The Night Sky February 2014
Compiled by Ian Morison
This page, updated monthly, will let you know some of the things that you can look out for in the night sky. It lists the phases of the Moon, where you will see the naked-eye planets and describes some of the prominent constellations in the night sky during the month.
Image of the Month
Supernova in M82
Image: Adam Block, Mt.Lemmon SkyCenter, University of Arizona.
A beautiful image of M82 taken by Adam Block showing the Type 1a supernova that was discovered by students at the University College London, Mill Hill Observatory, on the 21st January. M82 lies 12 million light years away in the constellation Ursa Major. Though it will be fading during February it should still be visible in a small telescope. A Type 1a supernova results when a white dwarf star accrets matter from a companion star. When the mass of the white dwarf exceeds the Chandrasekhar Limit (about 1.44 solar masses) when the star can no longer be supported by electron degeneracy pressure, it explodes. The peak brightness of a Type 1a supernova is believed to be constant and so these can be used as "standard candles" to determine the distances of remote galaxies. This has shown that the Universe is expanding at an increasing rate and is evidence for dark energy.
Highlights of the Month
February - a superb month to view Jupiter.
Jupiter imaged by Damian Peach
Following Jupiter's opposition on January 5th, this is a great month to observe Jupiter in the evening. It now lies Gemini and so is high in the ecliptic and hence, when due south, at an elevation of ~60 degrees and is high in the sky for most of the night. Jupiter's angular size remains at about 46 arc seconds throughout the month so a small telescope can see lots of details - surely one should be on your shopping list if you do not have one! It is looking somewhat different than in the last few years as the north equatorial belt has become quite broad. The Great Red Spot has recently become more prominent and can be easily seen as a large feature in the South Equatorial Belt.
The features seen in the Jovian atmosphere have been changing quite significantly over the last few years - for a while the South Equatorial Belt vanished completely (as seen in Damian's image) but has now returned to its normal wide state. The diagram on right shows the main Jovian features as imaged by the author at the beginning of December 2012. The highlight below gives the times when the GRS is facing us.
The image by Damian Peach was taken with a 14 inch telescope in Barbados where the seeing can be particularly good. This image won the "Astronomy Photographer of the Year" competition in 2011.
See more of Damian Peach's images: Damian Peaches Website"
Features in Jupiter's atmosphere - December 2013.
February: Look for the Great Red Spot on Jupiter
Observe the Great Red Spot
This list gives some of the best evening times during February to observe the Great Red Spot which should then lie on the central meridian of the planet.
1st 18:53 20th 19:33
3rd 20:31 22nd 21:12
5th 22:09 25th 18:42
8th 19:39 27th 20:20
February 1st - after sunset: Mercury with a thin crescent Moon
Mercury with a thin crescent Moon
About 45 minutes after sunset on the night of the 1st of February and, given a low horizon in the southwest, one should be able to observe Mercury just below a thin crescent Moon. Mercury will be 50% illuminated. Try to observe the earthshine on the Moon - the "dark side" illuminated by the light reflected by clouds on Earth.
Earthshine : Ian Morison
February 10th - after sunset: Jupiter with a waxing Moon going towards full.
Jupiter and the Moon
Looking southeast after sunset on the evening of the 10th, Jupiter, in Gemini, will be seen seven degrees to the left of a waxing Moon.
February 19th - before dawn: Mars near a waning Moon
Before dawn on the 19th, Mars will be seen 5.5 degrees above Spica in Virgo and 10 degrees to the upper right of a waning Moon.
22nd February - late evening: spot Pallas - a large asteroid
Minor Planet Pallas
Minor planet (2), Pallas moves northwards through Hydra during February closing on the 2nd magnitude star Alphard as it does so. On the 22nd it reaches opposition - and will so be due south around midnight - shining at magnitude +7. That night it will lie 4 degrees away from Alphard so both will be seen in the same field of view of a pair of binoculars. Pallas is the second largest minor planet after Ceres in the main Asteroid Belt and is around 550 km across. On the 22nd it will it be just over twice as far from the Sun as the Earth. Incidently, should the diameter of an object be greater than 800 km, then gravity will make it spherical and it will now be classed as a dwarf planet. This is the case with Ceres.
