The night sky in February

Want to know what's up in the sky tonight? Our night sky chart will provide you with the information you need to locate the brightest planets, stars and deep-sky objects ...

The Stars and Constellations

There are many bright stars in the east and they will be visible until the small hours of the morning. Sirius is the brightest star in our night sky, with its magnitude of -1.1. This star is 25 times brighter than our Sun but, because Sirius is so far away (8.6 light years, or about 77 million million kilometers), it appears much dimmer. Sirius is in the constellation of Canis Major, the Big Dog, and has the nickname ‘The Dog Star’. If you have trouble finding Sirius, take note on the night sky chart that the three stars in Orion’s belt point southeast directly to the star.

february This month’s chart shows the night sky looking South in mid February at 2300. (click on image for larger view)

Gemini, the Twins – this month’s sky highlight

Gemini is a zodiacal constellation whose primary stars are named after the mythological twins Castor and Pollux, the sons of Zeus and Leda and the siblings of Helen of Troy. In Chinese mythology the twin stars represented Yin and Yang.

Looking South at approximately 2100 you will see the brightest star in the sky, Sirius about 20 degrees above the horizon. If you double this elevation and look in the direction of 11 o’clock you will find the star Procyon. Travel the same distance again vertically and you will see two stars of equal brightness in a seven o’clock, one o’clock orientation. These are the Twins Castor (the uppermost star) and Pollux.

Look carefully at these two stars. Can you discern the difference in colour between the two? I won’t tell you which is which, but all I’ll say is that one is a pale orange and the other is a white-ish blue.

Now imagine an equilateral triangle pointing to the right, away from Castor and Pollux. Take a pair of binoculars and place the field of view at the point of the triangle and you will see a lovely elongated group of stars containing a colourful pair called 64 and 65 Geminorum. The colour difference between these two stars should be easier to distinguish than those of the Twins.

In history …

Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto on February 18 1930. He was examining some telescopic images he had taken weeks earlier using a 13 inch telescope at the Lowell Observatory.

Miranda, the largest moon of Uranus, was discovered by Gerard Kuiper on February 16 1948.

On February 20 1962, Lt. Colonel John H. Glenn Jr. became the first American in orbit. (Alan Shepard’s flight nine months earlier was sub-orbital but still in “space” so Shepard was the first American in space.) Glenn spent nearly 5 hours in orbit as he zoomed around the Earth three times in his Mercury-Atlas 6 capsule. (In 1998 Glenn returned to orbit via the space shuttle Discovery and, at the age of 77 years, became the oldest space traveler.)

The USSR placed Luna 9 on the surface of the Moon on February 3 1966 – making it the first spacecraft from Earth to (soft) land on another world.

Jocelyn Bell discovered the first pulsar on February 24 1968.

On February 61971 Alan Shepherd proved that, while wearing a space suit, it’s impossible to swing a golf club gracefully as he whacked a golf ball on the Moon during the Apollo 14 mission.

On the morning of February 1 2003, 7 NASA astronauts died when the shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry. Evidence indicated that during lift-off a piece of ‘foam’, insulating the external fuel tank, broke off damaging the port wing. This damage lead to structural failure during the re-entry.

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© Macclesfield Astronomical Society 2017