Shortest Month is Long on Great Stargazing!
Wintertime is a wonderful time for stargazing, the super bowl of stargazing as far as I'm concerned! Not only is the air clear and not we see the brightest stars and constellations of the year, the planet Jupiter is on the rise!
Don't to wait until warmer weather to stargaze. If you received a telescope under the Christmas tree now's the time for you to have it take in its first light. Too many people wait until warmer weather to try out their new scopes and that's a mistake! You're losing a golden opportunity to get to get really turned on to amateur astronomy. Even though it's still cold now's the time to get serious with the night sky. If you wait until spring you'll be more comfortable, but by then we'll be losing the fabulous winter constellations below the western horizon. Also the air will also have a little more humidity, somewhat blurring the heavens, especially if there is any kind of urban lighting. The biggest problem, with star watching in the spring and summer is that you have to stay up late. So bundle up against the rigors of old man winter and take in the dazzling February skies. Oh and by the way we have an extra day, and night of February this leap year of 2016!
The best part of winter stargazing is what I call Orion's great gang of constellations. As darkness sets it they start out in the southeast sky and then reach their highest point above the southern horizon by around 9pm. The constellations surrounding Orion are Gemini the Twins, Canis Major and Minor, the big and little dogs respectively, Auriga the sheep-schlepping retired chariot driver, and Taurus the Bull with the bright Pleiades star cluster, also known as the "Seven Little Sisters". Without a doubt Orion and his gang have the largest collection of bright stars assembled anywhere across the night sky in the Northern hemisphere. I love, love, love those constellations! As a matter of fact I'm featuring the constellation Orion in my next two columns.
In the northern skies look for the Big Dipper, standing up on its handle, and the giant upside down "W" that outlines the throne of the constellation Cassiopeia. You can see those constellations and a few others every night in the north as they make a tight circle around Polaris, the stationary North Star. Polaris is about halfway from the northern horizon to the overhead zenith, and every celestial object in the entire sky appears to revolve around it every 24 hours. Circumpolar constellations like the Big Bear and Cassiopeia are close enough to Polaris in the sky so that they're always above the horizon.
If you're a fan of evening planet viewing you've been pretty much shut out since last summer but that's changing. If you stay up late enough, you'll see a very bright "star" rising in the eastern skies. That's Jupiter, the biggest planet in our solar system. Jupiter is now rising above the eastern horizon by around 9pm. By the end of the month you should easily see it in the low eastern sky shortly after 7:30. Jupiter and the Earth are also getting closer and closer to each other this month. At the start of February it's less than 430 million mile away and at the end of the month it'll be less than 415 million miles from our backyards. In March it'll be at its closest at less than 409 million miles.
Even if you have a small telescope Jupiter is a great target. You should be able to resolve the disk of the 88,000 mile diameter planet and also see up to four of its larger moons either side of the giant planet that resemble tiny little stars. They orbit Jupiter in periods of two to seventeen days. You might also see some diagonally orientated bands running across Jupiter that are its brightest cloud bands. It's best to wait to view Jupiter with a telescope until about an hour and a half after it rises so it'll be high enough above Earth's obscuring atmosphere that's a lot thicker along the horizon. It's also best to let your telescope and all the eyepieces you're using sit outside a good 30 to 45 minutes before you start observing. The glass in the optics needs to acclimate to the colder temperatures.
What's really exciting right now is that for the next couple of weeks in the predawn early morning sky you can see all five fellow planet in our solar system at one time that are visible to the naked eye. Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter will be stretched out from the southeast to southwest sky. Look around an hour to 45 minutes before sunrise.
This week you can use the waning crescent moon to spot four of the morning planets. On Monday morning the moon will be just to the upper left of Mars in the southern sky. On Wednesday morning the thinner crescent moon will just above and to the right of Saturn. If you have even a smaller telescope you should be able to see the Saturn's ring system and at least few of its tiny star-like moons. Next Friday and Saturday mornings in the extremely low southeast sky the very thin crescent moon will be hanging around Venus and Mercury. Venus by far will be the brighter of the two planets. If you check out my website www.lynchandthestars.com under my conjunction junction page you'll see diagrams of all these moon planet celestial "huggings." this week
Enjoy the February nocturnal skies at both ends of the night. It all waiting for you!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/Paul and is author of the book, "Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations" published by Adventure Publications available at bookstores at http://www.adventurepublications.net
MAKE THE STARS YOUR OLD FRIENDS!
If you have any astronomical questions or want me to write about something you're seeing in the night sky drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org