February is the shortest month of the year but also the month the amateur astronomer in you must master to discover the wonders of the winter constellations. In our North American “nordicity,” February has a split personality: it’s very often a frigid month and therefore ideal for astronomical observations under crystal-clear skies. But it can also be a month of extreme temperature swings that are much less favourable to stargazing. Below is a quick overview of what February holds in store this year.
In the evening around 8 p.m., the constellation Orion dominates the sky toward the south. It’s among the easiest constellations to pinpoint in the winter sky. You can find Orion the hunter thanks to his belt, three stars aligned very close together. Using these stars, you can then locate Orion’s shoulders (slightly higher) and knees (slightly lower). As legend has it, the Greek gods tried to protect Orion from certain misfortunes, particularly from the sting of Scorpius, so they placed the scorpion and the hunter at opposite ends of the firmament. Consequently, when Scorpius is visible in the sky, Orion hides below the horizon, and vice versa.
Under Orion’s belt lies one of the jewels of the night sky: the famous Orion nebula (M42), a nursery for both stars and planets. Through binoculars, it looks like a hazy patch of light. You can even make it out with the naked eye when the sky is very dark.
Thanks to Orion, you can easily locate at least two other constellations. First, extend an imaginary line passing through the three stars of Orion’s belt and dipping to the lower left (south and east). There you’ll come across the star Sirius, the eye of Canis Major, the loyal dog lying at the hunter’s feet. Sirius (or Alpha Canis Majoris) is the brightest star in the sky as seen from Earth—after the Sun of course. In fact, Sirius is a binary star, a system made up of a bluish white star (hotter than the Sun) and a white dwarf star.
Now extend your imaginary line in the opposite direction, to the upper right (north and west). You’ll first happen on a bright reddish star: Aldebaran, the eye of the bull and the brightest star in the constellation Taurus. With help from his dog, shield, club and sword, Orion challenges Taurus in the ultimate bullfight. Olé!
(Allow me a quick aside as director of the Planetarium: Aldebaran is also the name of one of our new educational activities. This Lego® coding activity is already offered to school groups and, as of May, will be open to the general public. Stay tuned for more details soon.)
Now back to the starry sky. Extend your imaginary line again to the upper right and discover the Pleiades, an open star cluster. This young cluster serves as a good eye test: most people can easily make out six stars, but the most eagle-eyed (or best liars) can see up to a dozen stars. Oddly enough, the cluster looks much like the dipper in Ursa Minor, though that dipper is far more stretched out and isn’t found in this part of the sky. The Pleiades extend for almost 1.5 degrees (about three times the Moon’s diameter). Observe the cluster with the naked eye or regular binoculars. A treat for the eyes!
The planets and the Moon
Thanks to its dazzling glow, Venus is the leading light among planets visible in early 2019. The Morning Star rises around 5 a.m. and dominates the southeastern horizon at dawn. Venus is preceded by Jupiter, which you can begin to spot around 3 a.m. near the constellation Scorpius. In early February, Venus is also followed by Saturn, and on the 18th, the two planets are a mere 1.1 degrees apart (the apparent size of your thumb when you hold your hand up to the sky). After the 18th, Saturn lies to the right of Venus, which then becomes the last of the planets to rise before the Sun.
Mars is visible at twilight fairly high in the sky toward the southwest. The red planet is in conjunction with Uranus on the 13th, but a good telescope is needed to spot the planet near Mars.
The second half of this month is also a good time to observe Mercury, which reaches its maximum separation from the Sun on the 27th. Go hunting for Mercury 30 to 45 minutes after sunset. You’ll see it with the naked eye or binoculars as a small spot of light in the glow of twilight, low on the west-southwestern horizon.
As for the Moon, it continues its revolutions around Earth like a celestial metronome. The new Moon occurs on the 4th at 4:03 p.m., the first quarter on the 12th at 5:26 p.m., the full Moon on the 19th at 10:53 a.m., and the last quarter on the 26th at 6:27 a.m. (all times EST).
Also, use the Moon and its encounters with the planets to find Saturn on the 2nd before sunrise around 6 a.m., Mars on the 10th around 9 p.m., and Jupiter on the 27th around 6 a.m.
To help situate yourself in the heavens, come take part in Night Sky, a new immersive experience at the Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan.