Continuing on my “constellation a month” theme, this month I’ll be talking about the Plough (or the Big Dipper, The Saucepan, Ursa Major or even The Great Bear, depending on where you’re from. Even though it looks nothing like a bear, at all.)
This is, hands down, my favourite constellation. It was the first one I ever learnt as a kid, and moreover it’s actually really bloody useful. If you’re northern latitudes, it’s always in the sky, and it always helps you find north. You just take the two stars at the other end from the handle of the pan, follow them and there is the north star, Polaris. It’s not bright. It’s not shiny. It’s a plain, boring star, almost by itself, which is otherwise indistinguishable from its fellows. That tiny insignificant speck of light has probably saved more lives than all the other stars in the northern sky combined. That’s because it never moves in the sky and it’s directly above the North Pole. It’s the star all others appear to rotate around, making it incredibly important for astronomy, but more importantly: you find Polaris, draw an imaginary line straight down to the horizon, and bam, you’ve found north. I’ve done it myself whilst lost in the mountains of Wales at night before; trust me, it works.
So, anyway: What’s in the sky this February?
I like February. It’s short. I’ve also included the best time to view the International Space Station on the nights when it’s visible; there are multiple passes on several nights but I’ve only included the best. It’ll look like a very bright speck moving slowly across the sky; if you see blinking lights it’s an aeroplane. It’ll only be visible for a couple of minutes though, and ALL TIMINGS ARE APPROXIMATE FOR THE SOUTH OF ENGLAND. I’m not doing bespoke schedules for where you live, sorry.
01 Feb This month starts with Mars being very close to the moon, making it easy to find, which is useful as it’s quite faint at the moment, and getting fainter – it won’t start to get properly bright again until ~2018ish. The year that is, not “about 20 past 8 in the evening”.
Venus is dazzlingly bright in the direction of sunset; wait until it gets a bit darker and you’ll see a red/pink speck appear which is fainter than Venus – that’s Mars. Extremely thin atmosphere, about three times smaller than Earth and absolutely covered in robots. Under certain conditions you’ll find there’s liquid water running there, which is extremely exciting for the search for microbial alien life; Mars is one of your best bets.
This all takes place in the constellation of Pisces; if you want to know what this means for your horoscope, then (unless you control robots on Mars from NASA’s JPL and you need to know which way to point your antenna), you’ll be interested to know that it means nothing for your daily life. The ISS will be too low in the sky for most amateur observers, but it’ll get better over the next two weeks or so, I promise!
02 Feb For UK observers, the ISS will be most visible between the hours of 18:50 and 18:53, about 60 degrees above the horizon to the south. It’ll be really bright tonight!
03 Feb For UK observers, the ISS will be most visible between the hours of 17:58 and 18:03, about 40 degrees – quite low – above the horizon to the south.
04 Feb First Quarter Moon. Now is a good time to observe the moon if you have a set of binoculars; you’ll be able to see the mountains and craters quite well if you look at the bit of the moon where it transitions from light to darkness (known as the terminator line). The lunar shadows are long here (think about how long shadows are at sunrise and sunset on Earth; same reason); this makes it easier to see detail on the lunar surface. The moon is currently in the constellation of Taurus, which – if you are a Taurus – means nothing, but it makes it quite easy to find. It’s the big shiny semi-circle thing in the sky, can’t miss it. For UK observers, the ISS will be most visible between the hours of 18:42 and 18:46, very high in the southern sky.
05 Feb For UK observers, the ISS will be most visible between the hours of 17:49 and 17:55, about 60 degrees above the horizon to the south.
06 Feb Jupiter begins retrograde motion, which is astronomer speak for “soon it’ll be really bright”. It’s further out in the solar system, which means that it’s going slower in its orbit than Earth. Earth is therefore undertaking on the inside, so from our point of view, over a period of several nights it’s as if the whole thing stops moving in the direction it was going, changes its mind and reverses. It hasn’t, but that’s what it looks like. We’re drawing closer as we undertake, so consequently it gets brighter. You can see Jupiter in the dawn sky if you look to the south; it’s the really bright one as all the stars slowly fade out. If you have a good set of binoculars you’ll be able to see Jupiter’s moons; check back over successive nights to see them orbit! Careful though, looking at Jupiter’s moons through a small telescope and objectively reporting what he saw got Galileo locked up by the Catholic Church, so take appropriate precautions.
