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Hal Kibbey
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Last modified: Tuesday, February 3, 2004

STAR TRAK/February 2004

Brightest stars and planets adorn the southern sky in February

Winter's bitter cold can make us so absorbed with what is happening on the ground that we don't notice the beautiful sky at night. A combination of bright planets and stars stretches across the southern sky at this time of year. Try to ignore the cold and snow for a few minutes to enjoy the spectacular view on a clear night.

During February evenings, at the right (western) end of this glittering display will be Venus, a brilliant white "evening star" appearing in the west-southwest after sunset. Venus is the brightest object in the night sky after the moon, and it will get higher and even brighter this month.

Moving left (east), you'll have to look more closely to pick out Mars higher in the southwest. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers are now examining the surface of Mars and sending back reports of what they find, but from Earth the red planet will be a faint orange object in the constellation Aries the Ram. Mars is now a hundred times dimmer than Venus, and it will fade even more as the month passes.

Farther eastward, Saturn will be high in the southeast by the end of evening twilight. The bright yellow planet will be in the midst of the bright stars of the constellations Gemini, Orion and Auriga. This winter is the best time in 30 years for viewing Saturn with a telescope. The planet is closest to us in its orbit, and its rings are tilted toward us almost the maximum amount. The best telescopic views will be when Saturn is high in the sky, above most of the turbulence in our atmosphere. It will be high overhead at about 10 p.m. local time early in the month and around 8 p.m. by month's end.

To the left (east) of Saturn will be the bright stars Castor (above or west) and Pollux of the constellation Gemini the Twins. To the right of Saturn 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 that mark Orion's belt. If this line of three stars is extended to the left (east), it points almost directly to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky of the Northern Hemisphere. More information about Orion is available at http://www.seds.org/messier/map/Ori.html.

Orion's bright orange star Betelgeuse joins with white Sirius and the bright white star Procyon to the east to form the Winter Triangle in the southern sky, with each side about equal in length. Shining the same distance above Saturn as Betelgeuse is below it will be the bright yellow star Capella in the constellation Auriga the Charioteer. Capella, Rigel and Procyon are the second-, third- and fourth-brightest stars in the sky of the Northern Hemisphere. Add Saturn and Sirius, which are even brighter, and it's easy to see why this part of the sky glitters so brilliantly.

Jupiter will rise in the east around 8:30 p.m. local time at the beginning of February and only a few minutes after sunset by month's end, as Venus is sinking in the west. Jupiter will be at opposition (opposite the sun) and therefore biggest and brightest in early March, but already it is close to that size and brilliance, surpassed only by Venus and the moon. This is the best time of the year to see Jupiter's four largest moons with binoculars, when it is high in the southern sky.

Mercury will be visible above the eastern horizon before dawn for observers in the Southern Hemisphere at the start of February, but it will be too close to the horizon to be seen by most viewers in the Northern Hemisphere. Mercury will then disappear into the solar glare as it passes behind the sun.

Moon phases

The moon will be full on Feb. 6, at third quarter on Feb. 13, new on Feb. 20 and at first quarter on Feb. 28.