Night Lights: February sky alight with night sights

Graphic courtesy of Andy Veh

Graphic courtesy of Andy Veh

By Andy Veh, for the Redoubt Reporter

The winter constellations show their glory in February. Taurus with red Aldebaran and the Pleiades star cluster, Pegasus’ square, Andromeda, Orion with its seven bright stars (top left to bottom right — red Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Alnitak, Alnilam, Mintaka, Saiph and blue Rigel), Auriga’s pentagon with yellow Capella, Gemini with Castor and Pollux, and Procyon and Sirius in Canis Minor and Major, both arching toward the horizon from the Twins, are all on display this month.

Furthermore, Leo, a harbinger of spring, with Regulus in its front paw and Jupiter nearby, and Cancer with the Beehive star cluster, appear in the east. The Big Dipper is now virtually overhead, Lyra with blue Vega and Cygnus with Deneb are in the northeast and the Little Dipper and Polaris as always 60 degrees above the northern horizon. Late at night, Bootes with red Arcturus appear in the east.

Planets visible in the evening and all night:

Very bright Venus is visible in the southwest shortly after sunset, somewhat below Mars. Since they appear relatively close to the sun, which sets early in the evening, they too set later in the evening. The crescent moon appears next to Venus and Mars on Feb. 20.

Uranus and Neptune can still be seen near the brighter planets in the evening but they require finder charts (I recommend Googling them).

Very bright Jupiter appears in the northeast after sunset and throughout the night.

Since both Jupiter and Venus are very bright, one should ask how to tell the two apart. This month it’s very easy since Venus is an inner planet, it must be close to the sun’s location. And since the sun sets in the southwest, that bright planet must be Venus. That, of course, leaves the other bright planet in the opposite direction of the sky to be Jupiter. (During other times of the year, Jupiter itself may also appear relatively close to the sun, in so-called “superior conjunction,” and then it’s hard to tell which bright planet is which.)

Planets visible in the morning:

Saturn rises around 3 a.m. in the southeast. It makes a triangle with Virgo’s Spica and Scorpius’ Antares. But it might be too close to the southern horizon to be seen in Alaska. The waning half moon joins Saturn on Feb. 12.

Andy Veh is an associate professor of physics, math and astronomy at Kenai Peninsula College.

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