The Sky This Week, February 10 – 17, 2015 !

The Sky This Week, 2015 February 10 – 17

Eyes on Orion.
M42_14-150101_01small.jpg
Messier 42, the Great Nebula in Orion
Composite image made from sub-frames captured in Morattico, VA
on 2014 JAN 1 and Alexandria, VA on 2015 JAN 1
with an 80mm (3.1-inch) f/6 Antares Sentinel refraftor
and Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR

The Moon wanes in the morning sky this week, passing through the southern reaches of the ecliptic as she drifts eastward among the stars of early summer. Last Quarter occurs on the 11th at 10:50 pm Eastern Standard Time.  On the early mornings of the 12th and 13th you’ll find her passing above the stars of Scorpius and the golden glow of Saturn, which is just a degree northeast of Graffias, uppermost of the three stars that form the Scorpion’s “head”.

Consider taking a few minutes over the upcoming holiday weekend to add your night-sky observations to the 2015 Globe at Night citizen-science campaign.  This program, which was established during the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, seeks to improve our awareness of the dark night sky as a natural resource by encouraging people everywhere to count the stars visible in a particular area.  In February and March the target constellation to look for is the familiar outline of Orion, which now straddles the meridian between 8:00 and 9:00 pm local time.  The basic idea is simple: go outside at around 8:00 pm, let your eyes “dark adapt” for 10 to 15 minutes, find Orion, and compare what you see with charts on the Globe at Night website.  You may submit as many observations as you wish, allowing you to compare your results from multiple locations with those of others around the world.

Speaking of Orion, the dark of the Moon offers a chance to explore this magnificent constellation with binoculars and small telescopes.  If you happen to be venturing out to a winter vacation spot away from the city, the low-power views of Orion offer some of the most colorful sights in the night sky.  The ruddy hue of Betelgeuse stands out in wonderful contrast to the ice-blue cast of the rest of the constellation’s bright stars.  Just east of the main body of Orion is the winter Milky Way, which contains many knots of light formed by star clusters and glowing nebulae.  My favorite target for low-power telescopes and binoculars is the “Sword”, which appears to the naked eye as a small clump of stars that hangs below the Hunter’s easternmost “belt” star.  Here your optics will reveal a celestial jewel-box of stars clustered above and below the glowing cloud of the Great Orion Nebula.  Depending on the darkness of your sky and the clarity of the night you can trace out faint wisps of nebulosity throughout this feature, and each increase in light-grasp of larger aperture telescopes will reveal a greater sense of the three-dimensional structure of this vast star-forming cloud.  Long-exposure images of Orion and his environs show the entire constellation set against a background of faint, glowing gas that, were someone to look at it from afar, would be one of the most prominent features in our Milky Way Galaxy.

Venus continues her dogged pursuit of Mars this week in the southeast sky.  The pair start the week just over five degrees apart, with Venus below the much fainter glimmer of the red planet.  By the week’s end just two degrees separate them.  The will be closest together on the 21st; after that Venus will leave Mars in her wake.

This should also be a good week to try to find Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy), which is now moving northward from Andromeda into Cassiopeia in the northwestern sky.  The comet is now on its way out of the solar system, and as such I expected it to begin a rapid fade.  However, the most recent reports I’ve seen still show it to be an easy binocular target glowing at fourth magnitude, and many observers have reported the development of a spike-like tail pointing eastward from the bright condensed coma.  A finder chart for the next two weeks appears here.

Bright Jupiter beams down from the dim stars of the constellation of Cancer this week, easily visible as twilight fades.  You’ll see him in the east as evening twilight fades, and he’s well-placed for viewing through the telescope by 8:00 pm, and you’ll have the rest of the night to watch the antics of his bright Galilean moons and swirling cloud belts.  On the evening of the 10th you can watch the shadow of the moon Europa cross Jupiter’s disc between 8:00 and 11:00 pm EST.  On Friday the 13th look for the planet’s most famous weather system, the Great Red Spot as it crosses the center of the disc between 9:00 and 10:00 pm EST.

Saturn rises in the southeast at around 2:00 am, so the best time to look for him will be just before sunrise.  You’ll have the advantage of a nearby Moon on the mornings of the 12th and 13th to help locate him, but he should stand out quite easily among the rising stars of Scorpius.

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