Welcome to February, the shortest month of the year, but there is still plenty to see in the night sky. Over the last few weeks, the evenings have been getting a little brighter, which is nice for us, but it means that it takes a little more time to see the stars come out. So, for the best views it is a good idea to get out of town to avoid the light pollution. While some views are spectacular, it’s best to avoid phones, even if the pictures could go viral… It takes between 20 to 30 minutes for our eyes to adjust to the dark, so we don’t want to ruin the experience. We will be looking mostly to the southern sky, which has seasonal constellations. So, through the year different stars are going to be visible in the night sky. Let’s have a look at some of them.
The constellations we see in the night sky are simply patterns we see from our perspective on Earth, so they aren’t of much value scientifically, but they do help us identify specific parts of the sky. They can help us later when we are looking for other objects in the night sky.
During this month we are still going to be able to see the winter constellations and some of the brightest stars in the sky, other than the Sun (nighttime and all that). The brightest star to us in the night sky is Sirius, in Canis Major. Otherwise known as the Big Dog. It never gets too high in the sky, so if you are looking to the South, you’ll probably notice it.
Monoceros: Mono meaning ‘single’ and ceros/keras meaning ‘horn of an animal.’ This is a close translation to “unicorn.” This constellation is faint, and on the celestial equator, so it doesn’t really get that high in the sky. So, my advice is to try not to have any light pollution around you or to the south. Otherwise, it may be almost impossible to see.
Hydra: This one represents a water-snake in the night sky. It is close to Monoceros, but it has a few brighter stars. Something you might notice is that it is a very long constellation, in fact that it is one of the longest in the night sky. To see more of this constellation being close to or on the equator would help. It does sit on the line that the equator draws in the sky.
Deep Sky and other celestial objects
While planets aren’t deep sky objects, a telescope really helps in seeing them with clarity. Many telescopes you can get for home can help you see the rings of Saturn or some of the moons of Jupiter. If you are somewhere that is very dark you may see a nebula here and there, but they can be harder to find, and some are quite faint through optical telescopes.
Jupiter will be visible to the naked eye through the month and will be quite high. Jupiter is a big planet that reflects a lot of sunlight, making it a very bright object in the night sky. If you view Jupiter through a telescope, you may see a moon or two (or four: the Galilean Moons) although it will be difficult to tell which is which. In the same part of the sky, you could find Uranus, but you are going to need a telescope to see it. After all, it took a telescope to discover it in 1781.
If you do have a telescope, you can also look for some other deep sky objects including the Heart Nebula (aka the Valentine Nebula) in the region of Cassiopeia. It isn’t that bright but with a telescope you may see some of it on a dark night. We also have the Heart Shaped Cluster (M50 or NGC 2323) in Monoceros, the constellation we saw earlier. You’ll find it above Sirius, that bright star I mentioned earlier.
When we look at star clusters and nebulae, sometimes a little bit (or a lot) of imagination to see the connection between the name and the shape of the cluster or nebula.
The full moon will be at 00:21 on the 24th of the month, if it is a clear night the moon can reflect a lot of light towards earth on these nights. But the new moon phase will be on the 9th at 23:36 nearly 2 weeks earlier. It will be on the far side of the earth on this night, so it would be a better night for stargazing, weather permitting, of course. If you are looking for date ideas around Valentine’s Day, stargazing may be a possibility for you. On Valentines Night the moon will be in its waxing crescent phase and will be close to Jupiter, so you may get some good views with a telescope or good binoculars. As the moon moves from crescent to the first quarter phase you will be able to observe it with a telescope more comfortably. As it moves towards the full moon phase it reflects more light and can be blinding through a telescope.
The February full moon is often called the Snow moon because at time the snow remaining on the ground could make it difficult to find or hunt for food. Some northern native American tribe have called it the Hunger Moon for a similar reason.