Exploring Our Night Sky - February 2020

Image courtesy of Steven Marshall Photography www.smarshall.photography

This month we see Venus brightening up the night sky in the south-west, while the winter constellations of Orion, Taurus and Gemini continue their annual journey westward. During the first part of the night, you can see them in the south and, using Orion’s belt as a guide, you can easily find your way around them. It’s also a great time of the year to see Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, the “five bright planets” that are visible to the naked eye.

The Constellations

If you look to the South this month, you’ll see that much of the view is taken up by Orion, Taurus and Auriga. Orion is the easiest of these to find as it is the brightest constellation in the night sky and can even be seen through bright moonlight and light pollution. Orion, the Hunter, can be found by spotting Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka, the three stars that line up to make his belt. The Hunter’s shoulders are formed by Bellatrix to the right and the far brighter, blood-red Betelgeuse to the left. The slightly brighter, blue-white Rigel is Orion’s right foot, while the fainter Saiph is his left foot.

The Constellation of Orion Mouser

If you follow the line from the three stars of Orion’s belt, you will find Taurus the Bull. It appears to be charging at Orion, staring him down with a bright red eye, which is the giant orange star Aldebaran. Continue to follow this line beyond the Bull’s eye and you will come to The Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters, which is a cluster of young stars that glow blue. In Greek mythology, the Pleiades were the seven daughters of the titan Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione and Merope, the youngest of the seven Pleiades, was wooed by Orion.

You will find Auriga, the Charioteer, directly above Orion. Its brightest star is Capella, which is at the top of a great pentagon of stars that make up the Charioteer’s pointed helmet. At this time of the year, Capella is almost overhead and there is a little group of three fainter stars just to one side of it. There are four other stars in the big pentagon making up the rest of the constellation.

If you follow the line of Orion’s belt heading left and slightly down, you will find Sirius. It is in Canis Major, the Greater Dog. It is the brightest star in the night sky and appears very low down at our northern latitude. This can cause it to twinkle quite strongly, especially on a clear frosty night.

Canis Major is just one of Orion’s dogs. The other, Canis Minor or the Lesser Dog, can be found directly to his left and its main star is Procyon, the 8th brightest star in the sky. Above Procyon are two stars, Castor and Pollux, which mark the heads of the Twins, Gemini. The bodies of the Twins are the two lines of stars which extend towards Orion.

Another thing you can see in the southern sky is the Winter Circle, a pattern of stars that is not a constellation. It’s made up of a lot of separate stars, in different constellations, so it’s what is called an asterism. It doesn’t form a perfect circle, but instead forms a hexagon that you can find if you start at Capella and move clockwise to Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, and Castor. In addition to the Winter Circle, Orion’s bright star Betelgeuse forms an equilateral triangle with the stars Sirius and Procyon and forms what is called the Winter Triangle.

Looking North, the thing to bear in mind is that the constellations you see do not change from month to month, it is only their orientation that changes. You can find the seven stars of the Plough up in the north-east and you can use its two right-hand stars to find the Pole Star, Polaris, which is always in the same position in the sky. Just follow the line between them for about five times its length and you’ll arrive at it.

Once you’ve found Polaris, you can use it to get your bearings on any night but bear in mind that all the northern constellations rotate around it in an anticlockwise direction and therefore change their position. It is also worth noting that Polaris is not that bright, with it being about the same brightness as the stars of the Plough. Its significance comes from it being directly above our North Pole.

Finally, if you have a clear view of the northern horizon you might be able to see Vega, the brightest star in the northern constellation of Lyra, low in the north-east.

The Moon

We start the month with the moon at it first quarter (a half moon) with the full moon occurring on the night of 8/9 February. This full moon will be a supermoon, when it is bigger and brighter than usual, but not as spectacular as it will be on 8 April, which will be the year’s best supermoon.

On the morning of 18 February, the crescent moon will be to the right of Mars. The following morning, it will be to the left of Mars and to the right of Jupiter. Then, before dawn on 20 February, you’ll see the thinnest of crescent moons to the lower left of Jupiter and to the right of Saturn. From 26 to 28 February, the crescent moon appears in the evening sky with it being very close to Venus on 27 February.

The Planets

This time of the year is a great time to see all five of the bright planets. These are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn and are called such because you can see them with the naked eye.

The first planet that you will see in the evening will be Venus. It will be low in the south-west just after sunset early in the month. As the month progresses, it will become higher and brighter because it is moving closer and closer to Earth. Also during the first half of the month, you may be able to spot Mercury if you have a clear view of the horizon out towards the west. You will be able to see it between about half-past six and seven o’clock during the weeks either side of the 10 February before it sets below the horizon to the lower right of Venus.

Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are all in the morning sky at the moment, but you’ll need to get up early to see them. Mars rises in the south-east at about 4:30 am, followed by Jupiter at around 5:30 am and Saturn at about 6:00 am. So, if you’re up at around 6:00 am you will see them all lined up in the morning twilight out to the south-east. Mars will be the highest, followed by Jupiter and then Saturn.

Meteor Showers

We are in a quiet period for meteor showers, until the Lyrid meteor becomes active on 16 April. It will peak on the night of 21-22 April when there will be little or no moon, so if we have clear skies, it should be a good show.

This monthly summary first appeared on https://www.rockpoolhouse.co.uk/february-stargazing.html.

It was written by Steven Marshall, owner of Steven Marshall Photography and Rockpool House Holiday Apartment. He offers landscape and night photography tuition to visitors on the Peninsulas and has various photographic prints, calendars, cards and other merchandise for sale at his studio at Rockpool House. He also enjoys taking his guests at Rockpool House on a tour of the night sky.

If you’d like to share what you love about the area on our website, please feel free to get in touch by email at web@westhighlandpeninsulas.com.

Posted on 9th February 2020, by Steven Marshall.

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