February 26th - before dawn: Venus very close to a thin crescent Moon
Venus with a thin crescent Moon
Looking southeast before dawn on the morning of the 26th, Venus should be seen just half a degree above the disk of a slender waning crescent Moon. This should make a very good astrophotography target.
February 7th evening: The Hyginus Rille
Hyginus Rille location: IM.
For some time a debate raged as to whether the craters on the Moon were caused by impacts or volcanic activity. We now know that virtually all were caused by impact, but it is thought that the Hyginus crater that lies at the centre of the Hyginus Rille may well be volcanic in origin. It is an 11 km wide rimless pit - in contast to impact craters which have raised rims - and its close association with the rille of the same name associates it with internal lunar events. It can quite easily be seen to be surrounded by dark material. It is thought that an explosive release of dust and gas created a vacant space below so that the overlying surface collapsed into it so forming the crater.
Hyginus Crater and Rille
M109 imaged with the Faulkes Telescope
Image: Daniel Duggan
Faulkes Telescope North.
The Galaxy M109, imaged by Daniel Duggan.
This image was taken using the Faulkes Telescope North by Daniel Duggan - for some time a member of the Faulkes telescope team. It shows the barred spiral galaxy M109 that lies at a distance of 83 million light years in the constellation of Ursa Major. It is the brightest galaxy in the Ursa Major group of some 50 galaxies. Our own Milky Way galaxy is now thought to be a barred spiral like M109.
Learn more about the Faulkes Telescopes and how schools can use them: Faulkes Telescope"
Observe the International Space Station
The International Space Station and Jules Verne passing behind the Lovell Telescope on April 1st 2008.
Image by Andrew Greenwood
Use the link below to find when the space station will be visible in the next few days. In general, the space station can be seen either in the hour or so before dawn or the hour or so after sunset - this is because it is dark and yet the Sun is not too far below the horizon so that it can light up the space station. As the orbit only just gets up the the latitude of the UK it will usually be seen to the south, and is only visible for a minute or so at each sighting. Note that as it is in low-earth orbit the sighting details vary quite considerably across the UK. The NASA website linked to below gives details for several cities in the UK. (Across the world too for foreign visitors to this web page.)
Note: I observed the ISS three times recently and was amazed as to how bright it has become.
Find details of sighting possibilities from your location from: Location Index
See where the space station is now: Current Position
The Moon at 3rd Quarter. Image, by Ian Morison, taken with a 150mm Maksutov-Newtonian and Canon G7.
Just below the crator Plato seen near the top of the image is the mountain "Mons Piton". It casts a long shadow across the maria from which one can calculate its height - about 6800ft or 2250m.
Some Lunar Images by Ian Morison, Jodrell Bank Observatory: Lunar Images
A World Record Lunar Image
The 9 day old Moon.
To mark International Year of Astronomy, a team of British astronomers have made the largest lunar image in history and gained a place in the Guinness Book of Records! The whole image comprises 87.4 megapixels with a Moon diameter of 9550 pixels. This allows details as small as 1km across to be discerned! The superb quality of the image is shown by the detail below of Plato and the Alpine Valley. Craterlets are seen on the floor of Plato and the rille along the centre of the Alpine valley is clearly visible. The image quality is staggering! The team of Damian Peach, Pete lawrence, Dave Tyler, Bruce Kingsley, Nick Smith, Nick Howes, Trevor Little, David Mason, Mark and Lee Irvine with technical support from Ninian Boyle captured the video sequences from which 288 individual mozaic panes were produced. These were then stitched together to form the lunar image.
Plato and the Alpine Valley.
