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THE NIGHT SKY FOR FEBRUARY 2016

Northern Hemisphere

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the northern hemisphere night sky during February 2016.

Highlights of the month

February - a great month to view Jupiter
This is a great month to observe Jupiter. It now lies low down in Leo and so is still reasonably high in the ecliptic and hence, when due south, at an elevation of ~45 degrees.
The features seen in the Jovian atmosphere have been changing quite significantly over the last few years - for a while the South Equatorial Belt vanished completely, but has now returned to its normal wide state. This diagram shows the main Jovian features as imaged by the author at the beginning of December 2012.
The image by Damian Peach was taken with a 14 inch telescope in Barbados where the seeing can be particularly good. This image won the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition in 2011.

February: Look for the Great Red Spot on Jupiter
This list gives some of the best evening times during February to observe the Great Red Spot which should then lie on the central meridian of the planet.

2nd 20:11
4th 21:48
6th 23:36
7th 19:18
9th 20:56
11th 22:33
14th 20:02
16th 21:40
18th 23:18
21st 20:47
23rd 22:25
28th 21:32

1st February: before dawn: Mars and the third quarter Moon
Before dawn on the first of the month, Mars and the third quarter Moon will be seen, if clear, due south. As it nears the Earth, some details on the surface may now be seen if the seeing is good. Antares, in Scorpius, may also be spotted low above the horizon.

February 6th: just before dawn: A very thin crescent Moon above Venus and Mercury
Just before dawn and, given clear skies and a very low horizon towards the south-east, you may be able to spot a very thin crescent Moon hanging above both Venus, below, and Mercury down to its lower left. Binoculars may well be needed to spot Mercury, but please do not use them after the Sun has risen.

February 13th: Observe the Moon occult a star
If clear, around 19:20 on the evening of the 13th, the Moon will be seen to occult the 4.4th magnitude star xi 1 Ceti. The chart show the position of the star as seen from Manchester just before it is occulted by the un-illuminated disk of the Moon. It will reappear below the Moon's illuminated disk at around 20:19. The timings will vary somewhat across the UK.

February 14th: The Moon passes close to the Hyades Cluster
A very nice visual or photo opportunity when the first quarter Moon passes close to the V-shaped Hyades Cluster. The red giant star, Aldebaran, shining at magnitude +0.8 is not part of the cluster but lies part way towards it.

February 23rd: The Moon close to Jupiter
On the night of the 23rd/24th of February, the near full Moon, will pass below Jupiter. The diagram shows the relative positions at ~21:30 in the evening and also the positions of the Gallilean satellites.

February 26th evening: The Hyginus Rille
For some time a debate raged as to whether the craters on the Moon were caused by impacts or volcanic activity. We now know that virtually all were caused by impact, but it is thought that the Hyginus crater that lies at the centre of the Hyginus Rille may well be volcanic in origin. It is an 11 km wide rimless pit - in contast to impact craters which have raised rims - and its close association with the rille of the same name associates it with internal lunar events. It can quite easily be seen to be surrounded by dark material. It is thought that an explosive release of dust and gas created a vacant space below so that the overlying surface collapsed into it so forming the crater.

M109 imaged with the Faulkes Telescope
The Galaxy M109, imaged by Daniel Duggan.This image was taken using the Faulkes Telescope North by Daniel Duggan - for some time a member of the Faulkes telescope team. It shows the barred spiral galaxy M109 that lies at a distance of 83 million light years in the constellation of Ursa Major. It is the brightest galaxy in the Ursa Major group of some 50 galaxies. Our own Milky Way galaxy is now thought to be a barred spiral like M109.Learn more about the Faulkes Telescopes and how schools can use them: Faulkes Telescope

Observe the International Space Station
Use the link below to find when the space station will be visible in the next few days. In general, the space station can be seen either in the hour or so before dawn or the hour or so after sunset - this is because it is dark and yet the Sun is not too far below the horizon so that it can light up the space station. As the orbit only just gets up the the latitude of the UK it will usually be seen to the south, and is only visible for a minute or so at each sighting. Note that as it is in low-earth orbit the sighting details vary quite considerably across the UK. The NASA website linked to below gives details for several cities in the UK. (Across the world too for foreign visitors to this web page.)

