WHAT'S UP THIS MONTH - FEBRUARY 2018
(Link to What's Up January 2018)
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THESE PAGES ARE INTENDED TO HELP YOU FIND YOUR WAY AROUND THE SKY
Click HERE for a downloadable PDF white chart - (Close PDF file to return here)
The chart above shows the night sky as it appears on 15th February at 21:00 (9 o'clock) in the evening Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). As the Earth orbits the Sun and we look out into space each night the stars will appear to have moved across the sky by a small amount. Every month Earth moves one twelfth of its circuit around the Sun, this amounts to 30 degrees each month. There are about 30 days in each month so each night the stars appear to move about 1 degree. The sky will therefore appear the same as shown on the chart above at 10 o'clock GMT at the beginning of the month and at 8 o'clock GMT at the end of the month. The stars also appear to move 15º (360º divided by 24) each hour from east to west, due to the Earth rotating once every 24 hours.
The centre of the chart will be the position in the sky directly overhead, called the Zenith. First we need to find some familiar objects so we can get our bearings. The Pole Star Polaris can be easily found by first finding the familiar shape of the Great Bear ‘Ursa Major' that is also sometimes called the Plough or even the Big Dipper by the Americans. Ursa Major is visible throughout the year from Britain and is always easy to find. This month it is high in the north east. Look for the distinctive saucepan shape, four stars forming the bowl and three stars forming the handle. Follow an imaginary line, up from the two stars in the bowl furthest from the handle. These will point the way to Polaris which will be to the north of overhead at about 50º above the northern horizon. Polaris is the only moderately bright star in a fairly empty patch of sky. When you have found Polaris turn completely around and you will be facing south. To use this chart, position yourself looking south and hold the chart above your eyes.
Planets observable this month: Jupiter and Mars (early morning) with Uranus in the early evening .
EXPLORING THE NIGHT SKY THIS MONTH
The Southern Night Sky during February 2018 at 21:00 GMT (9:00 pm)
The chart above shows the night sky looking south at about 21:00 GMT on 15th February. West is to the right and east to the left. The point in the sky directly overhead is known as the Zenith and is shown at the upper centre of the chart. The curved brown line across the sky towards the bottom is the Ecliptic or Zodiac. This is the imaginary line along which the Sun, Moon and planets appear to move across the sky. The constellations through which the ecliptic passes are known as the constellations of the ‘Zodiac'.
Constellations through which the ecliptic passes this month are: Pisces (the Fishes), Aries (the Ram), Taurus (the Bull), Gemini (the Twins), Cancer (the Crab), Leo (the Lion) and just coming on to the chart in the east is Virgo (the Virgin).
The Milky Way (our Galaxy) appears to rise up from the western horizon through the Summer Triangle and Cygnus. It continues up through Cassiopeia then down towards the East through Perseus and Auriga. It then flows down through the constellations of Gemini, Orion, Monoceros and Puppis at the bottom of the chart. As the galaxy is like a disc and our Sun is inside it, we see the billions of stars it is composed of as a band of light across the night sky.
Uranus is located in the constellation of Pisces and it can be seen as a small disc using a beginner's telescope with a magnification of 100x or more. It is now moving towards the western horizon. There are no other planets visible in the evening sky this month. Mercury, Venus and Neptune are too close to the Sun to be seen. Mars Jupiter and Saturn are early morning objects rising in the east before the Sun rises.
Strangely there will not be a Full Moon this month. There was one on 31st January and with February being a short month the next will be on 2nd March. This also means January and March both have two Full Moons.
Sitting astride the ecliptic in the south is the constellation of Taurus (the Bull). The Taurus asterism (shape) looks like a squashed cross ‘X'. At the centre of the cross is a large, faint Open Cluster called the Hyades. It has the bright Red Giant star Aldebaran at its centre. The real beauty of Taurus is the naked eye Open Cluster M45 the Pleiades (Seven Sisters). The names of the Seven Sisters are shown on the image below.
Open Cluster M45 the Pleiades (Seven Sisters)
Another interesting object for those with a telescope is Messier 1 (M1) the Crab Nebula. This is a Supernova Remnant (a giant star that exploded seven thousand years ago and was seen by astronomers in the year 1054AD). The original star has collapsed to form a super dense fast spinning object called a Neutron Star or Pulsar.
A Supernova Remnant- Messier 1 (M1) the Crab Nebula
To the north of M45 (the Pleiades cluster in Taurus) is a line of stars defining the constellation of Perseus. The whole asterism (shape) of Perseus looks like a horse rider's stirrup. At the top of the line of stars is the beautiful object ‘the Double Cluster' best seen using binoculars. The clusters appear to be associated but they are actually just in the same line of sight. NGC884 is 8,150light years away and about 11.5 million years old but NGC869 is 7,000 light years away and only 6.4 million years old.
The Double Cluster NGC884 and NGC869
Above and linked to the constellation of Taurus by the star Elnath is the constellation of Auriga (the Charioteer). The shape of the ‘stick figure' of Auriga is like a misshapen pentagon. The brightest star in Auriga is the beautiful bright white star Capella. It is the sixth brightest star in the night sky. Auriga has three Messier Open Clusters: M36, M37 and M38. They appear to form a straight line through Auriga which also appears to continue on in line to M35 in Gemini.
To the south of Taurus is the magnificent constellation of Orion (the Hunter). He has a distinct line of three stars depicting his belt with a line of fainter stars tracing out a sword appearing to hang from his belt. Orion was the constellation of the month in the January magazine.
