Last modified: Friday, January 31, 2003
STAR TRAK/February 2003
Jupiter, Saturn and companions adorn the southern sky
A combination of bright planets and stars stretches across the southern sky at this time of year, making a breathtaking sight for both beginning and experienced skywatchers. If you haven't seen them yet, take advantage of the clear night skies of winter to enjoy the view.
During February evenings, at the left (eastern) end of this glittering display will be the constellation Leo the Lion, with its brightest star, Regulus, in the handle of a distinctive sickle-shaped pattern of stars.
As the eye moves to the right (west) across the sky, Jupiter will be next in line, at its biggest and brightest after passing closest to Earth on the night of Feb. 1-2. The giant planet will be opposite the sun in our sky that night, rising in the east soon after sunset, appearing highest in the south around midnight and setting in the west at dawn. This is the best time of the year to see Jupiter's four largest moons with binoculars, when the brilliant white object is high in the sky.
Continuing to the right, we come to the bright stars Pollux and Castor, in that order, of the constellation Gemini the Twins.
Next will be the bright yellow planet Saturn, slightly left of the Hyades star cluster in the constellation Taurus the Bull. The V-shaped Hyades cluster includes the bright orange star Aldebaran.
Just a little farther west will be the brilliant white Pleiades star cluster. The Pleiades cluster is an especially beautiful sight in binoculars.
Directly below 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. 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.
Orion's bright orange star Betelgeuse and white Sirius join with 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.
Venus will continue to be a beautiful white "morning star" during February, gleaming low in the southeast before sunrise. Venus will be almost five times brighter than Jupiter setting in the west at the same time.
Mars will be a much fainter orange, resembling the nearby orange star Antares in the constellation Scorpius. Both will be to the upper right (south) of Venus in the predawn sky, with Antares below and to the right of Mars.
Mercury will be far to the lower left (east) of Venus in morning twilight at the start of February, perhaps too close to the horizon to be seen by most observers in the Northern Hemisphere but well up in the sky and easy to spot for those in the Southern Hemisphere. Mercury will brighten as the month passes until it disappears into the solar glare during the last week.
The moon will be new on Feb. 1, at first quarter on Feb. 9, full on Feb. 16 and at third quarter on Feb. 23.