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The Night Sky February 2015

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.

Cambridge University Press has recently published two books by the author. An Amateurs Guide to Observing and Imaging the Heavens is a handbook aimed to bridge the gap between the beginner's books on amateur astronomy and the books which cover a single topic in great detail.   Stephen James O'Meara and Damian Peach have both given it excellent reviews. 'A Journey through the Universe' covering our current understanding of the Universe (up to June this year) was published on the 25th of September.   Martin Rees has written a very nice review of it.

Image of the Month

Beagle 2

Beagle 2 on the surface of Mars

On Christmas day 2003 my colleages and I arrived at the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory at around 5 am and targeted the Lovell Telescope on Mars.   In the preceeding few weeks with help from Birmingham University, who had provided some high temperature superconducting filters to reject terresitrial interference, we had built the most sensitive receiver ever made that operated at the frequency that Beagle 2 would transmit from the surface of Mars.   Normally a lander on Mars transmits a low power signal up to an orbiting spacecraft that relays the signals back to Earth.   Beagle 2's mothership, Mars Express, would not be in a position for some days so Jodrell Bank had been asked to receive the very first signals directly from Beagle 2. The Lovell Telescope is the best in the world for this task as the two larger radio telescopes cannot work well at the frequency used by Beagle 2.

We searched for Beagle 2 then and many times in the next few weeks but, sadly, nothing was heard.   We were pleased recently to see that Beagle 2 had landed on target.   It had failed to extend all its solar panels but was so nearly a success.   It is a little sad that Colin Pillinger who died last year could not know of its discovery.

Highlights of the Month

January - a great month to view Jupiter.

Jupiter imaged by Damian Peach

This is a great month to observe Jupiter.   It now lies in Leo and so is still high in the ecliptic and hence, when due south, at an elevation of ~55 degrees.

  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 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"

Jovian Features
Features in Jupiter's atmosphere - December 2013.

February: Look for the Great Red Spot on Jupiter

Great Red Spot
Observe the Great Red Spot
Image: NASA

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.

2nd   22:30         17th 19:41

5th 22:37           19th 21:29

7th   21:37         21st 23:07

8th   21:46         24th 20:36

9th 23:15           26th 22:15

12th 20:44        

14th 22:22

January 31st to 2nd February: 1 hour after sunset - about 6 pm: Venus and Neptune

Venus and Neptune
Image: Stellarium/IM

As shown on the chart, for three nights Neptune at magnitude +8 lies very close to vastly brighter Venus shining at magnitude -3.9.   A small telescope will probably be needed to spot Neptune but it is certainly worth a try.   They are closest on the 1st when Venus is 46 arc minutes to the lower left of Neptune.

February 13th: Saturn and a waning crescent Moon

Saturn and the Moon
Saturn and a waning cresent Moon.
Image: Stellarium/IM

Before dawn on the 13th and looking east, a waning crescent Moon will be seen just three and a half degrees to the left of Saturn shining at magnitude +0.5.

February 17th: Mercury and a thin waning crescent Moon

Mercury and the Moon
Mercury and a thin waning cresent Moon.
Image: Stellarium/IM

Before dawn on the 17th and looking southeast, a thin waning crescent Moon will be seen just two and a half degrees to the left of Mercury shining at magnitude +0.5.

February 17th - 26th: Venus, Mars and the thin crescent Moon

Venus and Mars
Venus, Mars and a thin cresent Moon.
Image: Stellarium/IM

Venus and Mars make a close pairing this month with Venus, at magnitude -3.9, more than 100 time brighter than Mars at magnitude +1.2.   By the 7th of the month Mars lies 8 degrees up and a little to the left of Venus as seen about one hour after sunset.   But Venus is then rising rapidly in the heavens and by the 17th is just over 2 degrees below.   They stay within 2 degrees until the 26th when Venus will be to the left of Mars.   They are closest on the 22nd when they are just 23 arc minutes apart. &nbst; On the evening of then 20th a thin waxing crescent Moon will lie just six degrees to their right - a lovely imaging possibility.   When at their closest, Mars may be difficult to spot within Venus's glare ans so binoculars or a small telescope will be needed to see them both.

February 17th: The Moon passes through the Hyades Cluster

The Moon
The Moon passes through the Hyades Cluster.
Image: Stellarium/IM

A very nice visual or photo opportunity when the 7.5 day old Moon enters the centre of the V-shaped Hyades Cluster.   After midnight it will pass within just a few arc seconds of teh red giant Aldebaran, shining at magnitude +0.8

February 26th 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 Rille
Hyginus Crater and Rille

M109 imaged with the Faulkes Telescope

Messier 109
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
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

3rd Quarter Moon
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.
new moon first quarter full moon last quarter
February 18th February 25th February 3rd February 11th

Some Lunar Images by Ian Morison, Jodrell Bank Observatory: Lunar Images

A World Record Lunar Image

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
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.

The Planets

 A montage of the Solar System
A montage of the Solar System. JPL / Nasa


A Cassini image of Jupiter . Nasa

Jupiter reaches opposition on the 6th of the month and so this is a superb month to observe it - visible almost from dusk to dawn.   At opposition it will be due south and highest in the sky aroung midnight, its brightness peaking at at magnitude -2.6.   (Incidently, I observed Jupiter at 06:38 on the 15th January in close proximity to the International Space Station both having essentially the same brightness.)   Jupiter starts the month in the extreme west of Leo and moves into Cancer on the 4th as it moves westward in retrograde motion across the heavens.   The size of Jupiter's disk falls slightly from 45.3 to 44.6 arc seconds as February progresses.   With a small telescope one should be easily able to see the equatorial bands in the atmosphere, sometimes the Great Red Spot and up to four of the Gallilean moons as they weave their way around it.

See highlight above.


The planet Saturn. Cassini - Nasa

Saturn is now a morning object, rising at ~03:00 UT as the month begin but by about 01:43 UT at its end.   It lies in Scorpius very close to the left hand star of the 'fan' that marks its head.   Its diameter increases from 16.2 to 16.9 arc seconds during the month as it shines at magnitude +0.5.   It will be high enough in the south-east before dawn to make out the beautiful ring system which has now opened out to ~25 degrees - virtually as open as they ever become.   If only it were higher in the ecliptic; its elevation never gets above ~22 degrees and so the atmosphere will hinder our view of this most beautiful planet.

See highlight above.


Messenger image of Mercury Nasa

Mercury. passed between us and the Sun (inferior conjunction) on January 30th so will not be visible in the pre dawn sky until towards the end of the month.   It reaches greatest elongation from the Sun on the 26th of the month, but as the ecliptic is at a shallow angle to the horizon at dawn it will lie only a little above the horizon in the southeast.   Binoculars may well be needed to spot it, but please do not use them after the Sun rises.

See highlight above.


Mars showing Syrtis major.
A Hubble Space Telescope image of Mars.
Jim Bell et al. AURA / STScI / Nasa

Mars , moving eastwards relative to the stars, starts the month in Aquarius but moves into Pisces on the 11th.   It dims slightly from magnitude +1.2 to +1.3 during the month as the angular size of its disk falls from 4.4 down to 4.3 arc seconds.   It is about 100 times fainter that Venus which is in close proximity.   It is best observed as darkness falls, low above the south western horizon (so will need to be observed with a low horizon in this direction).   It lies about 9.5 degrees up to the left of Venus as the month begins but, as February progresses, Venus moves closer until, on the 22nd, they are less than half a degree apart.   Given its angular size, no details will be seen on its salmon-pink suface.   Mars sets about two hours after the Sun at the end of the month.

See highlights above.


Venus showing some cloud structure

Venus, is now an evening object setting some 90 minutes after the Sun as the month begins.   So, shining at magnitude -3.9 all month, it should be easy to spot above the southwestern horizon about one hour after sunset.   Its angular size increases a little from 11 to 11.6 arc seconds during the month and it will appear as a small dot, blurred by atmospheric turbulance.   From the 19th onwards for 9 days, Venus and Mars lie within two degrees from each other.

See highlight above.

Radar Image of Venus
Radar image showing surface features

Find more planetary images and details about the Solar System: The Solar System

The Stars

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.

The Pleiades
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!)

The Crab Nebula
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.

The Crab Nebula
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 Orion Nebula
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
The Orion Nebula: David Malin

The constellation Ursa Major

Ursa Major
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
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.

Owl Nebula Owl Nebula
M97 - The Owl Planetary Nebula Lord Rosse's 1848 drawing of the Owl Nebula