For UK observers, the ISS will be most visible between the hours of 18:33 and 18:38, passing directly overhead if you happen to live in the south of England. Which I do! Weather notwithstanding, this will probably be one of the best passes for UK viewers. Don’t worry if you miss it, there’s another really good one in a couple of days.
07 Feb For UK observers, the ISS will be most visible between the hours of 17:41 and 17:47, passing almost directly overhead.
08 Feb For UK observers, the ISS will be most visible between the hours of 18:25 and 18:30, passing almost directly overhead going west to east. Weather notwithstanding, this will probably be one of the best passes for UK viewers.
09 Feb Moon is in the constellation of Cancer. Means nothing for Cancers, or any of the other star signs for that matter. For UK observers, the ISS will be most visible between the hours of 19:09 and 18:12, about 55 degrees above the horizon. Look south, it’ll be extremely bright!
10 Feb Penumbral lunar eclipse. The moon passes through the edge of Earth’s shadow – the Penumbra – this evening. You can see it here:
For UK and other Western European observers, this is spot on perfect. Sorry, Australia and New Zealand, you’re going to have to sit this one out. I warn you in advance, as it’s only passing through the penumbra (technical term for “the edge of the shadow”); this is nowhere near as neat as a full lunar eclipse, where the moon passes through the umbra (astronomer speak for – you’ve guessed it – “middle of the shadow”). You will go out, look at the moon, say “huh, darker than usual. Neat” and that’s about it. For UK observers, it begins at 2234, and the best time for UK observers is about midnight. For UK observers, the ISS will be most visible between the hours of 18:17 and 18:22, about 73 degrees above the horizon. It’ll be really bright!
11 Feb There’s not much useful observing you can do at the moment, because of that damn full moon washing everything else out. Planets and brightest stars are still visible though. For UK observers, the ISS will be most visible between the hours of 19:01 and 19:05, about 36 degrees above the horizon. (look south to see it)
12 Feb For UK observers, the ISS will be most visible between the hours of 18:08 and 18:14, about 50 degrees above the horizon. After this, it’s still visible for a few more days, but progressively lower and fainter; as I’m trying to keep this as accessible and low tech as possible, I’ll not include the passes here.
13 Feb Moon is waning to the point where backyard astronomy becomes feasible again.
15 Feb Venus is now at its brightest in the evening sky. It’s the stupidly bright one high in the western sky after sunset.
18 Feb Last Quarter Moon. Evenings are now very dark, with the moon only starting to rise during the early morning. Combined with long winter nights, this makes dark-sky astronomy at sociable hours actually possible.
26 Feb All right, now for the real deal. Southern Hemisphere readers are in for a treat, providing that you live in South America, Western Africa or the Falkland Islands – an Annular Solar Eclipse. Sorry Australia and New Zealand, you get shafted again.
Annular is astronomer speak for “the moon is slightly further away on its orbit, so it doesn’t quite cover the sun, so you get a cool fiery ring effect around the moon”. Which is neat! I shouldn’t have to say this, but just in case you didn’t get the same lecture from your parents as I did – Don’t look at the sun through binoculars or a telescope, you’ll go blind. I’m not fucking about here, I genuinely mean it – don’t do it. If you do do it, and attempt to sue me, this paragraph telling you not to do it will be exhibit A. Also, listen to your parents and eat your greens.
Also on 26 Feb: New Moon. Don’t worry if you miss it, another will be along in a month.
27 Feb Hunt for the thin crescent moon in the early evening; a tiny silver sliver. A treat through binoculars or a telescope, and beautiful to the naked eye.
28 Feb Hunt for Uranus. The moon, Mars and Venus – which we’ve covered extensively – will help you find one of the hardest planets to find; Uranus. Apparently, it’s possible to see with the naked eye, but I’ve never managed it – my eyesight’s just not good enough. Realistically, you’ll need a set of binoculars. Look to the West in the Evening, and use this handy map:
It appears to be between the Moon and Mars. It may have a faint blueish tinge, depending on how sensitive to colour your eyes are. You should be able to see it in the same field of view as Mars through binoculars. If you can’t find it, then unfortunately it’s official: you are unable to find Uranus with both hands and a map.
Stop sniggering at the back there.
Last Month’s What’s Up? May be found here
A lot of my source material has come from: http://astropixels.com/ephemeris/astrocal/astrocal2017gmt.html and http://earthsky.org/ – If you’re an amateur astronomer, check them out, they’re really cool. ISS data from Heavens Above