Note: I observed the ISS three times recently and was amazed as to how bright it has become.

Find details of sighting possibilities from your location from: Location Index

See where the space station is now: Current Position

The Planets

  • Jupiter
    Jupiter will reach opposition on the 8th of next month and so this is one of three superb months during which to observe it - visible from late evening to dawn. Jupiter starts the month in the extreme south of Leo close to the boarder of Virgo and, during the month moves slowly northwards and westwards in retrograde motion across the heavens. The size of Jupiter's disk increases slightly from 42 to 44 arc seconds as February progresses with its magnitude increasing very slightly from -2.4 to -2.5. With a small telescope one should be easily able to see the equatorial bands in the atmosphere, sometimes the Great Red Spot and up to four of the Gallilean moons as they weave their way around it.

    See highlight above.
  • Saturn
    Saturn is now a morning object, rising at ~04:30 UT as the month begins but by about 03:00 UT at its end. It lies in Ophiuchus near the 'fan' of Scorpius and 7.5 degrees above Antares. Its diameter increases from 15.8 to 16.5 arc seconds during the month as it shines at magnitude +0.5. It will be high enough in the south-east before dawn to make out the beautiful ring system which has now opened out to ~26 degrees - virtually as open as they ever become. It will best observed just before dawn but if only it were higher in the ecliptic; its elevation never gets above ~20 degrees and so the atmosphere will hinder our view of this most beautiful planet.
    Image from Cassini - Nasa
  • Mercury
    Mercury, shining at magnitude zero, lies fairly near Venus during February and reaches greatest elongation from the Sun on the 7th. It should be visible low in the East for the first half of the month. It lies closest to Venus on the 13th when it is 4 degrees down to its lower left. A low eastern horizon will be needed to spot them as the pair will be less than 10 degrees high some 30 minutes before sunrise.
    See highlight above.
  • Mars

    See highlight above.
  • Venus
    Venus, is nearing the end of a long morning apparition when it has dominated the eastern sky before dawn. It rises at the start of the month as twilight begins but only an hour before sunrise by month's end. As the angle of the ecliptic to the horizon is small at this time of the year, Venus is especially low above the horizon, but even so, shining at a magnitude of -3.9 it is still easily visible given a good eastern horizon. During the month, its angular size drops from 12 to 11 arc seconds but, at the same time, the percentage of the illuminated disk increases from 85 to 90% which explains why the magnitude stays constant. It stays close to Mercury and lies 4 degrees to its upper right on the 10th of the month.

Southern Hemisphere

Haritina Mogosanu from the Carter Observatory in New Zealand tells us about the southern hemisphere night sky during February 2016.

Clear skies from from Space Place at Carter Observatory in Aotearoa New Zealand. My name is Haritina Mogosanu and tonight I am your starryteller from the Southern Hemisphere.

Getting to know the southern sky is a wonderfully strange experience. In any new place that I visit I always I feel grateful for landmarks. On Earth, I am looking for trees and buildings and mountains, in the sky I always look for the brightest stars. Here in New Zealand, there are places and times when the light of the individual stars is lost in the haze of the Milky Way as if a blanket of tiny lights is covering the Earth at night.

Not this time!

This time of the year we are very lucky to see the brightest stars in the evening sky and a bonus for this year, something that hasn't happened since 2005, is that the planets are aligned in the morning sky. And even if you are not a morning person, is worth waking up for that!

Let's start with the evening sky, as you do. The Sun's winter wife, Hine Takurua/Sirius is the brightest star in the sky, reaching the sky's peak at nightfall, to the north of the sky's highest point, the Zenith.

Left of Takurua are the stars of Tautoru or as we know them from the Northern Hemisphere, Orion's Belt: Alnilam, Alnitak and Mintaka. Mintaka is located precisely on the celestial equator, which is the projection of Earth's equator in the sky. This means that it rises perfectly due East and sets perfectly due West, a great companion for celestial navigation.

