The Sky This Week, February 3 – 10, 2015 !

The Sky This Week, 2015 February 3 – 10

Jupiter reaches opposition.
Jupiter, imaged 2015 February 1, 05:04 UT

The Moon begins the week sharing the sky with Jupiter and ends by closing in on Saturn.  She wanes from the Full phase to Last Quarter, which occurs on the 11th at 10:50 pm Eastern Standard Time.  Luna passes five degrees south of Jupiter on the night of the 3rd.  On the following night she may be found just four degrees south of the bright star Regulus.  You’ll find her flanking the star Spica before dawn on the mornings of the 9th and 10th.

By late in the week moonlight will no longer interfere with the early evening sky.  This will open a two-week “window” to try to catch a glimpse of the departing Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy).  I was still able to see this cosmic interloper with binoculars from my light-polluted front yard despite the added glare of the nearby gibbous Moon this past weekend.  Its bright, condensed coma still glows at around 5th magnitude, and it is well-placed in the early evening near the second-magnitude star Gamma Andromedae,the easternmost bright star in that constellation.  It is slowly drifting northward toward the stars of Cassiopeia as it recedes from the earth and the Sun.  It should gradually fade over the next few weeks as it departs for the outer reaches of the solar system.  Bid it a fond farewell; we won’t see it again for another 8 millennia!

February is one of my favorite months for stargazing despite (or perhaps because) of the often frigid nights.  The cold often brings with it very transparent conditions, and when this happened the sky over my house seems a bit darker and the stars more distinct.  It also happens to be the time of year when the best stars for northern hemisphere observers straddle the meridian at around 9:00 pm, allowing for a nice viewing session and a chance to warm up with hot cocoa before retiring.  By far my favorite sight is the striding figure of Orion, accentuated by the wonderful color contrast between his two brightest stars, Betelgeuse and Rigel.  The former sports a distinctive reddish tint in contrast to the icy-blue hue of Rigel.  Most of the brighter stars in Orion share Rigel’s characteristics and distance, which implies a common origin.  Just below Orion’s three “Belt” stars is a small asterism known as the “Sword”, and the middle star of this group seems to be that place of common birth.  Binoculars show a fuzzy glow around this star, and telescopes reveal it to be a multiple-star system embedded in swirling clouds of glowing gas and murky dust.  The Great Orion Nebula is truly one of the showpieces of the sky, and each increase in aperture brings out more of its rich detail.  It is the heart of a vast molecular cloud that permeates the background of Orion that is thought to contain enough “ingredients” for form some 10,000 solar-mass stars.

Bright Venus dazzles in the southwest after sunset, slowly dipping toward the horizon as twilight fades.  You should have no trouble spotting her as the sky begins to darken, and on particularly clear evenings she shines with accentuated brilliance against the deep blue background.  She is in hot pursuit of Mars, closing to just over five degrees from the much fainter red planet by the week’s end.

Jupiter reaches opposition on the 6th, rising at sunset and setting with the following sunrise.  His cheery glow stands up to the nearby brilliance of the Full Moon as the week opens, and once Luna departs he is the master of the night.  After the Moon, Jupiter is the most rewarding target for the small telescope.  Simple spotting scopes will show the four moons first described by Galileo over 400 years ago, while instruments of progressively larger apertures begin to reveal subtle details in his furiously evolving atmosphere.  The prominent dark equatorial cloud belts straddle a bright zone that betrays the presence of a massive jet stream that boasts speeds approaching 600 miles per hour; the interaction between the dark belts and brighter zones cause localized storms to form and dissipate in a matter of hours.  Many of these storms are the size of continents on the Earth, and some of the longer-lived ones are larger than our entire planet!

Look for Saturn in the southeastern sky just before sunrise.  A telescope reveals a world that looks similar to Jupiter but for the planet’s signature rings.  These appendages, made up of countless chunks of ice, are now tipped about 25 degrees toward our line of sight, offering a wonderful view of their structure.  Saturn will replace Jupiter as our overnight planet by late spring, so we’ll have plenty to look at as the year passes by.


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