The Evening Sky in February 2017
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The Evening Sky in February 2017
Brilliant Venus is the 'evening star', appearing due west soon after sunset. It sets progressively earlier: 90 minutes after the sun at the beginning of the month, shrinking to 30 minutes after sunset at the end. A telescope shows Venus as a thinning crescent as it comes between us and the sun. It is 66 million km away mid-month. Mars is above and right of Venus, a lone reddish 'star' much fainter than Venus. Mars sets more than 90 minutes after the sun all month. At mid-month Mars is 291 million km away on the far side of the sun. The moon will be above Mars on the 1st.
Jupiter rises due east before midnight at the beginning of the month; before 10 pm at the end. It is the brightest 'star' in the late-night sky and shines with a steady golden light. A telescope will easily show Jupiter’s four bright moons. Binoculars often show one or two of them looking like faint stars close to the planet. Jupiter is 725 million km from us mid-month. It is 11 times Earth's diameter and 320 times Earth's mass. Beside Jupiter is Spica, the brightest star in Virgo. The Moon, past full, will be near Jupiter on the night of the 15th-16th.
Sirius, 'the Dog Star', marks the head of Canis Major the big dog. A group of stars above and right of it make the dog's hindquarters and tail, upside down. Procyon, in the northeast below Sirius, marks the smaller of the two dogs that follow Orion the hunter across the sky. Sirius is eight light years* away.
Below and left of Sirius are bluish Rigel and orange Betelgeuse, the brightest stars in Orion. Between them is a line of three stars: Orion's belt. To southern hemisphere star watchers, the line of three makes the bottom of 'The Pot'. The handle of The Pot is Orion's sword, a fainter line of stars above the bright three. At its centre is the Orion Nebula; a glowing gas cloud around 1300 light years away.
Orion's belt points down and left to the orange star Aldebaran. Continuing the line finds the Pleiades or Matariki star cluster. Aldebaran is Arabic for 'the eye of the bull'. It is on one tip of an upside-down V that makes the face of Taurus. The V-shaped group is called the Hyades cluster. It is 130 light years away. Aldebaran is not a member of the cluster but merely on the line of sight, 65 light years from us. It is 145 times brighter than the sun. The Pleiades/Matariki star cluster is also known as the Seven Sisters and Subaru among many names. Six stars are seen by eye; dozens are visible in binoculars. The cluster is 440 light years from us. From northern New Zealand the bright star Capella is on the north skyline. It is 90,000 times brighter than the sun and 3300 light years away.
Crux, the Southern Cross, is in the southeast. Below it are Beta and Alpha Centauri, often called 'The Pointers'. Alpha Centauri is the closest naked-eye star, 4.3 light years away. Beta Centauri, like most of the stars in Crux, is a blue-giant star hundreds of light years away. Canopus is also a very luminous distant star; 13 000 times brighter than the sun and 300 light years away.
The Milky Way is brightest in the southeast toward Crux. It can be traced up the sky, fading where it is nearly overhead. It becomes very faint east, or right, of Orion. The Milky Way is our edgewise view of the galaxy, the pancake of billions of stars of which the sun is just one.
The Clouds of Magellan, LMC and SMC are high in the south sky, easily seen by eye on a dark moonless night. They are two small galaxies about 160 000 and 200 000 light years away.
Saturn (not shown) rises in the southeast before 3 a.m. at the beginning of the month; around 1 a.m. by the end. It has a creamy colour and is the brightest 'star' in that part of the sky. It is always worth a look in a telescope. Saturn is 1570 million km away mid-month. The Moon will be near Saturn on the 21st.
Mercury appears below and right of Saturn, rising around 4:30 a.m. at the beginning of the month, two hours before the sun. It slowly sinks into the twilight and disappears before month's end as it moves to the far side of the sun. It is 200 million km away mid-month.
*A light year (l.y.)is the distance that light travels in one year: nearly 10 million million km or 1013 km. Sunlight takes eight minutes to get here; moonlight about one second. Sunlight reaches Neptune, the outermost major planet, in four hours. It takes four years for sunlight to reach the nearest star, Alpha Centauri.