form the nebula. Follow the line of the belt stars downward to find the white ` Dog star ` Sirius, the brightest star in our night skies.  Below Sirius is M41 an open star cluster for binoculars / small telescope.

High In the west the large box shaped constellation of Pegasus is tilted at 45° and can be a useful signpost to finding the constellation of Andromeda, a chain of several stars just east of Pegasus and is famed for the Andromeda Galaxy (M31). Visible to the unaided eye from dark skies on moonless evenings as a faint misty patch, the galaxy can best be seen in binoculars.  Also a faint comet C/2013 X1 (Panstarrs) is currently in outburst and may be brighter than predicted,  passing below the square of Pegasus towards Pisces and the `Circlet` asterism of stars , a challenge perhaps to advanced telescopic observers and astro imagers at  magnitude 8.5m as it heads into twilight skies . Another periodic comet  P/2010 V1 (Ikeya- Murakami) , orbital period 5.29 years moves through Leo , above the Sickle asterism , however at the time of writing reports suggest that it is too faint for amateur observation ( astro imaging only ) fainter than 15 magnitude.  Comet C/2014 S2 Panstarrs in the constellation Draco is reported at 9.5m and fading after an outburst (see notes)

By mid evening, the rectangular shaped constellation of Gemini is well placed.    Use the two stars of Castor and Pollux in Gemini to point to the faint (inverted Y shaped) constellation of Cancer (The Crab) in the east. The Praesepe (Beehive) cluster (M44) can be seen as a misty patch on moonless nights, located in Cancer, about half way between Pollux and the bright star Regulus in Leo rising low in the east. Binoculars show this nice cluster well but it is a wonderful sight in a small telescope.

Low In the north west the familiar circumpolar stars of  Vega  ( in the constellation Lyra ),  Deneb ( in Cygnus , or  The northern Cross   dip into evening twilight and appear low in the north by midnight. In the north the constellation of Ursa Major, The Great Bear, with The Plough asterism can be seen low down. standing on its handle  Use the right hand pair of stars  Dubhe  and Merak  (The pointers ) to find the faint pole star Polaris five times the separation of the two stars and hence  the position of North .

The constellation of Leo rises late evening and is easily identified by the reversed question mark asterism known as `The Sickle`  and the bright star Regulus . Leo and Virgo herald the spring skies and the realm of the galaxies of the Virgo / Coma cluster of Galaxies, the brightest members of which can be seen with moderate telescopes on clear moonless evenings.

The bright planet Jupiter is found just below Leo, (Denebola) rising late evening by mid February. Jupiter is at opposition in early March and binoculars show a small disk and the four Galilean moons changing position night to night. Small telescopes show more detail of the famous cloud belts. Telescopes of 20cm aperture or larger show more detail and also events such as shadow transits etc of the Galilean moons casting dark shadow disks onto the planets disk. The famous Great Red Spot is more straw coloured and may be seen at predicted times.

Planets in February 2016

Mercury appears  very low in the dawn skies with greatest elongation on 7th February.

Venus shines brightly in the dawn skies with a thin waning crescent Moon and Mercury on Feb 6th

Mars is visibly red in colour in our pre dawn object in the constellation Libra, opposition is in May 2016

Jupiter in Leo rises mid evening and late Feb /March are the best time to observe its cloud detail and its moons.

Saturn is low in the dawn skies in the constellation Ophiuchus; the ring system is wide open in 2016

Uranus is placed in the constellation of Pisces low in our evening twilight. (Binocular / Telescope required)

Neptune in the constellation Aquarius best seen in autumn is at conjunction on February 28th

Moons Phases in February

New Moon         Feb 6th                     Moonless, best time for deep sky observing and Comets

First Quarter      Feb 15th                Best days to see shadow details in lunar craters (early evening)

Full Moon           Feb 22nd               Best days to see bright ray craters like Copernicus / Tycho.

Last Quarter       Feb 1st                Moon visible in daytime skies.  Do not look directly at the Sun

Meteor shower’s: There are no meteor showers only sporadic meteors this month

The Highlights of the Month

Observe the winter constellations and many of the fine star clusters (M44 and M45) and the Orion Nebula (M42 / M43). Also use binoculars to view the many fine star clusters in our winter skies.

The bright stars Betelgeuse and Aldebaran   show red and orange colour , whilst the brightest star in the sky Sirius  flashes white / blue `twinkling ` low in our winter skies.

Focus really is on Jupiter; look at Jupiter with a telescope to see the characteristic banding and its four bright Galilean moons change position (night to night). The Planet appears to move backwards in `retrograde motion against the background stars in Leo during February.

Comet C/2013 US10 tracks northward passing 8° from Polaris on 1st February and close to the  binocular star asterism  Kemble’s Cascade  and  adjacent open star cluster NGC 1502  in the obscure constellation of Camelopardalis ( The Giraffe )  on February 22nd, unfortunately in Full Moon conditions  (see Notes ) . The comet is best seen in darker moonless skies in early February; observe away from street lights etc.

Two shadow transits for Jupiter’s Moons Io and Europa on the evening of Feb 29th at 22:50 UT a moderate sized telescope is required to see the dark shadows of these moons as tiny dark dots projected onto the cloud belts

Planets in the pre dawn skies.  On February 6th at around 06:40 / 06: 50 am Mercury, Venus and Moon  form a triangle in conjunction, the thin waning crescent Moon can be used as a guide very low near the south eastern horizon. Saturn is visible in the south above the red star Antares in Scorpius whilst Mars also shines red in the constellation of Libra, Jupiter is bright in the south west in the constellation of Leo.  Always use caution and only look for Mercury in the twilight well before sunrise.

More detailed sky notes and LAS Newsletters are available to LAS members