EYES ON THE NIGHT SKY - FEBRUARY 2021
Welcome to Eyes on the Night Sky for February, where we will select the best night sky objects to view using telescopes, binoculars or just the eyes. The nights are still dark for a long time which makes it ideal for people who don’t want to stay up late to study the night sky. Most of the objects listed in this month's edition can be easily seen in a brighter sky and do not require travel to a dark site.
One early evening object of interest is the bright International Space Station which will pass over between 5.50pm and 7.30pm during the first week of February. It’s a wonderful sight to watch out for and fun for children as it passes over as a slow, but bright star.
ISS transit ©Sam Price
You don’t need any optical equipment to see the ISS; just your eyes! See the dates and times below:
1st February – Rises at 17:50 in the western sky and sets at 17:57 in the east-southestern sky
1st February – Rises at 19:27 in the western sky and sets at 19:30 in the south-southwestern sky
2nd February - Rises at 18:40 in the western sky and sets at 18:45 in the south-eastern sky
3rd February - Rises at 17:52 in the western sky and sets at 17:59 in the south-eastern sky
3rd February - Rises at 19:30 in the west-southwestern sky and sets at 19:33 in the south-southwestern sky
4th February - Rises at 18:42 in the western sky and sets at 18:47 in the southern sky
5th February - Rises at 17:54 in the western sky and sets at 18:00 in the south-southeastern sky
7th February - Rises at 17:57 in the west-southwestern sky and sets at 18:00 in the southern sky
Below is a video of how the ISS looks at it travels through the sky:
The New Moon falls on 11th February and the Full Moon on the 27th February. This month’s full Moon is known by the Native Americans as the Snow Moon and also the Hunger Moon as February is known for being a snowy month. Hunger was always felt the keenest in this month, as stored supplies dwindled, game was scarce and people longed for the warmer days where the ground thawed and seed could be planted.
There is an interesting conjunction of fine objects to look out for over three days from 17th February to 19th February. On 17th February after dark, look to the south-west and find the waxing crescent Moon. Using a small telescope, find the Moon and use it as a guide to find Uranus, which will be in the 2 o clock position to the Moon. You will only see a faint, green hue but you are looking at an ice giant that lies 2.9515 billion km away from us. February provides a final opportunity to find the ice giant Uranus as it loses altitude this month.
On 18th February, the Moon passes 4.1 degrees south of Mars; which is just over a finger’s width held out at arm’s length.
On 19th February, the Moon forms a right-angled triangle with Pleiades and the bright star Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus, which will look great with the unaided eye and provides an opportunity to study these objects with binoculars. Seeing the red planet mars and the red giant Aldebaran with the Moon in between will be a fine sight.
Star Cluster in the Constellation of Gemini
A relatively unknown star cluster is our telescope target choice for this month: the Twinkling Comet Cluster (NGC 2420) in the constellation of Gemini. It’s situated close to the celestial equator which is an imaginary line running in the sky along the same plane as the Earth’s equator. This object requires a semi-rural sky with reduced light pollution to see it. You can spot this cluster with binoculars of 50-60mm aperture but telescopes of 80mm of aperture and above will reveal a cometary quality to this open star cluster. To find this open cluster, locate the star Pollux in Gemini and look six degree southwest.
Stephen O'Meara, prominent amateur astronomer and writer describes this cluster thus, “…very beautiful, rich and finely spun open cluster” and, “...six degrees south southwest of Pollux, I saw a round cometary form enter the field. My heart stopped; the diffuse object looked so stunning against the mottled starlight in the field – like a little fuzzy snowball…But on closer inspection I saw the ‘comet’s vapours’ twinkling with averted vision. When I increased the magnification, the ‘vapour’ shattered into a myriad of tiny, scintillating gems.
Take part in the CPRE Star Count!
Orion over Caban Coch Dam ©Sam Price
Another activity that can be done from your garden is the annual star count - Join in by choosing a clear night between 6-14 February 2021, looking up at the constellation of Orion and letting CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England) know how many stars you can spot. Click here for more information.