Prime Time Winter Stargazing
Star watching is wonderful in the wintertime! I think it’s one of the best times of the year to soak in the splendor of the night sky. Even if you’re exploring the heavens in a cold climate, it’s worth bundling up for and then some. It’s especially fantastic to see the starry sky in the countryside, away from the city lights. Maybe you already live out there. If you do, make the most of it!
The first three weeks of this month will be ideal for the celestial show in the early evening because you won’t have to contend with much moonlight, making for darker skies. The last week of February will be awash with moonlight, with the official full moon on February 27th. Many Native American tribes call February’s full moon the Snow Moon.er and Saturn. All three planets will be very close together in the twilight from January 8th through January 14th, joined by a very thin crescent moon on the 14th.
Unfortunately, most of the planets are in hiding for most of February. Jupiter and Saturn start the month behind the sun. In late February though, they’ll emerge close together in the early morning twilight, in the very low southeast sky barely above the horizon. Venus is pretty much taking February and March off, lost in the sun’s glare. In April, Venus begins its stint in the early evening sky. Mercury is shy as well. It’ll start February very low in the southwest sky in the evening twilight. In late February Mercury shows up during morning twilight in the very low southeastern sky, joining Jupiter and Saturn, making for a lovely three planet conjunction.
Mars isn’t shy, though. The planet with the distinctive orange-red hue is available every early evening in the southwest sky. It’s not the great telescope target it was this past autumn because it’s much farther away now. Even with a larger scope, all you’ll pretty much see is a reddish dot. However, with even a small telescope, you can use Mars to find the super distant planet Uranus, especially in early February. Slowly slew your telescope about five degrees to the lower right of Mars and look for a greenish dot. That’s Uranus, currently over 1.8 billion miles from Earth. On February 18th, the moon and Mars will meet in a lovely conjunction. The waxing crescent moon will be hanging to the lower left of the red planet.
Despite the absence of decent planet viewing , there are still many other celestial treasures waiting for you. Even if you must put up with light pollution, you’ll still see many bright winter constellations, especially in the southern half of the sky. The constellation Orion the Hunter and the gang of bright constellations surrounding him is the main celestial event. There’s the great Orion himself, surrounded by his cast of characters like Taurus the Bull, Auriga the chariot driver, Gemini the Twins, Lepus the Killer Rabbit, Canis Minor the Little Dog, and Canis Major, the Big Dog.
Sirius is the brightest star of Canis Major and is also the brightest star we see in the entire night sky. Even at 8.5 light-years from Earth, or almost 50 trillion miles away, it’s considered a nearby star. By comparison, the moderately bright star Aludra, which marks the tip of Canis Major’s tail, is close to two thousand light-years away! Since the definition of a light-year is the distance light travels in a year, we’re not seeing Aludra as it appears right now, but as what it looked like two thousand years ago.
A wonderful winter celestial gem lies in the sword of the constellation Orion the Hunter. It’s the great Orion Nebula, a vast cloud of hydrogen gas around 1,600 light-years away and possibly larger than 30 light-years in diameter! It appears as a faint, ghostly patch of light to the naked eye, but even a small telescope will reveal much more detail. Depending on the seeing conditions and size of your telescope, the nebula may have a slight greenish tinge to it. Within the nebula you’ll see the Trapezium, four stars arranged in a tight lopsided trapezoid. Those stars, and many, many others that you can’t see, were all born out of the Orion Nebula. Most of these stars are less than ten million years old, making them infant stars. The new stars' ultraviolet radiation lights up the hydrogen gas like a neon light, causing the nebula to glow. Astronomers call this kind of nebula an emission nebula. The Orion Nebula will produce many more stars in the future, well into the thousands!
Another must-see is the Pleiades star cluster in the constellation Taurus the Bull. It will jump right out at you from over 400 light-years away. You should easily see six to seven stars with unaided eyes that form a pattern that looks like a miniature Big Dipper. With binoculars or a small telescope, you’ll also see many fainter stars. In late February and early March, Mars will pass just below the Pleiades, making for quite a sight, especially with binoculars! All the stars in the Pleiades were born together gravitationally around 100 million years ago.
The Pleiades are also known as the Seven Little Sisters, the daughters of the god Atlas according to Greek and Roman mythology.
Believe it or not, there are signs of spring in the eastern evening skies this month. It’s one of the first of the spring constellations, Leo the Lion. Look for a leftward leaning backward question mark that outlines the giant celestial lion's chest and head. At the bottom of the question mark is Regulus, the brightest star in Leo that marks the lion’s heart.
There’s so much to enjoy in the February skies. Use your Sky Guide App to help you see it all! It’s great celestial theater!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications. Available at bookstores and online at www.adventurepublications.net.
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 email@example.com