An extra day of superb February evening skies

The maps show the sky at 22:00 GMT on the 1st, 21:00 on the 15th and 20:00 on the 29th.  (Click on map to enlarge)

The maps show the sky at 22:00 GMT on the 1st, 21:00 on the 15th and 20:00 on the 29th. (Click on map to enlarge)

February brings our best evening skies of the year and, with this being a leap year, we have one extra day to enjoy them. Pride of place must go to Orion which marches across our southern sky from the south-east at nightfall tonight to stand in the south-south-west by our star map times.

We are all familiar with the Summer Triangle of bright stars (Vega, Deneb and Altair) which graces our summer nights, but less well known is the Winter Triangle that follows close behind Orion. Consisting of the stars Betelgeuse at Orion’s shoulder, Procyon in Canis Minor which stands level with Betelgeuse to its left, and Sirius in Canis Major, the Winter Triangle is brighter than its summer counterpart and much more isosceles in form.

Sirius, found by extending Orion’s belt down and to the left, is the brightest star in our night sky largely because it is one of the closest to us at 8.6 light years. Indeed, viewed from the same distance as Betelgeuse, some 500 light years, it would be too dim to see without binoculars.

Because they are so obviously placed in the sky in the shape of a man, it is easy to regard the main stars of Orion as lying at similar distances from us. Although they are all highly luminous and far away, they stand at very different distances so that Orion’s impressive outline would change beyond recognition if we could view it from a different direction. A striking example concerns the three stars of Orion’s belt which, in order from the left, are Alnitak, Alnilam and (slightly fainter) Mintaka. Alnitak and Mintaka are thought to stand around 700 light years from us, but some estimates put Alnilam as distant as 2,000 light years, more than twice as far.

The Sun climbs almost 10° northwards during February as sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 08:08/16:45 on the 1st to 07:06/17:46 on the 29th. The Moon is at last quarter on the 1st, new on the 8th, at first quarter on the 15th and full on the 22nd. Because its path is inclined steeply in the south-west at nightfall, there is an excellent opportunity to spot the very young and brightly earthlit Moon low in the west-south-west on the evening of the 9th. It should still be spectacular over the following few evenings.

No bright planets are visible until the conspicuous Jupiter begins its climb through our eastern and south-eastern sky as Orion crosses the meridian. It lies in south-eastern Leo, 22° below and left of Regulus, and is creeping westwards against the stars as it draws towards its opposition in March. This month it brightens from magnitude -2.4 to -2.5, approaches from 694 million to 665 million km and swells from 42 to 44 arcseconds in diameter.

Any telescope should show Jupiter’s two main dark cloud belts, appearing symmetrically and in parallel on either side of its pale equatorial zone. Spots and streaks in the clouds, including the famous Red Spot in its southern hemisphere, drift from east to west across the Jovian disk as the planet rotates in just under ten hours. Of course, we need only binoculars to spot Jupiter’s four main moons as they change their relative positions on either side of the disk.

The second bright planet of the night stands low in the south-east as Jupiter reaches the meridian some five hours after our map times. The reddish, or perhaps salmon-pink, Mars lies below the Moon and just above the double star Zubenelgenubi in Libra on the morning of the 1st.

Mars spends February sliding eastwards though Libra and brightening from magnitude 0.8 to 0.3 as it approaches from 205 million to 161 million km. Its small slightly-gibbous disk grows from 7 to 9 arcseconds and is starting to reveal detail through good telescopes, particularly if we catch it just before dawn as it passes less than 20° high in the south.

If we look before dawn and take a line from Jupiter, well over in the west-south-west, to Mars in the south and onwards to the left we reach the almost equally-bright Saturn (magnitude 0.6 to 0.5) which is slow-moving in southern Ophiuchus, 8° above-left of the red supergiant star Antares in Scorpius. The Moon stands above Antares and above-right of Saturn on the morning of the 3rd when Saturn’s disk appears 16 arcseconds wide, with its rings spanning 36 arcseconds and tipped 26° to our view – a stunning sight.

The line-up of Jupiter, Mars and Saturn may be extended to Venus and Mercury, hugging our south-eastern horizon, and has led to widespread claims of a spectacular planetary alignment in our morning sky. In fact, the term “planetary alignment” is more usually applied to those occasions when several planets collect together in the same region of sky. There was one such tight alignment of Venus, Mars and Jupiter before dawn in October and similar events have been preceded by apocalyptic pronouncements in the crackpot community.

The current alignment stretches over more than 100° of sky and is better appreciated by observers further south and particularly by those in the southern hemisphere. For Scotland, though, Venus is uncomfortably low in our bright predawn twilight and although it is brilliant at magnitude -4.0 it is sinking ever lower – its altitude at Edinburgh’s sunrise being 7° on the 1st and half that by the month’s end. Mercury, much fainter near magnitude 0.0 and farthest from the Sun on the 7th, is a few degrees to the lower-left of Venus and very difficult from our latitudes. Both stand below the slender waning Moon on the 6th.

Alan Pickup

This is a copy of Alan’s article to be published in The Scotsman on February 1st 2016, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to reproduce here.