Please follow the link to the Lunar World Record website and it would be really great if you could donate to Sir Patrick Moore's chosen charity to either download a full resolution image or purchase a print.
A montage of the Solar System. JPL / Nasa
Jupiter is now well placed in the late evening sky in the middle of an excellent apparition.
A Cassini image of Jupiter . Nasa
Jupiter. This month Jupiter, shining at magnitude -2.6, is visible for much of the night and dominates the southern sky in the evening. It was at opposition on the 5th January (when due south around midnight) so, at the start of the month is high in the sky during the evening - being at ~40 degrees elevation by 7 pm and rising to an elevation of over 60 degrees in the south at around 10 pm. This could not be better! By month's end Jupiter will be due south at ~8:30 pm. Jupiter is lying in the constellation Gemini moving westwards in retrograde motion towards the star Mebsuta - Epsilon Geminorum. With a small telescope you can observe the 4 Gallilean moons as they weave there way around it and, at times, be also able to pick out the Great Red Spot visible as an indentation of the South Equatorial belt.
See the highlights above.
The planet Saturn. Cassini - Nasa
Saturn is now visible in the pre-dawn sky, rising at about 2 am at the start of February and at about 12:30 am at its end. Lying in Libra, it is shining with a magnitude of +0.4 and its disk has a diameter of ~17 arc seconds. The really good news is that the rings (with a diameter of 38 arc seconds) have now opened to around 23 degrees from the line of sight so presenting a magnificant view. With a small telescope one should be able to spot the Cassini Division that lies between the A and B rings and with a telescope of ~200 mm aperture the Enke Gap towards the edge of the A ring might be seen when the seeing is good. Sadly for those of us in the northern hemisphere, Saturn is now lying in the more southerly part of the ecliptic so, even at opposition, its elevation does not get that high. Even worse, this will not improve for many years to come.
A Hubble Space Telescope image of Mars.
Jim Bell et al. AURA / STScI / Nasa
Mars, lying in Virgo, rises around 11:30 the start of the month and about one hour earlier at month's end. Its magnitude increases from +0.2 to -0.5 during the month with its angular size increasing from 9 to 11 arc seconds. So, given good seeing, it is possible to see markings on its salmon-pink surface (~91% illumonated) such as the polar caps and Syrtis Major. The north polar region is tilted towards us by ~19 degrees so North Polar Cap should be particularly prominent. Mars is moving down across Virgo and, at the start of the month is just under 5 degrees to the upper left of Spica - Alpha Virginis. It ends the month 6 degrees to the left of Spica as it begins its westwards retrograde motion across the sky.
See the highlight above.
Messenger image of Mercury Nasa
Mercury reached its greatest elongation east (that is, furthest in angular separation over to the left of the Sun) of 18 degrees on January 31st when it lay about 10 degrees above the horizon 45 minutes after sunset lying near a slender crescent Moon. On February 1st, it will lie about 8 degrees below a slighly fuller crescent Moon. It magnitude will then be -0.6 and it will have an angular size of seven arc seconds and, given a low western horizon, will be visible for ~2 hours after sunset. Moving back towards the Sun in angle it will still remain visible for around an hour and a half after sunset by February 7th but by then its brightness will have dropped to magnitude +1. The angular size of its 20% illuminated disk then will have increased slightly to 8 arc seconds. Mercury then disappears from view passing in front of the Sun (inferior conjunction) on the 15th February but the reappearing in the pre dawn sky by month's end. Though then 22 degrees west of the Sun its elevation will be very low and, again at magnitude +1, will not be easy to spot.
See the highlight above.
Venus showing some cloud structure
Venus passed between the Earth and the Sun on the 11th of January so, in February, will be seen low above the eastern horizon before dawn. By mid February, the planet, shining at magnitude -4.6, will be visible 17 degrees above the south-eastern horison at sunrise. On Valentines Day it will show a 25% illuminated crescent disk some 41 arc seconds in diameter. As February draws to a close, Venus, remaining at magnitude -4.6, will present a fuller disk - rising to 36% - that will be 33 arc seconds across.
