The University of Arizona

Skywatcher's Guides

Flandrau’s Observatory is operated entirely by volunteers. Please call ahead to see if the observatory is open (generally Thurs-Sat 7pm – 10pm). Our astronomer volunteers will help you experience the 16-inch telescope as well as answer your questions about the night sky.

Written by: Lucas Snyder (Flandrau Planetarium Operator)
Images contributed by: Tim Van DevenderAlistair Symon (Flandrau Telescope Operators), Nine Planets, and Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS)

Navigationphoto by Tim Van Devender

Stars and Constellations

In February, the center of the Milky Way is well below the horizon, but there is still a good portion of our galaxy we can see streaking high across the sky. The fall sky is still prominent in the west.  The "W" of Cassiopeia is high in the northwest. In the absence of the Big Dipper (part of our spring sky) Cassiopeia can be used to locate the north star: The top (open side) of the "W" faces to the north, so in that direction look for a star about the same brightness as the main stars in Casssiopeia, and that will most likely be Polaris.  The Big Dipper is beginning to come up again, but it is likely to be hidden behind trees and mountains along the horizon.  Next, the Great Square of Pegasus is getting low in the west.  Andromeda is just above that, with Perseus even higher, nearly in the middle of the sky.  Finally, the winter sky is now getting very high in the east.  Taurus the bull with the bright star Aldebaran is very high (near Perseus) along with the Pleiades (aka the seven sisters or Subaru) star cluster.  Auriga the charioteer with the bright star Capella is very high as well, slightly more to the northeast.  Gemini the twins is just below that in the east, and Canis Minor (the little dog) with the bright star Procyon is just below.  Orion the hunter is up in the southeast, with his easily recognizable belt, and Canis Major (the big dog) is just below.

 

In March, the winter portion of the Milky Way continues to streak across the sky.  The fall constellations are now getting low in the west, with Pegasus now partly below the horizon.  The winter constellations are now in the middle of the sky, and some of the spring constellations are beginning to come up.  Leo the lion is just above the horizon in the east, and the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) is now up in the northeast.

 

 Interesting Stars Visible in February and March

 

Name / Designation

Apparent Magnitude
(lower = brighter)

Distance

(light-years)

Notes

Sirius

-1.44

8.6

 

Arcturus

-0.05

36.7

 

Capella

0.08

42

 

Rigel

0.18

770

 

Procyon

0.4

11

 

Betelgeuse

0.45

427

 

Aldeberan

0.87

65

 

Pollux

1.16

38

 

Markab

1.25

140

 

Deneb

1.25

3230

 

Regulus

1.36

77

means "Little King"

Castor

1.58

52

 

Polaris

1.97

431

 

Alpheratz or Sirrah

2.07

97

 

Mirach

2.07

199

 

Algol

2.09

93

variable star

Denebola

2.14

36.2

 

Enif

2.38

670

 

Almak

2.1 / 5.0 & 6.3

355

triple star system w/ 64 yr orbit

Eta Cassiopeiae

3.5 / 7.4

19

480 yr orbit

 

Solar System

Mars is still low in the southwest, and is only visible at the beginning of the night.  It is moving from Aquarius into Pisces.

 

Venus is still visible low in the west-southwest after sunset at the beginning of February, slowly moving northward (along with the sun) as we get to the end of March.

 

Jupiter is now easily visible in the east after sunset and visible all night long.  It is in between Leo the Lion and Cancer the Crab.

 

Saturn is coming up in the early morning near the claws of Scorpius.

 

Mercury will be visible in the morning before sunrise.  It starts off February very dim and brightens a great deal by the end of March.

 

Jupiter Great Red Spot Transits during February and March (when the Flandrau dome is open)

NOTE: The GRS is visible on the disk of Jupiter for 50 minutes before and after meridian transit time.

Date

Meridian Transit Time

02/13/15

07:06 PM

02/20/15

07:52 PM

02/27/15

08:37 PM

03/06/15

09:23 PM

03/28/15

07:33 PM

 

Calendar of Night Sky Events

 

02/01/15

Venus and Neptune in conjunction. Separated by 0.8°.

02/03/15

Full Moon.

02/06/15

Jupiter at Opposition. Best time of year to see this giant planet.

02/11/15

Last quarter moon.

02/18/15

"Super" New Moon. Closest new moon between 2014 and 2020.

02/21/15

Venus and Mars in conjunction. Separated by 0.4°.

02/24/15

Mercury at greatest western elongation. Visible in the morning before sunrise.

02/25/15

First Quarter Moon.

02/25/15

Neptune at conjunction. Behind the sun.

03/04/15

Venus and Uranus in conjunction. Separated by 0.1°.

03/05/15

"Micro" Full Moon. Smallest full moon between 2014 and 2032.

03/11/15

Mars and Uranus in conjunction. Separated by 0.3°.

03/13/15

Last Quarter Moon.

03/18/15

Mercury and Neptune in conjunction. Separated by 1.5°.

03/20/15

New Moon and Total Solar Eclipse. Not visible from our location.

03/27/15

First Quarter Moon.

 

Deep Sky

The winter Milky Way is now prominent in the sky.  There are many spectacular deep sky objects we can see now.  Starting with open clusters, we first have the Pleiades (Seven Sisters, M45) nearly in the middle of the sky.  Next to that, the Hyades cluster (C41) makes up the face of Taurus the bull.  Also nearby, the constellation of Auriga contains M36, M37, and M38, which are visible with binoculars.  We also have Perseus's Double Cluster (C14) still fairly high in the northwest, and the Beehive (Praesepe, M44) up in the east.