Leo (the Lion) is just moving into prominence in the evening sky and does actually resemble the lion it represents. It does look like a lion resting and also resembles the Sphinx in Egypt.
CONSTELLATIONS OF THE MONTH – GEMINI and CANCER
A chart showing the constellations of Gemini and Cancer
The chart above shows the winter constellations of Gemini (the Twins) and Cancer (the Crab). These are interesting constellations to search out and have some interesting objects to see when using a small telescope. They are located on the Ecliptic and therefore are occasional hosts to the Sun, Moon and Planets as they appear to move along this imaginary line.
Gemini is easy to find because its two brightest stars are quite close together and similar in appearance. The two brightest stars are called Pollux (ß) and Castor (a) and are known as the Gemini Twins.
The recognised shape of Gemini is in the form of a rough rectangle with Pollux and Castor at the eastern short side. A line of stars runs south west from Castor to the star Tejat Posterior. The line from Pollux takes a diversion south through kappa (?) then south west through Wasat to Alhena and Alzirr.
Although Castor has been given the Greek letter designation a (alpha) which is normally awarded to the brightest star in a constellation, it is not actually the brightest. Pollux is brighter at magnitude +1.59 compared to the +1.9 of Castor. However Castor is a double star with a fainter companion that has a magnitude of +2.9 and separated by 6 arc-seconds. The two stars, known as Castor A and Castor B, orbit their common centre of gravity every 467 years. The pair can be separated in a 75mm aperture telescope on a good clear night.
Each of the pair of stars that comprise Castor is in fact a double star in its own right. However they are much too close together to be separated in any telescope. The only way that their presence can be detected is by examining the light through a spectroscope. This instrument shows each star has two sets of spectral lines revealing that they are double stars.
The Castor pair also has a faint companion, known as Castor C, orbiting them. It is separated from A and B by about 72 arc-seconds but is at the same distance from us. This star is also a double making Castor a very unusual six star system.
There is a beautiful Open Cluster Messier 35 (M35) located at the end of the upper of the two lines of stars that emanate from Pollux and Castor. It is the most spectacular of an apparent line of four Open Clusters. The other three are over the border in the constellation of Auriga and are known as M36, M37 and M38. All these Open Clusters will need a telescope to see them clearly.
Messier 35 (M35) a very nice Open Cluster
Cancer is a faint and rather indistinct constellation but it is well worth searching out. It does have a rather nice Open Cluster called Messier 44 (M44) Praesepe or the Beehive Cluster located at the centre. The cluster is large and dispersed and demonstrates the later stages of the formation process of Open clusters. M44 (Praesepe) is best seen using binoculars.
The beautiful Open cluster M44 (Praesepe) in Cancer
THE SOLAR SYSTEM FEBUARY 2018
MERCURY rises in the south east at 07:30 with the Sun and in the bright sky. The smallest planet will be much too close to the Sun and will not be visible this month.
Mercury, Venus, Neptune and Uranus in the south west
VENUS is still close to the Sun and will not be observable. The location of Venus on the evening of 16 th February is shown on the chart above. Venus is now beginning to move away from the Sun to the east to become an evening object close to the western horizon at sunset. As it climbs higher in the evening sky it will become the ‘Evening Star' in the west. The sky has been darkened on the chart so the positions of Venus and the Sun can be seen. Venus has just moved out from behind the Sun so will appear as a small disc. It will appear to get larger as moves closer to us.
Chart showing Jupiter, Mars and Saturn at sunrise
MARS will be rising in the south east at about 03:00 this is over four hours before the Sun rises. The Red Planet appears small at just 6.0 arc-seconds in diameter but is quite bright at magnitude +1.0. Mars looks fainter and redder than Jupiter. See the chart above (the sky has been darkened).
JUPITER will be an early morning object for the next few months and appears bright in the east before sunrise. It will rise at 01:45 at the beginning of the month and 00:30 at the end of the month. Jupiter is large at 37".5 and bright at magnitude -2.1. At the moment Jupiter forms a nice line in the east with Mars and the bright star Antares in the constellation of Libra. See the chart above.
The four brightest moons of Jupiter (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto) can easily be seen using a small telescope or even a good pair of binoculars. Their movement can be tracked from evening to evening and are fun to monitor.
SATURN has just moved out from conjunction with the Sun. It rises at about 06:30 but is still too close to the Sun to be visible this month. See the Mars chart above.
URANUS will be in a good observable position this month and will be quite high in the south west as soon as the sky is dark. Using a good pair of 10x50 binoculars a slightly fuzzy blue, star like, object can be seen. A telescope at a magnification of 150x will show it as a small blue/green disc. It sets in the west at 22:45. See the Mars chart.
NEPTUNE is very close to the Sun this month and will not be observable. See the Mercury chart opposite.
The Sun rises at 07:30 at the beginning of the month and at 06:50 by the end of the month. It will be setting at 16:50 at the beginning and 17:40 by the end of the month. There have been no sunspots recently so the Sun has been quite uninteresting to observe.
THE MOON PHASES IN FEBRUARY
There will be no Full Moon this month. The last full Moon was on 31st January and was the second Full Moon in January, an occurrence that is sometimes referred to as a ‘Blue Moon'. March will also have two Full Moons.
The Full Moon on 2nd March will be the last of this series of, so called, ‘Super Moons'. The full Moon will coincide with its closest approach to Earth. It will appear 7% larger than its average size and 14% larger than it appears when it is furthest from point Earth (Micro Moon).
Full Moon will be on the 31st January
Last Quarter will be on 7th February
New Moon will be on 15th February
Last Quarter will be on 24th February
Full Moon will be on the 2nd March
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