Last modified: Friday, February 1, 2002
Jupiter, Saturn and companions adorn the southern sky
Anyone who steps outside on a clear evening in February will have a hard time not seeing the many brilliant objects sprawled across the southern sky. The striking combination of bright planets and stars has been there for a couple of months, but it's still a breathtaking sight.
At the left (eastern) end of this glittering display will be the bright stars Castor and Pollux of the constellation Gemini the Twins. As the eye moves to the right (south), Jupiter will be next in line, still nearly at its biggest and brightest after passing closest to Earth in January. The giant planet will outshine everything except the moon, appearing about 10 times brighter than Saturn. This is the best time to see Jupiter's four largest moons with binoculars, when the brilliant white object is high in the sky.
Next will be bright yellow Saturn, anchoring the Hyades star cluster in the constellation Taurus the Bull. Nearby will be the Hyades' bright orange star Aldebaran below and the brilliant white Pleiades star cluster to the upper right (west). Normally Aldebaran dominates Taurus, but Saturn will be much brighter, altering the appearance of this constellation. The Pleiades cluster is an especially beautiful sight in binoculars.
Below Jupiter and Saturn and their accompanying stars will be the familiar constellation Orion the Hunter, with its four bright stars Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Rigel and Saiph at the corners and a line of three bright stars in the middle. If this line of three stars is extended to the left (east), it points almost directly to Sirius, the brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere's sky. Watch Sirius carefully and you'll see it twinkle with a variety of colors as atmospheric turbulence bends its white light in slightly different directions. More information about Orion is available at http://www.seds.org/messier/map/Ori.html.
Mercury will make a fine appearance for viewers in the Southern Hemisphere, reaching its greatest distance above the eastern horizon before sunrise on Feb. 21. In the Northern Hemisphere it will be a challenge to find Mercury very close to the east-southeast horizon about 40 minutes before dawn between Feb. 18 and Feb. 25.
Mars will be a faint orange point about halfway up the sky in the southwest when evening twilight has ended, standing out mostly because there are no bright stars nearby. The red planet is now on the far side of the sun from Earth, and it will set in the west by around 10 p.m. local time.
Venus will appear very low in the west at the end of February, but it will be difficult to find as it emerges from behind the sun. It will become prominent in the evening sky in the next few months.
The moon will pass in front of (occult) Saturn on Feb. 20 for most parts of North America and Western Africa. In this interesting event, a star or planet disappears behind the moon and then pops out again a few minutes later. Information about where and when to watch is available at http://www.lunar-occultations.com/iota/planets2002/planets2002.htm.
The moon will be at third quarter on Feb. 4, new on Feb. 12, at first quarter on Feb. 20 and full on Feb. 27.