WHAT'S UP THIS MONTH - FEBRUARY 2022

(Link to What's Up March 2021)

(Link to What's Up January 2021)

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THESE PAGES ARE INTENDED TO HELP YOU FIND YOUR WAY AROUND THE SKY

The chart above shows the whole night sky as it appears on 15th February at 21:00 (9 o'clock) 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 8 o'clock GMT at the beginning of the month and at 10 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 quite 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 in the evening sky: Neptune (in the early evening) and Uranus later.

 

THE SOUTHERN NIGHT SKY THIS MONTH

The night sky looking south at about 21:00 GMT on 15th February

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 (in red) at the upper centre of the chart. The curved brown line across the sky at 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 brightest stars often appear to form a group or recognisable pattern; we call these ‘Constellations'.

Constellations through which the ecliptic passes this month are: Aquarius (the Water Carrier), Pisces (the Fishes), Aries (the Ram), Taurus (the Bull), Gemini (the Twins), Cancer (the Crab), Leo (the Lion) and Virgo (the virgin).

The southern sky is now dominated by the constellation of Taurus (the Bull). The most obvious star in Taurus is the lovely Red Giant Star called Aldebaran. It appears slightly orange to the ‘naked eye' but it is very obviously orange when seen using binoculars or a telescope. Aldebaran is located at the centre of the ‘flattened' X shape formed by the brightest stars in Taurus. At the end of the top right (upper west) arm of the ‘X' is the beautiful ‘naked eye' Open Star Cluster called Messier 45 (M45) also known as the Pleiades (or the Seven Sisters). It really does look magnificent using binoculars.

Following Taurus is the constellation of Gemini (the Twins). The two brightest stars in Gemini are Castor and Pollux and they are named after mythological twins. To the north of Taurus is the odd pentagon shape of Auriga (the Charioteer). Dominating Auriga is the brilliant white star Capella which is almost directly overhead. For those with a telescope there is a line of lovely open clusters to search out in Taurus and Auriga. These are M35 in Taurus and M36, M37 and M38 in Auriga.

To the south of Taurus is the winter constellation of Orion (the Hunter) that dominates the southern night sky. Orion is easily found by looking for his very obvious three stars of his belt. As he is so easy to find it is a good place to start exploring the sky. Orion has his Hunting Dogs Sirius (the big dog) and Procyon (the little dog) to the east (left) and following him. Orion was featured as constellation of the month in the January magazine.

To the east (right) of Taurus is the rather indistinct constellation of Cancer (the Crab). The stars of Cancer are quite faint and can be difficult to discern especially in a light polluted sky. It is really worth searching out Cancer using binoculars or a telescope to see the Open Cluster M44 (the Beehive Cluster). M44 is older and further away than M45 (the Seven Sisters) so is fainter than M45 but still looks lovely. It has a group of stars that resemble an old straw Beehive with bees around it.

The constellation of Leo (the Lion) follows Cancer along the Ecliptic and will be the constellation of the month next month. It does actually look a little like a lion or the Sphinx in Egypt. Around and between Leo and the neighboring constellation of Virgo is a cluster of galaxies. Our Milky Way galaxy and our local group of galaxies are members of this larger group of galaxies called the Virgo Cluster. A medium sized telescope (150mm to 200mm) and a dark sky is required to see these faint objects.

The Ecliptic was low in the sky during the summer months but now it appears high in the night sky so the Moon and planets also appear high. Neptune, Saturn, Jupiter, Venus and Mercury have now moved over the western horizon and out of view in the evening but are now moving into the very early morning sky. Uranus is still well placed for those who are fortunate enough to have access to a telescope. Mars is still located on the other side of the Sun so it appears small, close to the Sun and difficult to see.

Where to find the planets this month

Mercury will be visible low in the west and will be at greatest elongation on 16th February.

Venus will be in the eastern sky at sunrise after its conjunction with the Sun on 9th January.

Mars is very close to the Sun and appears very small as it is on the other side of the Sun.

Jupiter is very bright in the south west during the early evening but setting at about 18:30.

Saturn is in conjunction with the Sun on 4th February so will not be observable.

Uranus can be found in the south east in the early evening but really needs a telescope.

Neptune is located in the south but will setting over the western horizon at 19:30.

 

CONSTELLATIONS OF THE MONTH – AURIGA, GEMINI AND CANCER

The constellations of Auriga, Gemini and Cancer

The chart above shows the winter constellations of Auriga (the Charioteer), Gemini (the Twins) and Cancer (the Crab). These are interesting constellations to search out and have some very interesting objects to see even when using just a pair of binoculars. Gemini and Cancer 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.

Capella is the brightest star in the constellation of Auriga, the sixth-brightest star in the night sky, and the forth-brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere after Sirius, Arcturus and Vega. A prominent object in the northern winter sky, it is circumpolar to observers north of 44°N we in Newbury are 51°N. Its name means "little goat" in Latin. Capella is depicted as the goat Amalthea that suckled Zeus in classical mythology. The Capella system is relatively close, at only 42.9 light-years (13.2 pc) from the Sun.

