The Evening Sky in February 2018

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The Evening Sky in February 2018

In February bright stars are nearly overhead. Sirius, the brightest star, is north of the zenith. Canopus, the second brightest star, is south of the zenith. Below and left of Sirius are Orion's bright stars: bluish Rigel and reddish Betelgeuse. Between them is the line of three stars making Orion's Belt. The Belt line points left and down to orange Aldebaran, one eye of Taurus the Bull. Continuing the same line finds a tight bunch of fainter stars making the Pleiades/Matariki star cluster.

Venus might be briefly seen from places with a low western skyline. It sets 20 minutes after the Sun at the beginning of the month and 30 minutes after sunset at the end, a lone 'star' fading in the twilight.

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. Procyon, in the northeast below Sirius, marks the smaller of the two dogs that follow Orion the hunter across the sky.

The stars of Orion's belt make the bottom of 'the pot' or 'the saucepan'. The handle of the pot is the faint line of stars above the bright three, Orion's sword. At its centre is the Orion Nebula: a glowing gas cloud many light-years across and 1300 light years away. Here new stars are forming.

The belt stars point to Aldebaran. It is at one tip of a V-shaped pattern of stars making the upside-down 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, half the cluster's distance from us.

Low in the northwest is the Pleiades or Matariki star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters and Subaru. Six stars are seen by most eyes. Dozens are visible in binoculars. The cluster is 440 light years from us. Its stars formed around 100 million years ago. From northern New Zealand the bright star Capella is on the north skyline. It is the sixth brightest star.

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, nearby for galaxies. The Large Cloud is about 5% the mass of the Milky Way galaxy; the Small Cloud about 3%.

A total eclipse of the Moon occurs the morning of February 1st. The Moon will be moving through the outer part of Earth's shadow till 12:48 a.m. when it begins to move into the darker part. By 1:52 it will be totally in the dark central part of the shadow, the umbra. It should be darkest around 2:30. It begins to exit the umbra at 3:08 and is fully out of it by 4:11. It leaves the outer part of the shadow at 5:08.

Jupiter is the brightest 'star' in the late night sky. It rises before 1 a.m. at the beginning of the month and 11 pm by the end. It is followed by Mars, much fainter and reddish coloured. At the beginning of the month Mars is level with Antares, to the right of Mars and the same colour and brightness. Mars slowly slips below Antares through the month. Cream-coloured Saturn follows Mars, rising around 3:30, at the beginning of the month, on a line with Jupiter and Mars. Mercury is the last up, rising an hour before the Sun at the beginning of the month. It fades into the dawn twilight by the second week of February. At dawn Jupiter, Mars and Saturn (and briefly Mercury) make a diagonal line down the eastern sky.

*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.

Newsletter editor:

Alan Gilmore Phone: 03 680 6817
P.O. Box 57 Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Lake Tekapo 7945
New Zealand