Minnesota Starwatch by Deanne Morrison, designed to inform the broadest possible community of the appearance of the nightly sky and current activities in newspapers, continues to be published in several newspapers throughout the state.
February evenings offer some of the best conditions for viewing the famous winter constellations. This year they approach Mars from the east, ending the month with the Pleiades star cluster closing in on the red planet. Meanwhile, the rising of Scorpius brings a hint of summer to the morning sky.
The brightest stars in the winter constellations form the corners of the Winter Hexagon. To see it, start at the top with Capella, in Auriga the charioteer, and move counterclockwise through the other corners: Pollux, the brighter Gemini twin; Procyon, in Canis Minor, the little dog; Sirius, in Canis Major, the big dog; Rigel, in Orion; and Aldebaran, in Taurus, the bull. If you start instead at Aldebaran, you can trace a “G” by turning when you get to Rigel and finishing at Betelgeuse, Orion’s right shoulder.
While viewing Orion, aim your binoculars at his sword—a line of stars that seem suspended below the three stars of his belt. On a clear moonless night, you can see, even with the naked eye, a colorful, hazy “star” about halfway down the sword. This is the Orion Nebula, a chaotic cauldron of starlit gas and dust whipped by interstellar winds. At 1,300 light-years away, it is the closest large stellar nursery, where new stars—and potential planetary systems—are being born.
Orion is also home to another famous nebula: the Horsehead. Shaped like its namesake, the Horsehead Nebula is silhouetted against a glowing cloud of gas below Alnitak, the farthest left of the three stars in Orion’s belt. It is best seen in images online.
In the predawn sky, the sinuous form of the summer constellation Scorpius rears up over the southeastern horizon. On the 6th, a hefty waning crescent moon hangs near Antares, the red heart of the scorpion.
Groundhog Day also carries the promise of summer. It began as the astronomically based Celtic holiday Imbolc, which heralded the start of lambing season. Imbolc was one of four “cross-quarter” days falling midway between a solstice and an equinox.
A waxing moon shines close to Mars on the evening of the 18th. On the night of the 26th-27th, February’s full moon crosses the sky with the spring constellation Leo, the lion.
As the new year dawns, three of the five brightest planets are busy dropping out of view—Venus from its position as a morning planet, Jupiter and Saturn as ornaments of the evening sky.
Actually, the planets are only switching places. We’re leaving Jupiter and Saturn in the dust as we circle behind the sun, but when we come around in a couple of months we’ll find them in the morning sky. Likewise, speedy Venus is now heading behind the sun, but it will reappear as an evening planet in late spring.
In the last two weeks of January, Mercury pops up very low in the west-southwest. The sunset glow may obscure it, so have your binoculars handy. Mars, however, remains high but drifts slowly westward as the large knot of famous winter constellations closes in on it from the east.
These constellations won’t all be up until about three hours after sunset on the 1st, earlier as the month goes on. Atop the assembly sits brilliant Capella, in Auriga, the charioteer. At the bottom, even more brilliant Sirius outshines not only its fellow stars in Canis Major, the big dog, but every other star in the night sky. Sirius also is one point of the nearly equilateral Winter Triangle. The others are Betelgeuse, at Orion’s right shoulder, and Procyon, to the upper left of Sirius in Canis Minor, the little dog.
The morning of the 2nd, Earth reaches perihelion, its minimum distance—about 91.5 million miles—from the sun. We sweep through perihelion at top speed: 18.8 miles per second.
On the 6th, a last-quarter moon hovers above Spica, the only bright star in Virgo, the maiden, in the predawn sky. The next morning, the moon appears next to Spica. Off to Spica’s lower right is the skewed four-sided figure of Corvus, the crow. High to the left of Spica blazes Arcturus, the beacon of kite-shaped Bootes, the herdsman. An old moon rises near Antares, the heart of Scorpius, the morning of the 10th. If you go out 40 minutes before sunrise on the 11th, you may catch a very thin lunar crescent close to Venus.
January’s full moon shines the night of the 28th and follows the winter constellations across the sky.