What’s Up in the Sky – February, 2016
Planets and Stars in February
By now you have undoubtedly heard about the five planets visible in the morning sky so I will offer a few tips for successful viewing.
Go out about an hour before sunrise and look toward the southeast. There you will see the planet Venus, by far the brightest object in the sky, other than the Moon of course. Over in the southwest look for the second brightest non-lunar object, Jupiter. In between Venus and Jupiter are Mars and Saturn. Now, these guys have been visible for most of the winter, but what makes this alignment special is that they are now being joined by Mercury, just to the east (left) of Venus.
The show will continue through mid-February but you can use the Moon for the first week of the month to locate the dim planets in case you are unsure which is which. On February first, it will be close to Mars, on the third it will be just above Saturn, and on the sixth it will be near the eastern horizon very close to Mercury and Venus. In fact, that will probably your best chance to spot Mercury as it is normally faint and lost in the glare of the rising Sun. The best time will probably be 7:20 – 7:30 a.m. each morning.
You may have also heard about the “discovery” of a new planet, “Planet 9”. According to New Horizons project scientist and Holland resident, Harold Reitsema, “this is an interesting possibility but far from a “Discovery”. We don’t know much at all about (Kuiper Belt Objects or) their typical orbits. So this is really speculation. Educated speculation, but speculation none the less.” Clearly further study is needed.
If you are not a morning person, there is still plenty to see in the sky in the evening. In fact, February is one of the best month for stargazing, in spite of the cold weather. Facing south you will surely spot our old friend, Orion, the Hunter, with his distinctive group of four bright stars bisected by three stars that make up his belt and three fainter stars forming his sword.
You can use Orion as a guide to find lots of other cool stuff. Follow the line of belt stars down toward the horizon to find Sirius (as if you need guide stars . . . it’s the brightest star in the sky), and up toward the right to find the star Aldebaran and the V-shaped group of stars that form the head of the constellation Taurus, the Bull.
Finally, follow the line formed by the top two stars in Orion’s shoulders eastward to Procyon then continue straight up to Castor and Pollux. Complete your circle tour with Capella, a yellow/gold star almost directly overhead in the constellation Auriga. For added interest, bring along a pair of binoculars and just scan the area for nebulae and star clusters. Let the stars be your guide to what’s up in the sky.