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Plenty of planets to see in February

Posted: Sunday, February 01, 2004

In the early evening, even during dusk, look for ultra-bright Venus in the southwest. As evening advances, find Orion in the southeast with Sirius, the brightest star, to its lower left, Procyon and Castor and Pollux to its upper left, Taurus with reddish Aldebaran and the star cluster Pleiades above it, as well as Capella in its pentagon of Auriga almost overhead.

Watch for Saturn forming a long triangle with Castor and Pollux, now high in the east. You'll see its rings in a small telescope. Between Venus and red Aldebaran you can see another red object of a different kind: Mars.

The rusty planet has been invaded for the past month by the British lander Beagle 2 (which unfortunately was lost), the American landers Spirit and Opportunity and the European orbiter Mars Express. The latter has been able to capture the highest resolution images ever and its first photos of miles-long sediments are the strongest evidence yet that liquid water once existed on Mars.

To round out this pearl string of planets, bright Jupiter will rise in the northeast during late evening. A small telescope will reveal its four large moons and perhaps its cloud bands.

Jupiter also is the planet you see when driving to work in the pre-dawn hours, by which time it has moved toward the western horizon.

Other easy-to-see constellations are the Great Square of Pegasus above Mars, bright Vega and Deneb in the northeast, the Big Dipper in the north with its pointer stars pointing at Polaris, the North Star. The latter is at the end of the Little Dipper's handle, 60 degrees above the northern horizon, matching the Kenai's latitude.

With Jupiter, Leo and Cancer also are rising. From dark areas you also may enjoy the Milky Way running east to west.

Our moon is full Thursday and appears above Jupiter on Saturday and Feb. 8 and is closest and thus biggest to Earth on Feb. 15, although it's a waning crescent then in the morning sky.

It is new on Feb. 19, a waxing crescent below Venus on the Feb. 22 and beneath Mars on Feb. 24, while farthest and hence smallest as a half or first quarter moon on Feb. 27, and it finally reaches Saturn on Feb. 29.

Because Earth rotates on its axis almost exactly 366.25 times per year as we orbit our sun, we usually have 365 days (minus one rotation matching the orbit, hence the at-first puzzling 366) and every four years we insert the accumulated four times .25 equals one extra day as Feb. 29, or leap year.

Andy Veh is the physics and astronomy instructor at Kenai Peninsula College. He can be reached at aveh@uaa.alaska.edu.



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