See the highlight above.
Radar image showing surface features
Find more planetary images and details about the Solar System: The Solar System
The Mid Evening February Sky
The February Sky in the south - mid evening.
This map shows the constellations seen in the south during the evening. The brilliant constellation of Orion is seen in the south. Moving up and to the right - following the line of the three stars of Orion's belt - brings one to Taurus; the head of the bull being outlined by the V-shaped cluster called the Hyades with its eye delineated by the orange red star Aldebaran. Further up to the right lies the Pleaides Cluster. Towards the zenith from Taurus lies the constellation Auriga, whose brightest star Capella will be nearly overhead. To the upper left of Orion lie the heavenly twins, or Gemini, their heads indicated by the two bright stars Castor and Pollux. Down to the lower left of Orion lies the brightest star in the northern sky, Sirius, in the consteallation Canis Major. Up and to the left of Sirius is Procyon in Canis Minor. Rising in the East is the constellation of Leo, the Lion, with the planet Saturn up and to the right of Regulus its brightest star. Continuing in this direction towards Gemini is the faint constellation of Cancer with its open cluster Praesepe (also called the Beehive Cluster),the 44th object in Messier's catalogue. On a dark night it is a nice object to observe with binoculars. There is also information about the constellation Ursa Major,seen in the north, in the constellation details below.
The constellation Taurus
Taurus is one of the most beautiful constellations and you can almost imagine the Bull charging down to the left towards Orion. His face is delineated by the "V" shaped cluster of stars called the Hyades, his eye is the red giant star Aldebaran and the tips of his horns are shown by the stars beta and zeta Tauri. Although alpha Tauri, Aldebaran, appears to lie amongst the stars of the Hyades cluster it is, in fact, less than half their distance lying 68 light years away from us. It is around 40 times the diameter of our Sun and 100 times as bright.
AAO Image of the Pleiades, M45, by David Malin
To the upper right of Taurus lies the open cluster, M45, the Pleiades. Often called the Seven Sisters, it is one of the brightest and closest open clusters. The Pleiades cluster lies at a distance of 400 light years and contains over 3000 stars. The cluster, which is about 13 light years across, is moving towards the star Betelgeuse in Orion. Surrounding the brightest stars are seen blue reflection nebulae caused by reflected light from many small carbon grains. These relfection nebulae look blue as the dust grains scatter blue light more efficiently than red. The grains form part of a molecular cloud through which the cluster is currently passing. (Or, to be more precise, did 400 years ago!)
VLT image of the Crab Nebula
Close to the tip of the left hand horn lies the Crab Nebula, also called M1 as it is the first entry of Charles Messier's catalogue of nebulous objects. Lying 6500 light years from the Sun, it is the remains of a giant star that was seen to explode as a supernova in the year 1056. It may just be glimpsed with binoculars on a very clear dark night and a telescope will show it as a misty blur of light.
Lord Rosse's drawing of M1
Its name "The Crab Nebula" was given to it by the Third Earl of Rosse who observed it with the 72 inch reflector at Birr Castle in County Offaly in central Ireland. As shown in the drawing above, it appeared to him rather lile a spider crab. The 72 inch was the world's largest telelescope for many years. At the heart of the Crab Nebula is a neutron star, the result of the collapse of the original star's core. Although only around 20 km in diameter it weighs more than our Sun and is spinning 30 times a second. Its rotating magnetic field generate beams of light and radio waves which sweep across the sky. As a result, a radio telescope will pick up very regular pulses of radiation and the object is thus also known a Pulsar. Its pulses are monitored each day at Jodrell Bank with a 13m radio telescope.