Although it appears to be a single star to the naked eye, Capella is actually a quadruple star system with two binary pairs made up of the stars Capella Aa, Capella Ab along with Capella H and Capella L.

The first pair, Capella Aa and Capella Ab is composed of two bright yellow giant stars, both of which are around 2.5 times as massive as the Sun. The second pair, Capella H and Capella L is positioned around 10,000 astronomical units (AU) from the first pair and are two faint, small and relatively cool red dwarfs.

Auriga has three Messier Open Clusters that can be seen using binoculars. These are M36, M37 and M38. See the chart above. Open Clusters are groups of stars that have formed from the gas and dust in a Nebula (large cloud of gas and dust). These clusters look like small smudges of light using binoculars. They are best seen using a telescope which will show many of the individual stars in the clusters.

During the midwinter months Capella is almost directly overhead which makes it very easy to find. During the summer months it can be seen close to the northern horizon. The Milky Way (our galaxy) passes through Auriga and can be seen on the chart above. The three open clusters are seen against the dense star fields of the Milky Way.

The constellation of Auriga is joined to the constellation of Taurus at the most southerly star of Auriga called Elnath. Oddly Elnath is actually included in the lists of the stars belonging to both constellations.

There is a fourth Open Cluster that appears to be in the same line as M36, M37 and M38 over the border in the constellation of Gemini, this is Messier 35 (M35). Gemini is named after the mythical twins Pollux and Castor from Greek mythology.

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.

The two brightest stars in Gemini are Castor and Pollux which look quite similar and represent the twins. Castor and Pollux were the children of Leda. However Pollux was actually the son of Zeus who seduced Leda but Castor was the son of Tyndareus, King of Sparta and Leda's husband.

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. Although Castor has been given the Greek letter designation a (alpha), which is normally given, to the brightest star in a constellation, Castor is not actually the brightest Pollux is in fact the brighter of the two.

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.

The open Clusters in Auriga and Gemini

Messier 36 (M36)

Messier 37 (M37)

 

 

Messier 38 (M38)

Messier 35 (M35)

Open Star Clusters are listed in Charles Messier's Catalogue along with other objects of interest to amateur astronomers. Messier listed these objects along with Globular Clusters, Nebulae and Galaxies so they would not be mistaken for the comets he was searching for. Many of the brighter open clusters do look quite comet-like when viewed through binoculars. They are as the name suggests clusters of related stars and many are very beautiful to look at.

Messier 35 (M35) is 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 the four Open Clusters and is shown above.

Cancer is a faint and rather indistinct constellation but it does have a rather nice Open Cluster called Messier 44 (M44) Praesepe or ‘the Beehive Cluster'. The stick figure shape of Cancer is an up-side-down letter ‘Y'. Although M44 is large, the stars are dispersed and fairly faint. It is quite difficult to find in a light polluted area so will require binoculars to see it.

Messier 44 (M44) Praesepe the Beehive Cluster

It is thought all stars form in vast clouds of gas and dust known as Nebulae (singular Nebula). Gravity pulls the atoms together into denser clumps until the gas and dust is compressed into very dense spheres. The temperature and pressure in the centre of the spheres rises until Nuclear Fusion begins. The Nuclear Fusion in the core produces an enormous amount of energy and the spheres begin to shine as stars and an Open Star Cluster is formed.

The brightest and most easily seen Open Cluster is Messier 45 (M45). See the constellation of month ‘Taurus' in the January magazine. This is a cluster of about 300 stars in the constellation of Taurus. The cluster is known as the Pleiades but even more widely known as the Seven Sisters.

Six or possibly seven of the brightest stars in M45 are easily visible to the naked eye in a clear dark sky. They occupy an area of sky about the same size as the full Moon. Using a pair of 10 x 50 binoculars another thirty or so fainter stars can be seen embedded within the Seven Sisters.

The clusters M35, M36, M37 and M38 are further away so appear smaller and fainter. They can just about be seen using binoculars but a telescope is required to see them well. M35 is particularly lovely as it has a spectacular string of stars that appear to cascade through its centre a more distant open cluster NGC2158 is close by (see the image of M35)

 

THE SOLAR SYSTEM - FEBRUARY 2022

The location of the planets at 08:00 GMT on 15th February 2022

The chart above shows the location of the planets along the Ecliptic after sunrise in the east. The sky has been darkened to make the planets visible. The planets are: Mercury, Venus, Mars and Saturn. They are visible along the Elliptic from the West (right) to East (left). The planets appear low in the sky, in the bright morning sky and are not well positioned for observing.

