What’s Up in the Sky February, 2008
By Peter Burkey
February offers three opportunities for viewing rare and exciting close encounters and a well timed eclipse.
The “star” of this month’s show is the total lunar eclipse on the night of February 20-21. During a lunar eclipse, the Moon’s motion around Earth carries it through our shadow so that sunlight is blocked from falling on the Moon’s surface. This causes the Moon to glow a deep red or orange. The redness is caused by the light from all the sunrises and sunsets happening on Earth. Imagine if you were standing on the Moon you would see the Sun blocked out by a black Earth rimmed in red. This red glow is what illuminates the Moon’s surface during totality.
The last two lunar eclipses visible from our area have occurred with the eclipsed Moon either rising or setting. This time, however, it will happen at a convenient time and the Moon will have two bright partners close by.
To observe the eclipse, you will need a clear view toward the southeast. Start watching around 9:30 p.m. and check it out every 10 minutes or so until 10:00 p.m. when totality begins. Notice that the eclipsed Moon is right between the star Regulus (above) and the planet Saturn (below and to the left). Note the color of the eclipsed Moon. This is a great photo op if you use a tripod and a 15-30 sec. exposure. Keep watching every so often until 10:52 p.m. when totality ends.
The other two treats this month involve Venus in the eastern predawn sky. On February 1 look near the southern horizon for the crescent Moon. To its left, in the southeast, you will see Venus and Jupiter separated by about one Moon diameter, a rare sight! Then, on February 27, look in the same area to see Venus joined by the elusive Mercury. Look an hour before sunrise each time.
Here’s hoping for some luck with the clouds to let us see what’s up in the sky.
This month in history:
Feb. 1: Seven astronauts killed as Shuttle Columbia burns up during reentry – 2003
Feb. 6: Alan Shepard hits first golf balls on Moon – 1971
Feb. 12: NEAR spacecraft lands on asteroid – 2001
Feb. 15: Galileo Galilei born – 1564
Feb. 18: Pluto discovered – 1930
Feb. 23: Supernova 1987a first observed – 1987
Feb. 24: Announcement of Jocelyn Bell’s 1967 discovery of first pulsar – 1968
Here are this month’s viewing highlights:
Planets this month: Venus is low in SE before sunrise. Jupiter very close to Venus Feb. 1. Mercury also visible before dawn late in the month. Saturn, near the star Regulus, visible all night.
Feb. 1: Spectacular conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in predawn sky.
Feb. 6: New Moon.
Feb. 13: First quarter Moon.
Feb. 20: Full Moon – total lunar eclipse begins at 10 pm.
Feb. 25-27: Mercury is very close to Venus low in southeast just before dawn.
Feb. 28: Last quarter Moon.
“As the clouds parted briefly a few nights ago I was reminded of the beauty of the winter constellations, especially Orion, with his distinctive belt and bright stars Betelgeuse and Rigel, Taurus, with red giant Antares and the lovely Pleiades cluster, and Canis Major, one of Orion’s hunting dogs with the star Sirius, the brightest in our night sky.” -P. Burkey