The constellation Orion
Orion, perhaps the most beautiful of constellations, will be seen in the south at around 11 - 12 pm during January. Orion is the hunter holding up a club and shield against the charge of Taurus, the Bull up and to his right. Alpha Orionis, or Betelgeuse, is a read supergiant star varying in size between three and four hundred times that of our Sun. The result is that its brightness varies somewhat. Beta Orionis, or Rigel, is a blue supergiant which, at around 1000 light years distance is about twice as far away as Betelgeuse. It has a 7th magnitude companion. The three stars of Orion's belt lie at a distance of around 1500 light years. Just below the lower left hand star lies a strip of nebulosity against which can be seen a pillar of dust in the shape of the chess-board knight. It is thus called the Horsehead Nebula. It shows up very well photographically but is exceedingly difficult to see visually - even with relativly large telescope.
The Horsehead Nebula: Anglo Australian Observatory
Beneath the central star of the belt lies Orion's sword containing one of the most beautiful sights in the heavens - The Orion Nebula. It is a region of star formation and the reddish colour seen in photographs comes from Hydrogen excited by ultraviolet emitted from the very hot young stars that make up the Trapesium which is at its heart. The nebula, cradling the trapesium stars, is a beautiful sight in binoculars or, better still, a telescope. To the eye it appears greenish, not red, as the eye is much more sensitive to the green light emitted by ionized oxygen than the reddish glow from the hydrogen atoms.
The Orion Nebula: David Malin
The constellation Ursa Major
The stars of the Plough, shown linked by the thicker lines in the chart above, form one of the most recognised star patterns in the sky. Also called the Big Dipper, after the soup ladles used by farmer's wives in America to serve soup to the farm workers at lunchtime, it forms part of the Great Bear constellation - not quite so easy to make out! The stars Merak and Dubhe form the pointers which will lead you to the Pole Star, and hence find North. The stars Alcor and Mizar form a naked eye double which repays observation in a small telescope as Mizar is then shown to be an easily resolved double star. A fainter reddish star forms a triangle with Alcor and Mizar.
Ursa Major contains many interesting "deep sky" objects. The brightest, listed in Messier's Catalogue, are shown on the chart, but there are many fainter galaxies in the region too. In the upper right of the constellation are a pair of interacting galaxies M81 and M82 shown in the image below. M82 is undergoing a major burst of star formation and hence called a "starburst galaxy". They can be seen together using a low power eyepiece on a small telescope.
M81 and M82
Another, and very beautiful, galaxy is M101 which looks rather like a pinwheel firework, hence its other name the Pinwheel Galaxy. It was discovered in1781 and was a late entry to Messier's calalogue of nebulous objects. It is a type Sc spiral galaxy seen face on which is at a distance of about 24 million light years. Type Sc galaxies have a relativly small nucleus and open spiral arms. With an overall diameter of 170,000 light it is one of the largest spirals known (the Milky Way has a diameter of ~ 130,000 light years).
M101 - The Ursa Major Pinwheel Galaxy
Though just outside the constellation boundary, M51 lies close to Alkaid, the leftmost star of the Plough. Also called the Whirlpool Galaxy it is being deformed by the passage of the smaller galaxy on the left. This is now gravitationally captured by M51 and the two will eventually merge. M51 lies at a distance of about 37 million light years and was the first galaxy in which spiral arms were seen. It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1773 and the spiral structure was observed by Lord Rosse in 1845 using the 72" reflector at Birr Castle in Ireland - for many years the largest telescope in the world.
M51 - The Whirlpool Galaxy
Lying close to Merak is the planetary nebula M97 which is usually called the Owl Nebula due to its resemblance to an owl's face with two large eyes. It was first called this by Lord Rosse who drew it in 1848 - as shown in the image below right. Planetary nebulae ar the remnants of stars similar in size to our Sun. When all possible nuclear fusion processes are complete, the central core collpses down into a "white dwarf" star and the the outer parts of the star are blown off to form the surrounding nebula.
M97 - The Owl Planetary Nebula Lord Rosse's 1848 drawing of the Owl Nebula