Night Sky notes – February 2018

Night sky notes for February 2018               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.

Comet 2016 R2 Pan STARRS is a difficult 12.5m magnitude telescopic object in Taurus close to the Seven Sisters star cluster in early February a challenge for even for larger telescopes. However experienced astrophotographers around the world have captured some fascinating time lapse images. Currently beyond the orbit of Mars (some 2 AU from the Sun) the comet has recently produced outbursts of Carbon Monoxide causing detachment of the tail and rotation of the comet – See  for latest images. The comet has a long orbital period of some 20,800 years reaches perihelion (closest point to the Sun) in May 2018 but remains at 2 AU distant from Earth.

Taurus also has the red star Aldebaren and the V shaped Hyades star cluster, the nearest open star cluster to Earth 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.

Venus shines brightly low in evening twilight (after sunset) and is joined in late February by the illusive planet Mercury and so it is a good time to view.  .One of the earliest crescent moon visible this year, just 20 hours old (0.7%) may be seen next to Venus from 20 minutes after sunset on February 16th.. (Binoculars required)

If you are an early riser, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn adorn the pre dawn twilight (5.30 GMT) and are joined by a waning crescent Moon around Feb 11th to Feb 13th.


Planets in February 2018

Mercury is at superior conjunction on Feb 17th, returns to evening twilight by month end with Venus.

Venus shines brightly low in the evening skies visible from 20 minutes after sunset

Mars in Scorpius is red in colour in the pre dawn twilight skies close to the red star Antares (The rival of Mars)

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

Saturn is in Sagittarius low in eastern pre dawn skies the ring system is wide open in 2018 but low in UK skies.

Uranus is slipping sunward into evening twilight – best placed for observation in autumn skies

Neptune positioned in the constellation of Aquarius it is best seen in autumn skies.

Moons phases in February 2018

New Moon          Feb 15th               Moonless, best time for deep sky observing and Comets

First Quarter      Feb 23rd               Best days to see shadow details in lunar craters (early evening)

* Full Moon        Jan 31st                Best days to see bright ray craters like Copernicus / Tycho.

Last Quarter       Feb 7th                Moon visible in daytime skies.  Do not look directly at the Sun

*There is no Full Moon in calendar February – Jan 31st Full Moon is the second Full Moon in January ie a Blue Moon – nothing to do with colour . It is also the last in a sequence of Perigee Moon (Super Moon).

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. Refer the web site home page for details of Public open observatory evenings.

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.

Crescent Moon visibility. A 0.7%  ultra thin crescent Moon is visible 20 min after sunset on February 16th; moon is positioned close to Venus 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 18:00 hrs GMT

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



Sky looking south at 7pm mid February  2018

Feb south

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.

Sky looking west at 7pm early February 2018

Feb West

Venus can be glimpsed low in early evening twilight in February . Look some 20 minutes after sunset on February 16th the ultra thin crescent Moon is positioned close to Venus in evening twilight low in the west

Merc Ven

Venus is joined by Mercury in evening twilight at the end of the month , look  some 20 minutes after the Sun has completely set  


Sky looking north at 7pm mid February 2018

Sky North


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 7pm mid February 2018

Sky East

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.

Detailed LAS Newsletter finder charts are available to LAS members.