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What's in the sky
January 29, 2013
By JIM WHITEWelcome to February, our shortest month of the year. This year, February will be an excellent month to view Jupiter, the elusive planet Mercury, and of course the march of stars and constellations across the sky from night to night.
February usually starts with distinctive winter weather, and the short length of day shows why that is the case. On Feb. 1, we'll see sunrise at 7:29 a.m., with sunset at 5:10 p.m., with 9 hours and 41 minutes of daylight.
By the end of the month, we'll be approaching equal time for day and night, with 11 hours and 2 minutes of sunshine (OK, maybe only bright clouds). We'll gain an hour and 21 minutes of day length, a sure sign that spring is approaching.
We'll begin February with a waning 3rd quarter Moon, rising about midnight. New Moon will follow on Feb. 10. The 1st quarter Moon will lie close to Jupiter on Feb. 17. Our February full Moon will follow on Feb. 25. According to the farmer's almanac, this one is called the "Full Snow Moon" or the "Hunger Moon."
Jupiter will continue to dominate the evening sky, high in the southwest after sunset. Jupiter begins February located right between the bright star Aldebaran and the bright star cluster Pleiades, and will remain pretty much in the same place all month. If you want to be able to identify Aldebaran and the Pleiades, Jupiter will provide a nice reference this month!
Venus, which has been visible in the morning, is getting quite close to the Sun, and won't be easily visible in February. The other planet between us and the Sun, Mercury, will be low in the evening sky early in the month. Look very low in the west-southwest, starting about Feb. 4. Mercury will climb a bit higher in the sky each night until Feb. 19, and then begin to sink closer to the Sun. If you get a clear evening with a good view of the western sky, try to locate it. Many people have never seen Mercury.
If you find Mercury, look for another bright object near it, although not as bright. That will be the planet Mars. On Feb. 7 and 8, Mars will be very close to Mercury. After that, the red planet will be located below Mercury.
February will be a good month in which to observe the bright constellations of winter -- Orion, Auriga, Taurus, Gemini, and others. Bright stars from these constellations make up a rough circular area called the "Winter Hexagon" in the southern and overhead sky. Six bright stars make up the angles of the hexagon -- Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, Capella, Aldebaran, and Rigel.
Sirius, low in the south, is the brightest star in the sky, and will only be outshone by Jupiter. Aldebaran will be easy to find, just to the lower-left of Jupiter. Rigel makes up one of the "legs" of Orion the hunter. Pollux is one of the "twins" in the constellation Gemini, along with nearby Castor, and Capella is the brightest star in Auriga. Capella will be high in the sky, almost directly overhead.
In addition to the sky's brightest star, Sirius, the hexagon includes the 6th brightest (Rigel), 7th brightest (Procyon), 11th brightest (Capella), 13th brightest (Aldebaran), and 17th brightest (Pollux). It is a dazzling display, check it out if we get a clear night!
You may hear some rumblings about comets this year. One comet, "PANSTARRS," will be at its brightest in March, and may be bright enough to see with the naked eye, very low in the west, in early and mid-March.
A second comet, "ISON," could be extremely bright late next fall, among the brightest we have ever seen.
But comets are notoriously unpredictable, so we'll have to wait and see. As astronomer David Levy once said, "comets are like cats, they have tails, and they do precisely what they want."
By the time my March column comes around, we should know more about "PANSTARRS." Look for an update in late February!