Feb 05

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – February, 2014

Everyone Loves Jupiter

When choosing the topics for this column I always try to consider the demographics of my readership. Should I really devote an entire story to observing faint galaxies that rise after midnight or a close Moon/planet pairing that occurs an hour before sunrise? In February? With this weather? I doubt many readers are devoted enough to undertake such endeavors. I know I’m not.

I was thinking about this recently when the phone rang and I heard my friend Phil Kloske’s voice asking about an “incredibly bright” object in the sky. Phil was in San Diego and, even with the help of a phone app, he was not able to identify what he was seeing.

Bingo. That’s the demographic I serve: those who not only enjoy observing the sky, but also are interested in identifying and learning about what they see.

The “star” of February’s show, so to speak, is actually a planet – Jupiter – and that is what caught my friend’s eye. Jupiter is well up in the southeast each evening reaching its greatest height above the horizon well before midnight, making it an excellent target for a small telescope.

The planet is easy to find since it’s by far the brightest non-lunar object up there. Go out around 9 p.m., look south and you will see Orion and his three distinctive belt stars. If you follow the line of belt stars down and to the left you will see a very bright object that is not Jupiter, but Sirius, the brightest star in our sky. Look above and to the left of Orion and Jupiter should jump out at you. Ir’s about half way between Orion’s belt and the twin stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini. If you have any doubts, check out the scene on February 10th when the Moon will appear to be directly below the planet.

A neat thing about Jupiter is it’s easy to observe really cool stuff. Binoculars steadied on a tripod or even a signpost reveal its four brightest moons. With a small telescope you can observe events such as transits (when a moon passes in front of the planet) and eclipses (when a moon passes through the shadow of the planet). But even with the naked eye, the beauty and brilliance of Jupiter remind us why the ancients made it the King of all that was up in the sky.
This month in history:
Feb. 1: Shuttle Columbia breaks apart during reentry killing all 7 astronauts – 2003
Feb. 7: First untethered spacewalk made by Bruce McCandless – 1984
Feb. 14: Voyager 1 looks back to take photo of solar system – 1990
Feb. 18: Pluto discovered – 1930
Feb. 23: Light from supernova 1987a reaches Earth – 1987
Feb. 28: Charles Bassett and Elliot See, Gemini IX crew, die in plane crash – 1966