EYES ON THE NIGHT SKY: FEBRUARY 2019
Welcome to February’s edition of Eyes on the Night Sky. This month, take the opportunity to enjoy the dark, early evenings before we head into March. Learn about a constellation that was universally known by ancient cultures as the same animal. There are two conjunctions, a numbered asterism hidden in the night sky and a beautiful star cluster to study.
Moon and Mars Conjunction
One early evening treat to look forward to is the Moon and Mars conjunction at 8pm on 10th February. The red planet will be visible as soon as darkness falls and the waxing crescent . The Moon will pass to the south of it, at around 7° distance. Try to spot this pleasing pair with the unaided eyes. A bonus planet to look for is Uranus, which is situated at an 11 o’ clock position to Mars.
Uranus and Mars become even closer at 10pm on 13th February, where Mars will be in conjunction with Uranus at a distance of the widths of two, full moons (1°). This will be a great opportunity to spot the distant, blue- green planet near to Mars, which is normally a challenge to find. Binoculars will show the planets in the same field, as Uranus is at the lower left of Mars. Amazing to think that the gas giant Uranus is situated 1.6 billion miles away!
Constellation of the Month: Leo
This constellation has been known for millennia; the Mesopotamians as early as 4000 BC had used a similar constellation to make sense of the stars in the sky. It is known by many other names: The Jews named it “Arye”, the Persians, “Leo Ser” and the Indians, “Simha”. In Babylonian astronomy, the constellation was known as “UR.GU.LA” and the brightest star in the constellation, Regulus, was known as the "King Star".
One common theme shared with all ancient cultures is that the constellation of Leo represented a lion. The Greeks even had a story associated with it: Hercules rescued a harassed local population from a strong Lion who would kidnap women and tempt local heroes to come and rescue them. Hercules faced up to the unbeatable lion and as the lion pounced, Hercules caught the lion in mid-air and destroying it. In tribute to this great feat, Zeus placed the symbol of the lion in the sky.
There are some interesting galaxies to explore in the Constellation of Leo, if you have binoculars or a telescope. Look for the Leo Triplet through binoculars or telescopes – two or three of the galaxies can be seen under a dark sky.
M95 and M96 sits underneath the belly of Leo and can be found with binoculars and small telescopes.
An open star cluster that used to be associated with the constellation of Leo can be seen with the unaided eye. Melotte 111, in the constellation of Coma Berenices was known as the ‘Lion’s Tail’ and is an open cluster of 40 or so stars, situated 280 light years away. In 240BC, Ptolemy renamed the star cluster after the legendary Egyptian queen Berenice after she sacrificed her hair for the safe return of her husband, who was in battle. The seemingly unromantic modern designation for this star cluster was named after astronomer P. J. Melotte, who catalogued star clusters.
To find this cluster, find the constellations of Ursa Major and Leo. Coma Berenices is a faint constellation below the ‘pan handle’ of Ursa Major and behind Leo. Concentrate on the area of sky to the back of Leo and look for a faint, small cloud of stars. You can also find it by star hopping in a line from Regulus to Zosma in Leo and almost the same distance again to the faint cluster of stars. You can also explore with binoculars.
The Moon caught the public eye last month as many enjoyed the early morning total lunar eclipse. Our nearest satellite always holds some fascination throughout the year. Look for earthshine in the early evenings from the 6th to the 11th and the last two days of the month, into early March. This can be seen with the unaided eye but if you have binoculars, the sight will take your breath away.
Earthshine occurs during the thin, crescent phases of the Moon; the shadow portion is lit by the earth’s light and is best seen during the twilight hours. It is also more poetically known as the “ashen glow” or, “the old Moon in the new Moon’s arms” and is very lovely to look at. If you were standing on the Moon looking at the Earth, you would see that the Earth is fully illuminated by the Sun which causes this effect. This can be seen any time in the year around the time of a New Moon.
The new moon falls on 4th February and the full moon on 19th February.
Finally, a remarkable asterism that unbelievably looks like a pair of numbers!
NGC2169, of the '37 Cluster’, is situated in the upper left arm of the Orion Constellation. It was first discovered by Giovanni Batista Hodierna around 1654 and lies 3,600 light years from earth. Telescopes of 4 inches aperture and above will reveal this fascinating object and depending on the type of telescope, the eyepiece will either reveal the numerals or an ‘XY’ shape. It is also known as the ‘Little Pleiades’ , as it resembles its larger counterpart, M45.