Fabulous February skies

I think February stargazing is the best. It’s the best stargazing of the year in Marshall, not so much for the personal comfort of the stargazer, but for the wonderful celestial jewels that await you in the evening heavens. Button up that overcoat, have that thermos of something warm, and prepare to be dazzled. If you’re not already lucky enough to be out in the countryside, away from city lights, try to get out there; but even if you’re restricted to urban stargazing you’ll still like what you see.

Early in the evening, right after twilight, you can check out the celestial hugging shaping up between Venus and Mars in the low southwest sky. Right now they are about 8 degrees apart, slightly less than the width of your fist held at arm’s length. Later on this month they will be much closer. Stay tuned! Unlike Jupiter, you can’t really see much detail on either planet because of Mars’s distance right now and the opaque cloud cover on Venus.

Face south and you’ll be anything but bored! You’ll get an eyeful of what I call “Orion and his gang.” The majestic constellation Orion the Hunter is standing more or less upright above the southern horizon. Its visual calling cards are the three distinctive belt stars lined up so perfectly and the bright stars Rigel and Betelgeuse.

To the upper right of my favorite constellation is the constellation Taurus the Bull with the bright star cluster the Pleiades. To the upper left of Orion is the constellation Gemini the Twins and directly overhead is Auriga the Charioteer that looks like a lopsided pentagon. To the lower left of Orion is the bright star Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, and also the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, the Big Dog. Draw a line through the three stars in Orion’s belt and extend that line to the lower left and it will point right at Sirius. Sirius is a Greek name that means “the scorcher.” To the upper left of Canis Major is Canis Minor, which honestly isn’t much of a constellation, but is the home of another bright star, Procyon. Connect Procyon, Sirius, and Betelgeuse, and they make an absolutely perfect triangle aptly dubbed “The Winter Triangle,” one of the coolest things to see in the cold winter sky.

In the northern sky the Big Dipper is standing up on its handle and Cassiopeia the Queen is high in the north near the overhead zenith. It’s as bright as the Big Dipper and looks like an upside down “W” that outlines the throne of Queen Cassiopeia. The queen is tied up in her throne because she bragged that she was more beautiful than Hera, the queen of the Greek gods and the owner of the largest ego in history.

In the eastern sky there’s a sign of spring. Look for the diagonal backward question mark that outlines the chest and head of Leo the Lion. The bright star at the bottom of the question mark is Regulus. Leo will eventually lead in the springtime constellations.

What planets are out there in the evening to check out with a telescope, maybe one you got for Christmas? I’m afraid you’re out of luck with one exception, the very bright planet Venus. You won’t get much of view of Venus, though, because it sets right after the sun in the early evening twilight.

If you want to see planets, set the alarm and get out under the pre-twilight sky. Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn will be lined up nicely in the south and southeast sky around 6 a.m. Jupiter will be the brightest star-like object in that part of the sky shining nearly straight above the southern horizon.

Jupiter, about 500 million miles away, is a lot of fun to check out with even a small telescope. You can clearly see up to four of its brighter moons that resemble tiny stars on either side of the planet’s disk. Because they orbit Jupiter in periods of 2 to 17 days, the moons are constantly changing positions and regularly pass in front of or behind the largest planet in our solar system. You may even see some of Jupiter’s cloud bands that stripe the planet.

Mars is the next bright star-like object to the lower left of Jupiter in the southeast early morning sky. Even with the naked eye it has a reddish tinge. You won’t see too much detail on Mars right now; it’s a small planet that’s still pretty far away from our planet. This summer, however, Mars will be a lot brighter in the summer evening sky as it will be as close to Earth as it’s been since 2003, and nearly as close as it’s been in nearly 60,000 years.

That bright “star” just above the east-southeast horizon just before morning twilight is Saturn, about 930 million miles away. Despite that distance you should be able to make out Saturn’s ring system, although it will be a little fuzzy because of Earth’s thicker atmosphere near the horizon. It’s still a thrill to see the ring system!

Starting Wednesday morning through the rest of this week the last quarter waning crescent moon will be passing by all three planets. On Wednesday morning the moon will be just to the upper right of Jupiter. Thursday the moon will between Jupiter and Mars, Friday it will be just to the upper left of Mars, and on Saturday morning the crescent moon will be perched between Saturn and Mars.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St Paul and is author of the book, “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications available at bookstores at http://www.adventurepublications.net.