To Kiwi's, Tautoru makes the bottom of 'The Pot'. There are a few pots and pans in the New Zealand's sky ... and the cuisine here is delicious, so pots and pans figure strongly in New Zealand's astronomy. One important pot contains Orion's belt and its sword is the handle of the pot.

Above the pot, or Tautoru in Maaori, at a distance somewhere between 700 and 1700 light years from Earth, is the glistening blue giant Puanga or Rigel, another very bright star. Actually Rigel is the seventh brightest star in the sky. About 10 million years old, it is still burning hot at 12,000 degrees in the constellation of Orion.

Remember that the modern constellations are only patches in the sky, similar to countries on Earth, although they have kept the names given long ago to the asterisms that inspired their creation. There are 88 such patches covering the entire sky. One of them is Orion. The dot to dot shapes that we make from stars, are called asterisms. Asterisms can be inside of a constellation, like The Pot is inside Orion, or they can stretch over many constellations like the Maaori Waka o Tama Rereti stretches across 270 degrees over the Milky Way in November. Another example is the ancient asterism of Argo Navis, which today is made of Carina, Puppis and Vela.

Back to constellations --- by convention, the brightness of the stars in a constellation is noted with the letters of the Greek alphabet. Apha for the brightest, beta for the second brightest and so on. And just like for countries on Earth, if the people of New Zealand are called New Zealanders, according to this convention, the name of the specific star identified by a Greek letter is followed by the genitive form of its parent constellation's Latin name. For instance Alpha Orionis, means the brightest star in Orion. This is something that astronomer Johann Bayer invented long ago to help him map the stars. But as there are always exceptions, here is one: although Rigel is the brightest star in Orion, its Bayer designation is Beta Orionis (Beta Ori, Beta Orionis), which means that when Bayer was compiling his famous atlas Uranometria in 1603, Rigel was not the brightest star in Orion, but the second brightest.

Many years have passed since then but Rigel has kept the name of Beta, even though is now officially the brightest star in Orion and sometimes historical conventions or events are more important in the grand scheme of things. However, for me is important to understand why we stick to them even when they don't make too much sense.

In stellar navigation, Rigel is also a very important star. Old records name it marinus aster, Latin for maritime star. No surprises why that was, since Rigel is bright, easily located and equatorial, which means it near the celestial equator, the projection of our own Equator in the sky and this means it is visible all around the world's oceans. It's declination (the celestial equivalent of latitude) is minus 8 degrees (that would be like saying 8 degrees latitude south) so it cannot be seen from latitudes North of 82 degrees, that is about 8 degrees from the North Pole. Splendor and honours were attributed to the lot of those born under Rigel according to the ancients.

Opposite Rigel on the other side of Orion's belt, more precisely below it, as seen from Wellington New Zealand, Pūtārā/ Betelgeuse, a shining red giant, or more precisely a supergiant, is the ninth brightest star in the sky. Betelgeuse is the second brightest star in Orion, and its located at about 600 light years away from us. Betelgeuse is a mistranslation of the arabic name which I will not even try to pronounce but it means the armpit of the Central One or, according to some other people Orion's hand. It is part of the famous winter triangle of the Northern Hemisphere and for the ancients Betelgeuse brought fortune, martial honours, wealth and other kingly attributes.

Betelgeuse is visible to virtually every inhabited region of the globe, except for a few research stations in Antarctica at latitudes south of 82 degrees, that is within around 8 degrees from the South Pole. That is because the declination of Betelgeuse in the sky is almost 8 degrees. If Betelgeuse would be a city on Earth it would be located at 8 degrees latitude North. Both “cities” of Betelgeuse and Rigel would share the same meridian, which in the sky is called Right Ascension.

Even though it is just a tad younger than Rigel, at about 8.5 million years old, Betelgeuse is a dying star approaching supernova, which is estimated to happen within the next 100,000 years. It's end is near. Betelgeuse is also known as Alpha Orionis (although it is now the second brightest in the constellation, after Rigel), and it was indeed noted as a much brighter star than what is now observable.

