Scope Out is a monthly publication for casual stargazers in the mid-northern latitudes. It highlights the constellations that are highest in the sky and are therefore in the best viewing position at nightfall, describes the locations of the solar system’s planets, marks the date of the Moons phases and conjunctions with the planets, and it describes the interesting astronomical events that occur during the month.
While most of us are ready for spring, the seemingly endless winter drags on. For the brave among us who can endure the cold nights, this is a great time for stargazing – it still gets dark early, the sky is generally clear more often, and some of the prettiest constellations are well placed for viewing right after sunset. At the very least, look up at the sky and take note of what you observe if you happen to be outside after dark in the evenings or before sunrise in the mornings.
The sky map below represents the sky as it will appear in mid-February at the end of astronomical twilight, the arrival of complete darkness, at 7:15pm EST. The Scope Out monthly focus will be on the constellations that are just to either side of the meridian, which is halfway between 4th (4h) and 6th (6h) hours of right ascension line in the February sky map. For a primer on how to use this sky map, please read How to begin Observing the Night Sky.
Scope Out divides the celestial sphere into three zones to aid in finding constellations:
2. Northern Constellations: Orion is at its highest nightfall ascension of the year, a position from which it steals the night time show. Find February’s remaining northern constellations, Taurus, Gemini, Auriga, and Canis Minor, near the zenith. Be sure to look for the Pleiades cluster near Taurus, and the binocular view is breathtaking.
3. Southern Constellations: The best-placed constellations in February are Monocerous, Canis Major, and Lepus. Noteworthy among Canis Major’s stars is Sirius, the dog star, which is the brightest star in all of the night sky.
Mercury is no longer visible in the western sky. By mid-month, this fleet-of-foot planet will have moved past the Sun, and will appear as a morning “star” by month’s end. Look for it low on the eastern horizon about an hour before sunrise on February 16th and 17th. Venus and Mars will share the western horizon, and can be seen about an hour after sunset. Venus will appear a little higher above the horizon each evening, and Mars will appear a little lower each evening. They will be at their closest approach, or in conjunction, as they pass one another on February 21st. Jupiter rises in the east just after sunset, and is at its closest to approach to Earth, or at l be in opposition, on February 6th. Telescope observers will not want to miss this! Jupiter’s four Galilean moons and its dark equatorial bands can be seen with the aid of a modest telescope. Saturn is presently a morning object, rising in the east at about 2:30am at the beginning of the month, and rising just a little earlier each morning. Uranus is located near Venus around month’s end, and can be found with binoculars or a modest telescope. Neptune is near Venus at the beginning of the month, but this dim planet will be very difficult to observe in the twilight.
© James R. Johnson, 2015