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Hal Kibbey
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Last modified: Wednesday, February 1, 2006

STAR TRAK

Bright stars and planets light up the February sky

Photo by: NASA

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- An abundance of the brightest stars makes for a beautiful sky on clear winter nights. But all that spectacular brilliance can also pose a problem: how does an observer find a particular bright object among so many?

One way is to start watching early. For example, bright yellow Saturn will be easy to spot in the southeast by the end of evening twilight during February, still near its maximum brilliance after reaching opposition late last month. February will be 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. The best telescopic views will be when Saturn is high in the southern 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.

Another way to find Saturn is by using the bright stars of constellations. Saturn will be in the southern sky, and to its right (west) will be the stars Castor and Pollux of the constellation Gemini the Twins. Farther to the right will be the conspicuous 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 forms 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 above Betelgeuse 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-southeast around 2 a.m. local time at the beginning of February and two hours earlier by month's end. The huge planet will easily outshine everything else in the sky except the moon -- until Venus appears. Jupiter will be fairly high in the south by the start of morning twilight, the best time to look for its four largest moons with binoculars. These moons are always on a line that passes through the planet's equator.

Venus will be at its brightest for the year rather low in the southeast during predawn twilight during much of the month. This gorgeous "morning star" will be unmistakable, dominating its part of the sky.

Mars will be high in the south at nightfall during February, much faded from its maximum brightness in October. Mars will gradually pass south of the Pleiades star cluster, which is visible to the unaided eye but a special treat in binoculars. The orange planet will resemble the orange star Aldebaran to its left (east) in the constellation Taurus the Bull.

Mercury will be too close to the sun to be seen at the start of the month, but by Feb. 10 it will set in the west almost an hour after the sun. It will appear higher above the western horizon at dusk each day after that until it reaches a peak on Feb. 23. In the final week of the month it will fade rapidly.

Moon phases

The moon will be at first quarter on Feb. 5, full on Feb. 13, at third quarter on Feb. 21 and new on Feb. 27.