Skywatcher's Guide: February and March 2019

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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 (during observatory hours)

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  
Spica 0.98 262  
Pollux 1.16 38  
Markab 1.25 140  
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  
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

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Solar System

Mercury is visible in the evening sky for the second half of February, but during mid March it will be passing between us and the sun.

Venus is still high in the morning sky before sunrise.

Mars is getting a bit lower in the west each night, moving from Pisces, through Aries, and into Taurus.

Jupiter rises earlier and earlier each morning near the foot of Ophiuchus.

Saturn is now visible in the morning before sunrise, rising earlier each day in the constellation of Sagittarius.

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Calendar of Night Sky Events

Date Event
02/04/19 New Moon
02/12/19 First Quarter Moon.
02/12/19 Appulse of Mars and Uranus. — Separated by 1.0°.
02/18/19 Appulse of Venus and Saturn. — Separated by 1.1°.
02/18/19 Appulse of Mercury and Neptune. — Separated by 0.7°.
02/19/19 Full Moon.
02/26/19 Last Quarter Moon.
02/26/19 Mercury at greatest eastern elongation. — Visible in the evening after sunset.
03/06/19 New Moon.
03/06/19 Neptune at conjunction. — Passing behind the sun.
03/14/19 First Quarter Moon.
03/14/19 Mercury at inferior conjunction. — Between us and the sun.
03/20/19 Earth at northward equinox. — Beginning of our Spring.
03/20/19 Full Moon.
03/24/19 Appulse of Mercury and Neptune. — Separated by 2.5°.
03/27/19 Last Quarter Moon.

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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 (during observatory hours)

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 3 (in Canes Venatici) 6.2 18' 34,000 globular cluster
Messier 81 Bode's Galaxy 8.5 21' 1,200,000 spiral galaxy
NGC 3242 Ghost of Jupiter 8.6 25" 1400 planetary nebula
Messier 82 Cigar Galaxy 9.5 14' 1,200,000 galaxy

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is space junk and why is it a problem?

Since the 1950s humans have been launching things into space.  At the time, the space around the earth was more or less empty, so collisions were not an issue.  But by the 1970s scientists started considering the possibility of collisions between objects in orbit.  In low earth orbit, objects are travelling at over 17,000 miles per hour, so even a small collision could cause major damage.  The first active satellite to be severely damaged by manmade debris was in 1996.  The biggest collision was in 2009 when an active American Iridium satellite collided with an inactive Russian Kosmos satellite.  This event created thousands of large fragments and many more small fragments that pose a risk to other satellites, including the International Space Station.  There have also been three intentional collisions from antisatellite missiles that created more debris than any accidental collisions.  In addition, since the 1960s many satellites have broken up due to fuel/battery explosions or deliberate self-destruction.  So what was once empty space around the earth is becoming littered with countless pieces of junk.

We are able to track large objects and can maneuver active satellites out of the way if necessary, given enough warning.  But most of the objects less than 10 cm are not able to be tracked, and so cannot be avoided.  In 2016, an astronaut posted a photo of a 7 mm chip in one of the windows of the ISS created by something estimated to be no more than a few microns in size.  Something as small as 1 cm could penetrate the hull of the ISS, and something 10 cm or more would cause serious damage.  Even if an object is only predicted to come within a few miles of the ISS, the astronauts still take precautions just in case.

Now that more people are becoming aware of this issue, they are starting to think of ways to reduce the amount of space junk.  A few ideas are tethers or sails that could slow the objects down until they fall into the atmosphere and disintegrate.  Or we could use a big net or even a robotic spacecraft to collect debris and either put it into another (safer) orbit or possibly even salvage the material to use in new satellites.  But any of these solutions would not be easy or cheap, so it may be some time before we actually see them implemented.  Luckily, some material naturally deorbits due to interaction with the outer reaches of Earth's atmosphere or solar wind particles.  But at the rate we are sending new things into space, this won't be enough to ensure a safe environment in the long term.  Some ideas for space junk laws have been proposed to ensure that space junk does not become more of a problem in the future.

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!

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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.

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Date of publication:
2019