Night Sky Notes – Feb 2019

 Night sky notes for February 2019              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.

Periodic comet 46P/ Wirtanen is a difficult telescopic object in Ursa Major, fading to 11th magnitude during February a challenge for even for larger telescopes. However another comet C/2018 Y1 (Iwamoto) reached perihelion in late January and will pass safely within 25 million km of Earth in early February and will be a binocular object passing through Leo and Auriga in our early evening skies at around  possibly 5th magnitude.( see notes)

Taurus also has the foreground red star Aldebaren in line of sight with the V shaped Hyades star cluster, the nearest open star cluster to Earth at a distance of just 150  light years and the famous Pleiades star cluster (M45) also known as the Seven Sisters cluster.  Taurus can be seen in the east by early evening. Also located in the constellation of Taurus is the Crab Nebula (M1), a supernova remnant shell of expanding gas. The supernova was observed in daylight by the Chinese in the year 1054.

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 or small telescopes.

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.

Betelgeuse in Orion, Procyon in Canis Minor and Sirius in Canis Major form the winter triangle asterism.

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.

In late February by the illusive planet Mercury is low in evening twilight greatest elongation on February 27th, also Mars and Uranus at conjunction on February 12th in early evening skies, just 1° apart in the same low power telescopic field of view.

February’s Full (Snow) Moon is also closest to Earth at around Full Moon making it a Perigee Moon , look at the the rising  Full Moon seen against foreground objects such as trees etc gives the impression of increased apparent size – an optical illusion but great fun to watch.



Planets in February 2019

Mercury is at greatest elongation on February 27th, low in twilight evening skies from mid month.

Venus shines brightly in dawn skies and shows around 70% phase telescopically.

Mars moves eastward from Pisces into Aries it is red in colour, easily spotted low in the west early evening.

Jupiter in Ophiuchus shines brightly low in dawn skies,   telescopes shows the cloud belts and four Galilean moons.

Saturn is in Sagittarius poorly placed in the eastern dawn skies the ring system is open in 2019 but Saturn is low in UK skies.

Uranus is low in early evening skies, conjunction with Mars on February 12th – best placed in autumn skies

Neptune positioned in the constellation of Aquarius lost to evening twilight and is best seen in autumn skies.

Moons phases in February 2019

New Moon          Feb 4th                 Moonless, best time for deep sky observing and Comets

First Quarter      Feb 12th              Best days to see shadow details in lunar craters (early evening)

* Full Moon        Feb 19th              Best days to see bright ray craters like Copernicus / Tycho.

Last Quarter       Feb 26th                 Moon visible in daytime skies.  Do not look directly at the Sun

* February Full (Snow) Moon is also a Perigee Moon (Super Moon) what the Moon Illusion at moonrise

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 such as the Beehive cluster (M44) and Seven Sisters cluster (M45 or Pleiades) and the Orion Nebula (M42 / M43). Also use binoculars to view the many fine objects in our winter night 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.

Perigee (Super) Moon rising or indeed setting, watch the Moon illusion.

Comet C/2018 Y1 Iwamoto, visible in binoculars in moonless condition early in February (see notes)

Crescent Moon visibility. A 0.7%  ultra thin crescent Moon is visible 20 min after sunset on February 5th; moon is positioned close to Mercury as a guide ( binoculars required)  Always ensure the Sun has set completely before sweeping for the crescent Moon low , close to the horizon – Moonset is 17:32 hrs GMT

A 3% waxing crescent Moon on February 6th is better placed low in twilight evening skies for observing, setting at 18:37 GMT around an hour and half after sunset, binoculars show dimly lit features due to Earthshine.

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




Sky looking south at 8pm early February, 7pm mid February, 6pm late February 2019

Use the constellation of Orion to find other stars / constellations in the winter night sky

Find the Dog Star (Sirius), the brightest star in the sky by following a line down through Orion’s belt stars

Find `The Winter Triangle` asterism formed by stars Sirius, Procyon and Betelgeuse

Find the red star Aldebaran and the Hyades star cluster in the constellation of Taurus by using Orion’s belt stars.

Use bright star Rigel and Betelgeuse to draw a line up to the bright stars Castor and Pollux in constellation Gemini.

In February Comet C/2018 Y1 Iwamoto (visible in binoculars on moonless evenings from a dark sky site) moves evening to evening through Auriga into Perseus.  Comet 46P Wirtanen is a telescopic 11m object in Ursa Major.


Sky looking west at 8pm early February, 7pm mid February , 6pm late February 2019



Sky looking north at 8pm early February, 7pm mid February, 6pm late February 2019

Ursa Major (Plough asterism) stands on its tail. The two pointer stars Merek and Dubhe point to the pole star Polaris.



Sky looking east at 8pm early February 7pm mid February, 6pm late February 2019

Use the pointer stars in the plough the wrong way  to draw a line to the bright star Regulus  and above it the `Sickle` asterism and the nice double star Algieba , a golden yellow and blue pair of stars visible in small telescopes.

About half way between the bright star Pollux in Gemini and Regulus in Leo you will find the misty patch  of the Beehive star cluster , use binoculars to see this rich star cluster.

Leo also has the famous Leo Triplet of edge on Galaxies M65 /M66 and NGC 3628 visible in moderate telescopes in moonless conditions.

Comet C/2018 Y1 Iwamoto moves northward each evening in early February through Leo around the time of closest approach to Earth.

Detailed LAS Newsletter finder charts are available to LAS members.