The Sky This Week : February 18 – 25, 2014 !

The Sky This Week, 2014 February 18 – 25
Count stars for science!
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Jupiter and its inner large moon Io, 2014 FEB 12, 03:19 UT

The Moon heads for the southern reaches of the ecliptic as she wanes in the morning sky this week. Last Quarter occurs on the 22nd at 12:15 pm Eastern Standard Time. Luna starts the week near the ruddy glow of planet Mars, then passes golden Saturn before wending her way toward the rising stars of summer. By the end of the week she shares the pre-dawn limelight with dazzling Venus.

As the Moon exits the evening sky the second of the year’s “Globe At Night” citizen-science observing campaigns gets underway beginning on the evening of the 19th. Sponsored by the National Optical Astronomy Observatories, the objective of the program is to engage the public in understanding the importance of the night sky from scientific as well as cultural points of view. Last year well over 16,000 people in 89 countries made observations over the course of four observing campaigns; this year the program will run each month 1ith a goal of 100,000 observations by the year’s end. The premise is simple: visit the campaign’s website, download constellation charts appropriate for your location and season, then observe these constellations and count the number of stars you can see. You can make as many observations as you’d like from as many locations as you care to; the objective is to map the global distribution of “light pollution” and dark-sky sites and to dynamically monitor the changes in night sky visibility across the planet. We’ll be sure to highlight each 10-night campaign for the rest of the year, and we hope that you will take a few minutes each month to contribute to this ongoing project.

On the subject of dark skies, we’re losing quite a bit of observing time to the increasing length of daylight as the Sun begins to climb in earnest toward the northern hemisphere of the sky. This week the length-of-day passes 11 hours, giving us more than an hour and a half less time to enjoy the nighttime sights. Each day from now until late spring we’ll gain between two to three minutes of daylight, so enjoy your dark time while you can.

The early evening sky is now dominated by the bright stars of the Great Winter Circle as well as the night’s brightest planet, Jupiter. From the end of evening twilight at around 7:15 pm until around 10 o’clock the multi-hued winter stars parade past the meridian. By midnight they are heeling over toward the west and are being replaced by the signature star patterns of spring. These stars aren’t as bright as the winter luminaries for the most part, but the few that are easy to see from the suburbs form distinctive patterns in the form of Leo, the Lion and the Big Dipper.

Bright Jupiter crosses the meridian at around 9:00 pm, so your best time to observe him will be from the end of evening twilight until midnight. The giant planet is now well past opposition, but he continues to be a wonderful sight in small to modest telescopes. If atmospheric conditions are good you can watch the famous Great Red Spot rotate across the planet’s disc on the evenings of the 18th and 24th. On the late evening of the 19th the moon Io will drag its shadow over Old Jove’s vast bulk.

Ruddy Mars now rises at around 10:00 pm. Look for the nearby Moon on the evenings of the 18th and 19th. Also nearby is the bright star Spica, which will remain Mars’ companion for the next several weeks. The red planet is now close enough to opposition to reveal surface detail in modest telescopes under good conditions. Unlike most of our planetary kin, Mars is the only other world in the solar system where we can see real surface features as opposed to the tops of dense atmospheres.

Saturn is still best seen before sunrise, crossing the meridian at around 5:30 am at the start of morning twilight. The ringed planet is slowly moving along more southerly reaches of the ecliptic, so observing him in steady air is something of a challenge. However, he is very easy to identify, as there is nothing else in nature that looks quite the way he does. He’ll entertain the Moon on the mornings of the 21st and 22nd.

Venus also gets a visit from the Moon in the morning twilight sky. Look for the two objects low in the southeast on the morning of the 26th. They’ll be less than five degrees apart.

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