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Sky Report - Sky Sights for February 2010

Mars and Orion at their Best  While Venus & Jupiter Lost in Sun’s Glare

Let’s follow the moon during February; our companion will move all around its orbit, passing by each of bright planets in view. In early February,  the moon is just past full and rising late in the evening. Late in the evening of February 2nd, the moon appears  to the right of the planet Saturn in eastern Virgo. On February 5th, the moon will appear half full in the southern dawn sky. Late on February 13th, the moon swings from the morning to the evening side of the sun. By February 16th, a very slender crescent moon may be seen low in the western dusk. On Sunday, February 21st, the evening moon appears half full in the star group Taurus; lighting conditions on the moon are then best for viewing craters and mountains through binoculars or telescope. On the evenings of February 25th and 26th, the moon appears near the planet Mars. The moon will be to the right of Mars on the 25th and to the left of Mars on the 26th.  On the evening of 27th the moon will appear close to the bright star Regulus of Leo. On February 28th, the moon will appear full among the stars of Leo.

       The best month to view Mars is February for the orange planet is still close to us and climbing higher into the eastern evening sky. At the end of January, Mars was only 62 million miles away from Earth and appearing as nearly as bright as Sirius, the night’s brightest star. During February, Mars drifts about a degree (two moon widths) towards Gemini each week and increases its distance from Earth by about 10 million miles, dropping about 40% in brightness. All through February, Mars should be bright enough for you to see its yellow-orange tint. To spot Mars, first locate Orion with his three star belt in the southern evening sky.
Orion’s brighter stars form an hour glass shaped figure, seen about half way between the southern horizon and the top of the sky. Orion’s belt of three stars in a row mark the middle of his hour glass shaped figure. Follow the belt down and to the left to Sirius, the night’s brightest star. Go leftward to Procyon, another bright star. Then about the same distance farther to the left (beyond Procyon) is the orange planet Mars.

      The star group Orion is at its best on February evenings. Orion is highest in the South around 7 p.m. Above Orion’s belt of three stars in a row is the shoulder star Betelgeuse, a red supergiant in the last stages of its life. Betelgeuse slowly swells and shrinks with an average size of 650 times that of our sun. If Betelgeuse were to switch places with the sun, Betelgeuse would enclose most of Mars orbit; our Earth would be deep inside of Betelgeuse! Betelgeuse is roughly 500 light years away; so its light we see tonight left about the time of the discovery of the New World (the Americas) by Europeans. The belt stars of Orion, named Alnitak, Alninam  and Mintaka, are all about 1500 light years away. In one of Orion’s feet is Rigel, its brightest star. Rigel is a  blue supergiant star about 70 times as wide as our sun. Rigel is about 40,000 times as powerful as our sun. This youthful star is about 800 light years away. The light we see tonight from Rigel left that star in the early 13th century (1201 to 1300).

     February is not a good month to view the two brightest planets, Jupiter and Venus. On February 1st, Jupiter may be seen very low in the western dusk, setting 100 minutes after sunset. By the end of February, Jupiter is nearly in the same direction as the sun and lost in the sun’s glare. On January 11th, Venus passed in back of the sun (a superior conjunction). In early February, Venus sets a scant 20 minutes after the sun. By the end of February, Venus will be setting nearly an hour after the sun and barely visible from a place with a flat western horizon.

       The current program at the Frostburg State Planetarium is “Quick Intro to the Universe” with free public on Sundays at 4 p.m and 7 p.m. on each Sunday in February. Our programs begin with an informal tour of the current winter evening sky using our Planetarium projector. The main feature covers the most important facts about our universe from the very large to the very small. The Planetarium is in the front lobby of Tawes Hall in room 302. Call (301) 687-7799 to request a free Planetarium bookmark with small campus map be sent to your mailing address. You can also visit the FSU website at  www.frostburg.edu and go to the planetarium section.     


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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