MERCURY will be very close to Venus before sunrise in the west but will be quite difficult to see this month. It was in conjunction with the Sun on 23rd January

VENUS moved out from its inferior conjunction with the Sun on 9th January and is now looking very bright in the east before sunrise. It will be at its largest diameter but its narrowest crescent and is often called the ‘Morning Star' at this time.

MARS is on the other side of the Sun (so appears very small) and still appears close to the Sun so will be difficult to see. Mars has moved out of conjunction with the Sun and into the early morning sky but will not appear in the evening sky again until September 2022.

JUPITER will be getting closer to the Sun and the western horizon at sunset and will move into conjunction with the Sun on 5th March.

Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune at sunset 15th February

SATURN will be in conjunction with the Sun on 4th February and will begin appearing in the morning sky before sunrise. It will be very low over the eastern horizon in the bright sky before sunrise and difficult to see. Saturn will be moving into the evening sky later in the year.

URANUS will be observable this month and will be best at 17:00 when it will be due south and at its highest point above the horizon but it is small only 3.5 arc-seconds and faint at +5.8.

NEPTUNE will be very difficult to see to the east (left) of Jupiter and in the darkening sky from about 17.00 as the sun sets. It is small and difficult to see at only 2.2 arc-seconds in diameter and at magnitude +8.0.

 

THE SUN

The Sun rises at about 07:30 at the beginning of the month and 06:00 by the end. It sets at 16:50 at the beginning of the month and 17:40 at the end of the month. It was at its lowest point in the sky on 21st December (Winter Solstice) and will be half way to midsummer on 20th March Spring (Vernal) equinox. Midsummer will be on 21st June (Summer Solstice) when it will be the longest day at 16 hours and the shortest night at just 8 hours long. There have been a few nice Sunspots recently.

 

THE MOON PHASES DURING FEBRUARY

New Moon will be on 1st February

First Quarter will be on 8th February

Full Moon will be on 16th February

Last Quarter will be on 23rd February

 

SOLAR ACTIVITY AND SUNSPOTS

Sunspots seen on 31st January 2022

Solar Activity Cycles 1996 to 2020

Those of us who observe the Sun and follow the Sunspot Cycles have noticed that the numbers of sunspots appearing on the Sun have started to increase. There is an eleven year cycle when sunspots increase over a period of about five years and then decrease over the following five years.

Records have been kept over the last 25 cycles and it has been seen that maximum and minimum of each cycle appear to vary over a number of cycles producing longer cycle of cycles. The chart below shows graphically the numbers of the Solar Cycles of sunspot numbers over the last 400 years. The numbers recorded in each cycle are shown on the right side of the graph.

Sunspot Cycles 1600 to 2020

The main solar cycle has a period of about 11 years but there is not an exact transition point so the cycle period is just approximately 11 years. The chart above shows the 24 cycles that have been recorded since the early 1600's. The red section (on the left) shows informal records that were available before more formalised records began around 1750.

It can be seen that there are variations in the average activity on the Sun as indicated by the black line that shows the mean variations. Sunspots are easy to follow if you are fortunate to have even a modest telescope. A simple but suitable solar filter can be fitted to any type or size of telescope. The filter can be bought from a telescope supplier as a ready-made item to fit directly to the open end of a telescope. A solar filter can also be made using a sheet of special Milar (plastic) Solar Filter Film. This solar filter film permits only a very small proportion of sunlight through. The correct filter must be used and nothing else or permanent damage to the eye may occur.

The peak of the cycles shows an increase of activity on the Sun that is usually manifested by the increase in the appearance of the number and size of Sunspots. Telescopes can be fitted with a special solar filter called a Hydrogen Alpha (Ha) filter. This type of filter allows the surface of the Sun to be seen in great detail. It will also allow flares, known as ‘Prominences', to be seen erupting from the edge of the Sun.

Solar Cycles 23, 24 and 25 (current cycle)

The chart above shows the last two Solar Cycles numbers 23 and 24 and the beginning of the predicted current cycle number 25. Cycles 22 - 24 seem to indicate that we may be entering a period of lower activity. The trend of the last three peaks, shown on the chart in the previous column, appears to indicate a fall in solar activity. The trend of the last three peaks, shown on the chart first chart above, appears to indicate a fall in solar activity. However the current prediction (green) on the second chart appears to show increasing activity.

It can be seen from the green section of the graph that the number of sunspots has been projected as rising since 2020. There was some speculation amongst the experts that we might have been entering a period of prolonged low numbers of sunspots. There was such a period from about 1650 to 1720 when no sunspots were seen at all, this period in known as the ‘Maunder Minimum'. The ‘Maunder Minimum' can be seen marked on the graph above.

Worryingly this period was also marked by a severe and prolonged cold spell that lasted for 76 years. It was during this period that the River Thames completely froze and funfairs were famously held on the thick ice. There is no evidence that there is a correlation between the low number of sunspots and the unusually cold spell of weather. It now appears that the prediction is that we might have a good number of sunspots on the way for the next few years.

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