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Hal Kibbey
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Last modified: Monday, February 2, 2009

STAR TRAK

Venus dominates the sky after sunset

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Feb. 2, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Venus will be at its highest and brightest for the year during February. For more than three hours after sunset each evening, the dazzling planet will dominate the western sky. On snow-covered ground at a really dark site, you may be able to see your shadow in Venus' light!

As Venus sinks in the west each evening, look in the east for Saturn. It will rise around 8 p.m. local time at the beginning of February and two hours earlier at month's end. By late evening, the yellow planet will be high in the southeast and well placed for observing. Its rings will open only a little from the edgewise position this month. Saturn's largest moon, the planet-sized Titan, can be seen with any telescope on a clear night. See http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.cfm for the latest news and images from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn.

One way to find Saturn is by using the bright stars of constellations. To Saturn's right (west) will be the stars of the constellation Leo the Lion, with its brightest star, Regulus. Saturn will be twice as bright as Regulus.

Farther to Saturn's 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 on Orion is available at http://www.seds.org/messier/map/Ori.html.

Orion's orange star Betelgeuse joins with white Sirius and the 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.

Jupiter, Mercury and Mars will be clustered very low in the east-southeast just a half hour before sunrise as the sky brightens on February mornings. They will be closest on Feb. 24, but binoculars may be needed to see the three planets near the horizon in the glow of dawn.

Comet

The new Comet Lulin is nearing Earth. On Feb. 23 the comet will be southwest of Saturn. Lulin's closest approach to Earth (61 million kilometers) will occur on Feb. 24, when it may reach its maximum brightness -- dimly visible to the unaided eye, but easy to see with binoculars. By then it will appear by late evening and remain in view for the rest of the night. Comet Lulin won't return to the inner solar system for more than a thousand years. Photos of the comet can be seen at http://www.spaceweather.com/comets/gallery_lulin.htm?PHPSESSID=nfhoqbig8sq96fr712o6j4ug84. More information is available at http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/highlights/35992534.html.

Zodiacal light

If you live in an area that is dark enough for you to see the Milky Way sprawling across the night sky, you also have a chance of seeing the interplanetary dust in the plane of our solar system. Find an open area with no light pollution or moonlight. After sunset as darkness falls, look for a faint pyramid of light spreading upward from the western horizon over a large area of the sky. This is the zodiacal light, which is sunlight reflected from microscopic debris left behind by comets and asteroids that orbit the sun in the same plane as the planets. (In the southern hemisphere, watch the eastern horizon before dawn after new moon.)

Moon phases

The moon will at first quarter on Feb. 2, full on Feb. 9, at third quarter on Feb. 16 and new on Feb. 24.