What’s Up in the Sky February, 2009
By Peter Burkey
Four hundred years ago Galileo first pointed his telescope toward the sky revealing sights never before seen by humans and launching the scientific revolution. To celebrate this landmark event in history, 2009 has been declared the International Year of Astronomy (IYA) by the United Nations and the International Astronomical Union. Many activities and events are planned and will be noted in future columns.
Let’s start with two noteworthy celestial events that, weather permitting, should not be missed next month. Both will be easy to observe with the naked eye as well as binoculars, occur early in the evening, and involve two of the objects first observed by Galileo – Venus and the Moon.
The first will be on February 3 when the Moon will pass very close to the Pleiades cluster high in the southern sky. Start watching around 7:00 p.m. or as soon as it is dark enough to see the Pleiades. As the night progresses you should be able to notice two celestial motions simultaneously. The first is the gradual drift of the Moon and the stars toward the western horizon. This is caused, of course, by the rotation of the Earth and affects all celestial objects.
The second is the movement of the Moon from west to east as it passes the cluster over the course of several hours. By 9:00 p.m. it will be nearly touching the Pleiades and by 11:00 p.m. it will be directly above them. In fact, between nine and ten o’clock binoculars should reveal the Moon covering up one or more of the individual stars in the cluster.
The second interesting sight is very similar in nature but this time it involves the Moon and the planet Venus. Right after sunset on February 27 look for a thin crescent Moon high in the west, right below Venus. Again, watch these two as the evening progresses and you should be able to witness the Moon move past the planet before they both set around 9:30. Clear weather and a good view of the horizon will be helpful for this observation.
This month in history:
Feb. 4: Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh born – 1906
Feb. 7: First untethered spacewalk made by Bruce McCandless – 1984
Feb. 14: Voyager 1 looks back to take photo of solar system – 1990
Feb. 15: Galileo Galilei born – 1564
Feb. 19: Nicholas Copernicus born – 1473
Feb. 22: First GPS satellite launched – 1978
Feb. 28: New Horizons spacecraft flies past Jupiter on its way to Pluto – 2007
Here are this month’s viewing highlights:
Planets this month: Venus dominates the western sky after sunset all month. Jupiter, Mercury and Mars are visible before dawn near the eastern horizon. Saturn rises around 9:00 p.m. early in the month and 7:00 p.m. at month’s end.
Feb. 2: First quarter Moon.
Feb. 3: Moon very near Pleiades cluster in southern sky.
Feb. 9: Full Moon.
Feb. 16: Last quarter Moon.
Feb. 24: New Moon.
Feb. 27: Watch Moon move past Venus in western sky right after sunset.