February 2 - February 8
Venus sails through the summer Milky Way. You'll have a challenging, but magical view of elegant planet against the most rewarding part of our galaxy. Get up early, challenge yourself, and capture Venus near the Trifid Nebula on the 5th and the Omega Nebula on the 8th.
The Sagittarius-Scorpius region is another binocular delight. You can start your Messier Certificate in this area with binoculars-or even your eyes! Some of the objects are easy to spot without optical aid when you are at a dark site. Maybe you seasoned observers might want to leave the telescope in its case.
January was Saturn's month. February is Jupiter's month. This month, Jupiter stands high in the sky at midnight and presents the largest disk for this year.
On the 3rd Mercury stands as high as it will get in the sky during this apparition.
February 9 - February 15
The Moon passes near Saturn on the 11th and then lies near Jupiter in the sky on the 15th.
Enough dreaming about the summer. We can still enjoy the winter sky, can't we? Here again, binoculars will serve you well in your quest for the Messier Certificate. M35 is just at Castor's foot and is easy to see with binoculars. Auriga holds three large, bright clusters that are easy to see with binoculars. You should be able to spot these with just your eyes under a dark sky. You can even see that greatest of objects, M42 (the Orion Nebula) with just your eyes from an urban back yard. Check out star colours-star colour and brightness are among the most important information there is for professional astronomers. Compare Betelgeuse, Rigel, Aldebaran and Capella. It's easy to see that these bright stars are very different in colour. Look up the distances to each of these beauties and find out which class each belongs to. Look up information on some of the fainter stars around these bright giants; some might even be much closer than the brighter stars. See how easy it is to do serious observing on the cheap?
February 16 - February 22
Your eagle eyes and sharp observing skills will serve you well as you stalk Mercury and Neptune near each other in the morning sky on the 20th.
Now let's pay attention to Gemini. You've already spotted M35 in your binoculars-not too shabby considering that this cluster is 2800 light years away and the same size as the Beehive cluster, M44. Castor (alpha Gem) looks like any ordinary bright star. But it's really 6 stars. You should be able to 'see' two stars with a telescope. Gemini even hosts a Cepheid variable that should be easy to observe with out aid-xi Gem varies from magnitude 3.6 to 4.2 over 10 and a bit days. Easy observing.
Gemini was a popular hunting ground for sky-watchers. Uranus was captured in 1782 just below M35 and Pluto was bagged near d Gem in 1930.
Don't forget M67 below Cancer. You can also capture this open cluster that lies 2500 light years away with just binoculars. M67 is even smaller that M44 and M35 at only 13 light years across.
February 23 to March 2
Spring skies seem bland and uninteresting; dull, sparse constellations, no glittering Milky Way. We're looking away from our home galaxy into a universe that extends back to the big bang. Galaxy hunters stalk their prey southeast of Leo and in Virgo (although any vista above and below our galaxy contains galaxies galore).
March 3 to March 8
Watch for Vega's appearance in the east-summer's coming! It's
really not that cold, is it?
March 9 to March 15
Mars lurks near the globular cluster, M22.
On March 12th, we see Neptune in the background and Venus in the foreground. Pretend you are looking down on the Solar System. Try to sketch where you think we are relative to the Sun, then plot Venus and Neptune. Where would Uranus be? Take another look at Venus near the end of the month. Does it look like Venus has a companion? Who is this companion?
The Moon and Jupiter lie close in the sky on the 14th.
March 16 to March 22
Vesta is in opposition and is almost 6th magnitude. Once you've identified it in binoculars you should be able to see it with just your eyes-be sure to get away from city lights.
March 23 to March 29
Venus has been closing in on Uranus in the morning sky. On the 28th, Venus and Uranus hang close to each other and we'll see them closer together here than any other time zone in North America.
March 30 to April 5
Get out your binoculars and enjoy Jupiter's stay in the Beehive cluster. The days around the 4th give you a chance to watch and sketch Jupiter change direction relative to the background stars-Jupiter begins to move against the flowing star river (this is called 'retrograde' motion). We're puling ahead of Jupiter in our inside track.
If you're on the ball, you'll spot Mercury hanging out with a crescent Moon on the evening of the 2nd.
April 6 to April 12
Mercury should be high enough in the west for you to find this swift inner planet. You've got until the end of April to find Mercury, but your best bet is when he is highest in the sky-between the 10th and the 23rd. How come so little time? Mercury takes only 88 days to orbit the Sun. Mercury spends a good chunk of this time in the daylit sky, then, when he appears at dawn or dusk, his tight solar orbit means that he never climbs very high in our sky. On top of all this, our planet's tipsy and just as our Sun doesn't rise very high in the sky for part of the year, Mercury (and the Moon and everything in our solar system) doesn't rise very high for part of the year.
What time of the year is the Moon the highest in the night time sky? Why? What time of the year will any planets visible in the night sky be at their potential highest? Is it the same time we see the Sun highest in the sky? What's happening?
April 13 to April 19
Mercury is at his highest for this apparition. Don't miss this chance to see this neglected beauty and enjoy his swift flight.
Mars is still too far away to be enjoyable in a telescope. Although, if you've been observing, you'll notice that Mars is getting brighter. Here's one guy who will promise AND deliver-in August Mars will come closer to us than he has for thousands of years. Get your Mars observing tools and material together.
- Sandy Barta