 

This is not a good time of year to see globular clusters, as most of them are concentrated in the summer sky.  The brightest one we can see now is M79 below Orion in Lepus the hare, but it is nearly 8th magnitude.

 

For nebulae, we have the spectacular Orion Nebula (M42) now prominent in the south. This is the closest star-forming region to our solar system.  We also have some good planetary nebulae, which come from dying stars.  The Blue Snowball (C22) in Andromeda is towards the west, the Eskimo (C39) in Gemini is high in the east, and the Owl (M97) in Ursa Major is low in the northeast.

 

And now the galaxies:  Our neighbor the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is now heading towards the west and is visible on dark nights with the naked eye.  Also nearby is the Triangulum Galaxy (M33), visible with binoculars.  In Ursa Major to the northeast we have Bode's Galaxy (M81) and the Cigar Galaxy (M82), close enough to be seen together in a low-power telescope.

 

 Interesting Deep Sky Objects to Observe during February and March

Designation

Name

Apparent Magnitude

Apparent Size

Distance

(light-years)

Type

Messier 45

Pleiades

1.6

110'

440

open cluster

Messier 31

Andromeda Galaxy

3.4

3° x 1°

2,900,000

spiral galaxy

Messier 44

Beehive Cluster

3.7

95'

577

open cluster

Messier 42

Orion Nebula

4

85' x 60'

1400-1600

diffuse nebula

Messier 33

Triangulum Galaxy

5.7

67' x 42'

3,000,000

spiral galaxy

Messier 81

Bode's Galaxy

8.5

21'

1,200,000

spiral galaxy

Messier 82

Cigar Galaxy

9.5

14'

1,200,000

galaxy

 

Frequently Asked Questions – Can we see planets outside of our solar system?

A few planets (~2%) have been directly observed by telescopes, but only in the infrared. Astronomers use what's called a coronagraph to block out the light from the star.  They then look for the faint heat signatures of orbiting planets.  This method is biased towards big hot planets around nearby stars, and would not be able to detect an earth-like planet.

 

Most exoplanets (~55%) are currently discovered by the transit method.  That is, astrnonomers watch the star to see if it changes in brightness.  If it makes a small (2% or less) dip at regular intervals, then there may be a planet orbiting and transiting the star from our perspective.  This method has fewer biases, but is prone to false positives.

 

Another well-established detection method is radial velocity (~29% of confirmed exoplanets).  Again, astrnonomers are watching the star, but this time looking for changes in color.  If a planet is there, it can regularly pull the star towards and away from us very slightly, but enough to create what's known as a Doppler shift.  This used to be the most popular method before the Kepler spacecraft was launched in 2009.

 

So while there are many exoplanets out there, none (yet) are able to be seen just by looking through a normal telescope.

 

If you have any questions you'd like me to answer in the next issue of SWG, please let me know.  I'm also happy to take suggestions or comments, and also pictures if you'd like to send them.  Happy viewing!

 

Table of Images (Click on an image to expand)

Sketches and Images - Image Credit (Tim Van Devender)

Mars

Mars

Saturn

Saturn

Jupiter

Jupiter

The Moon

The Moon

Jupiter and Io Moon Shadow

Jupiter and Io Moon Shadow

Messier 45 (Pleiades)

M45

NGC 884 and NGC 869 - Perseus Double Cluster

NGC 884 and NGC 869 - Perseus Double Cluster

NGC 2024 - The Horsehead and Flame Nebulae

NGC 2024 - The Horsehead and Flame Nebulae

NGC 2237 - The Rosette Nebula

NGC 2237 - The Rosette Nebula

NGC 2264

NGC 2264

Images from Alistair Symon
Messier 27 (Dumbbell Nebula)

M27

Mssier 31 (Andromeda Galaxy)

M31

Messier 33 (Triangulum Galaxy)

M33

Messier 45 (Pleiades)

M45

Messier 57 (Ring Nebula)

M57

Images from Nine Planets
Jupiter

Jupiter

The Moon

The Moon

Images from SEDS
Messier 13 (Hercules Globular Cluster)

M13

Messier 15

M15

Messier 27 (Dumbbell Nebula)

M27

Messier 31 (Andromeda Galaxy)

M31

Messier 33 (Triangulum Galaxy)

M33

Messier 44 (Beehive Cluster)

M44

Messier 45 (Pleiades)

M45

Messier 57 (Ring Nebula)

M57

NGC 7009 (The Saturn Nebula)

NGC 7009

NGC 7293 (The Helix Nebula)

NGC 7293

 

Bibliography

Cornelius, Geoffrey. The Starlore Handbook: an Essential Guide to the Night Sky. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle, 1997. Print.

Ottewell, Guy. Astronomical Calendar 2012. Raynham, Mass: Universal Workshop, 2011. Print.

Ottewell, Guy. Astronomical Calendar 2013. Raynham, Mass: Universal Workshop, 2012. Print.

Ottewell, Guy. The Astronomical Companion. 2nd ed. Raynham, Mass: Universal Workshop, 2010. Print.

 

Astronomy Magazine. February 2013. Volume 41, No 2.

Astronomy Magazine. February 2013. Volume 41, No 3.

Sky & Telescope. February 2013. Volume 125, No 2.

Sky & Telescope. March 2013. Volume 125, No 3.