EYES ON THE NIGHT SKY – FEBRUARY 2020
Welcome to Eyes on the Night Sky for February. We are now well into the New Year and there are still a couple of months of long, dark nights to enjoy the wonders of the night sky. In this month’s edition, we will look at which planets can be easily discovered, learn about some pleasing conjunctions and seek out a couple of stunning star clusters.
Plenty of Planets!
First, we will focus on easy-to-find planets. You may notice a bright point of light in the Western sky after the sun sets - this is the planet Venus and it can be seen in the sky for at least four hours after sunset in the month February. Venus is the third brightest object in the night sky, after the Sun and Moon. On a moonless night, try holding a piece of paper up in the direction of the planet and hold your finger in front to see a shadow cast onto the paper.
For the third month this year there will be a conjunction of Venus and the waxing crescent Moon on 27th February after sunset, around 6 degrees apart – almost the same width of three fingers held together at arm’s length.
For Mars fans, you will have to get up early to see the Red Planet as it rises around 2 hours before the Sun. Observing Mars with a telescope can be frustrating when it sits low on the horizon as the turbulent atmosphere interferes with seeing any surface details but it makes a pleasant sight to the unaided eye. On 18th February, look out for a conjunction at 5am where the waning crescent Moon rises with Mars.
By the end of February, Jupiter also rises a couple of hours before dawn but remains low on the horizon. The low position might make it difficult to see details on the surface of this gas giant but using binoculars or a telescope will enable you to enjoy the dance of the planet’s many moons. At 6am on 19th February, the waning crescent Moon lies 6° to the right of Jupiter and Mars also gets in on the act as it lies 9° upper right of the Moon.
The New Moon is on 9th February and the Full Moon is on 23rd February.
A Waterfall of Stars
A treat for binoculars is an asterism that looks like a ribbon of stars stretched across the night sky, known as Kemble’s Cascade. It has to be seen to be believed.
You can sight it by looking for the constellation of Cassiopeia and raising the binoculars to your eyes. Slowly scan upwards until a vertical line of stars, which is Kemble’s Cascade, appears in the field of view. At the top of the stellar line you might notice a small knot of stars which is an open star cluster called NGC1502. At the end of July, this asterism flips 180 degrees and almost resembles a waterfall splashing into a pool of stars. This asterism was named after Father Lucian Kemble, a 20th century Franciscan friar and amateur astronomer.
A Glittering Ball of Stars
Finally, a celestial treasure for telescopes. Anyone who doesn’t want to wait until the mid-spring for this object to be well placed in the sky but are willing to wait until after midnight to see this globular cluster this month as it rises from the East, will be rewarded. Messier 3 was the first object to be catalogued by Charles Messier in 1764; he thought it was a ‘nebula without stars’ but William Herschel was able to identify stars within this ‘nebula’ twenty years later.
You will be able to see only some of the staggering half million array of stars within this amazing globular cluster with a six inch telescope: only the outer stars can be seen but with telescopes of 8 inches and larger in dark skies, you will be able to spot stars right to the core.
The Elan Valley has some great dark sky events for you this spring. Whether you fancy a sunset walk or would like to learn more about the night sky, nocturnal wildlife, or how to capture great night-time photos, we have some star parties and walks that will inspire you to get out there and enjoy the starry skies of the Cambrian Mountains in Mid Wales.