Betelgeuse together with the two dogs, Sirius the big dog and, on the other side of the Milky Way, Procyon, the small dog, make a beautiful triangle, which obviously from New Zealand is upside down but still pointing at Taumata Kūkū, the Hyades, which are forming a mathematical 'less-than' shape in the north western sky as seen from Wellington.

Lower down, Te Tāwhiti – the Shining Ones (or the Pleiades star cluster) – prepare for their trip to the underworld, soon to disappear behind the Sun. We will not be seeing them from March until the end of June when they will reappear just before the Sunrise, but they will be called a different name then: Matariki. Unlike us, Europeans, who once we name a pattern of stars we keep it at all times of the year, the Southern Hemisphere is very fluid in this respect and I have learned that the Maori have different names for the same stars at different times of the year. Mostly these combinations come in threes. I have wondered why, and then realised that as the Earth goes around the Sun, the sky visibly appears to change from season to season. That is, if you compare it at the same time of the night throughout the year. So for the Maori, making different combinations in the sky according to the season was a great way to lock this knowledge into a different form of a calendar.

In fact if you watch the stars in the sky all night long, you will see that they behave just like the Sun: they will drift westwards throughout the night. Of course they do, it's not them, it's the Earth spinning around. But unlike the Sun, if you watch carefully, you will notice that every night, the same stars, if you look at them at the exact same hour and minute as the previous night -- and taking a visible signpost like a tree or a pole as a visual anchor -- they would seem to have shifted their position also westwards, just a tiny little bit.

For us on Earth, this change is very visible from month to month and especially from season to season. This is why I believe that the Maaori had seasonal names for their different groupings of stars, because the same shapes are repeating every year. Stars make a great seasonal marker, especially for their particular culture, which was created whilst navigating the seas and oceans. Compare that to landlubbers like myself who always had nature and plants and landmarks to guide ourselves by, and who often experienced four very distinct seasons. Once we had named a constellation or an asterism it's name would stay the same throughout the year. Not so for the Maaori. No wonder our views of the skies are so very different.

People of Old did not have such detailed information about all these celestial movements and imagined that those stars, just like the plants in the wintertime (for those who had wintertime) would go to the underworld for a while. Perhaps that's the reason why the reappearance of the Pleiades in the sky after a long absence is associated in many cultures with dead ancestors.

So how about the next time you look at the sky you chose a star and a signpost, like a street lamp, and watch that star at exactly the same hour of the night through the year from exactly the same observation spot. I have one such spot too and I call it the center of the Universe.

From my center of the Universe, south of the Zenith, radiant Atutahi/ Canopus is the second brightest star in the entire sky. A circumpolar star, Atutahi is an Ariki; a Chief of the Stars. Another constellation that is circumpolar to Wellington is the Southern Cross, visible from 9pm. Coincidentally the Southern Cross will be easily located roughly at the same hour, nine o'clock on what I call the grand clock of heavens. This is the area of the sky starting from around (minus) - 60 degrees declination, to which Canopus belongs as well. Now looking at the circumpolar stars from New Zealand you will notice that they seem to progress on the sky clockwise, which makes that region of the sky look even more like a clock.

Within the Grand Clock of the Heavens - The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC respectively) are two nearby galaxies visible to the naked eye south of the zenith. They are so prominent in the sky that the first time I spotted the Large Magellanic Cloud I simply believed it was a cirrus cloud, biased by my Northern Hemisphere image of how a galaxy should look like. Imagine my awe when I realised what I was looking at.

And if you wonder where our Milky Way galaxy disappears to, as we can only see a few very bright stars in the sky at the moment --- well it actually hasn't gone away! It is well known that in New Zealand there are times when the Milky Way stretches as a band of stars from North to South going through Zenith. This is one of them. At dusk (around 10 pm in New Zealand, since right now it is still summertime and the night falls very late), the band of the MIlky Way comes up from the Northern Horizon where Capella is hiding below it, and then arches through Betelgeuse, Sirius, the Southern Cross and its two pointers, where it is brightest, and then descends to earth through the south. But during this time of the year we are looking towards the outskirts of the Milky Way, especially when we turn our gaze towards Orion. Thus we see less stars in the sky than when we are looking towards the center of the Milky Way.

