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Hal Kibbey
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Last modified: Tuesday, February 1, 2005

STAR TRAK

Bright stars and two planets adorn the February sky

Saturn

Photo by: NASA

Saturn

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Saturn, Jupiter and an abundance of the brightest stars will make the sky a pretty sight on clear nights in February.

Saturn will be easy to spot in the east-southeast by the end of evening twilight, still near its maximum brilliance. The yellow planet will be close to the bright stars of the constellations Gemini and Orion. This winter is a fine time for viewing Saturn with a telescope. The planet is close 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. That will be most of the night during February.

The latest news and images from the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft's mission to Saturn are available at http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.cfm.

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 (west) 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 11 p.m. local time at the beginning of February and two hours earlier by month's end. Jupiter will easily outshine everything else in the sky except the moon. When the huge planet is high in the south, its four largest moons, first seen by Galileo, will be easy to find with binoculars. The moons will change position each night like beads sliding back and forth on a wire.

Mars will finally rise around 4:30 a.m. local time and be visible low in the southeast an hour or so before sunrise. The red planet will be a pale orange object to the left (east) of the constellation Scorpius with its bright orange star Antares.

Venus and Mercury will be too close to the sun to be seen during almost all of February.

Moon phases

The moon will be at third quarter on Feb. 2, new on Feb. 8, at first quarter on Feb. 16 and full on Feb. 24.