With the Milky Way stretching as an arch high across the sky, its brightest regions are well positioned for observing, up in the sky away from the atmospheric haze of the horizon. So let's turn our gaze south of Zenith, to the ancient constellation of Argo Navis. Argo Navis lies entirely in the southern celestial hemisphere, which is the part of the sky south of the celestial equator, the projection of Earth's equator in the sky. Even though it is called the Southern Celestial Hemisphere, because the sky is really huge we can see most of it from anywhere in the world apart of the regions of the sky covered by the Earth itself. This is the reason why we cannot see for instance the Big Dipper or Casiopeea from Wellington or the Southern Cross from Northern Europe. Argo Navis can be found east of Canis Major, south of Monoceros and Hydra, largely in the Milky Way covering a great extent of the sky, almost nearly 75 degrees in length and containing 829 naked eye components. Modern day astronomers have divided Argo Navis into three constellations: Karina the Keel, Puppis the Stern and Vela the Sail. No bow. The Ship is said to be moving stern-forward.

The -naut of argonaut and the Navis of Argo Navis come from the same indo-European root náu- 'Boat or ship'. We constructed many of our modern words from this ancient termination: aeronaut, aquanaut, astronaut, cosmonaut…

Of the three constellations that made the ancient Argo, Puppis marks the stern. Inside Puppis, two less known Messier Objects, M 46 and M 47 are revealing their beauty to southern hemisphere observers. Messier 46 (also known as M 46 or NGC 2437) is an open cluster at a distance of about 5,500 light-years away. Approximately 500 stars make the young cluster, which is thought to be only around 300 million years old. That is a very young age for a star! There is also a planetary nebula NGC 2438 near the cluster's northern edge.

But that's no planet at all. A planetary nebula is an expanding glowing shell of ionized gas ejected from old red giant stars late in their lives as the outer layers of the star are expelled by strong stellar winds.

Messier 46 open cluster is located close by Messier 47 another open cluster, which is about one degree west in the sky, so the two fit well in a binocular or wide-angle telescope field, like two close sisters, a name to which they are often referred.

Messier 47 (Messier Object 47, M47, or NGC 2422) was considered for a while the 'lost Messier Object', as the coordinates indicated by Charles Messier did not reveal anything for a long time. Rediscovered independently as NGC 2422 by a Canadian astronomer T. F. Morris who had the realization that NGC 24202 and M47 were the same thing, M47 lies at a distance of about 1,600 light-years from Earth with an estimated age of about 78 million years. There are about fifty stars in this cluster.

If the evening sky belongs to the brightest stars at this time of the year, the morning is a regal of planets. Jupiter comes up at dusk, shining brightly with a steady golden light.Until 20 February the bright planets are forming a magnificent alignment before dawn. Golden Jupiter looms in the northwest sky, reddish Mars climbs northeast of the zenith, while creamy Saturn is midway up in the eastern sky. Brilliant Venus adorns the eastern horizon and Mercury shimmers below and to the right of Venus, near the horizon. The next occurrence of the kind is in August 2016, and then not again until 2018. So to see it all you have to do is wake up before sunrise!

I found this beautiful poem by ancient poet Aratos:
Sternforward Argo by the Great Dog's tail
Is drawn; for hers is not a usual course,
But backward turned she comes, as vessels do
When sailors have transposed the crooked stern
On entering harbour; all the ship reverse,
And gliding backward on the beach it grounds.
Sternforward thus is Jason's Argo drawn.
Canopus at its helm.

Thank you for listening to the February 2016 podcast, until next time Kia Ora and Kia Kaha from Space Place at Carter Observatory in the Southern Hemisphere.

References
Australian Geographic
Science DailyCompiled by Ian Morison