Tracking the February sky

Posted: Sunday, February 02, 2003

In this month's column, I'm listing a few Internet resources, especially useful for observations before the winter is over and before the nights become too short.

The best interactive star charts I have seen are at skyandtelescope.com/observing/skychart (type in your latitude and longitude -- 60N and 150W for the Kenai Peninsula). This is a really cool site. Another is on wunderground.com. On this weather page, type in your city or zip code, then on its weather forecast, scroll down to "star chart."

Another good interactive chart is at www.astro.wisc.edu/~dolan/constellations/java/Leo.html. And telescope.com features a monthly star chart for the northern hemisphere. Still, the best charts are printed in the monthly Sky and Telescope and Astronomy magazines, available at various department stores and libraries on the Kenai.

To observe satellites, go to heavens-above.com, which features the ISS (International Space Station), Iridium flares (satellites owned by the cellphone company of the same name) and Hubble Space Telescope, plus many others. Iridium flares can be quite spectacular as these satellites reflect our sun's light effectively, thus brightening enormously for a few seconds.

To follow the trajectories on your computer screen of some of the same astronomical space telescopes -- (HST, Chandra [X-ray observatory], COBE [Cosmic Background Explorer], UARS [Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite]), the ISS and a space shuttle when it's space borne -- go to liftoff.msfc.nasa.gov/RealTime/JTrack/Spacecraft.html (a search for "jtrack" on google.com is quicker).

Most satellites are in low orbit and thus enter Earth's shadow readily. Look for satellites up to two hours after dusk and before dawn.

The Web site spaceweather.com tells you about current solar activity, aurorae and meteor showers in a nonscientific jargon and newspaper style. I use this as my home page in MS Explorer. They also post amateur photos of interesting sunsets, aurora displays and meteor showers.

For good viewing conditions, check the Weather Channel's weather.com, wunderground.com and the Clarion.

How does our sun look today? Check sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov for visible light, ultraviolet, magnetic and corona images. I have their screensaver permanently on my computer. It shows images that are just a few hours old. Once in a while one sees a planet go by, a comet plunging into our sun (showing as short streaks compared to point like stars), and Comet Kudo-Fujikawa just flew by at the end of January.

Looking at our sun on a computer screen is the only safe method I can advise without damaging one's eyesight, but I will expand on safe observations during my May article, which will feature the May 30-31 partial eclipse.

For the latest Hubble Space Telescope images, check www.-stsci.edu. Due to newly developed adaptive optics techniques, ground-based telescopes such as Keck and Subaru at naoj.org, rival HST's images.

To be prepared for the next show of the aurora borealis, subscribe to Charles Deehr's UAF listserv via gi.alaska.edu. It features a daily map of Alaska indicating where the aurora may be visible. Or go to Brian Rachford's listserv via origins.colorado.edu/~rachford/aurora.html.

All of these listed here are user friendly. It's easy to find what you're looking for and easy to figure out where to enter variables such as one's location.

The sights in the sky are similar to last month's, so I'm reproducing the same image in this month's graphic. However, magazines do feature the best charts.

And, yes, for the umpteenth time, the bright light in the morning in the southeast is Venus. But did you notice red Mars close by? Jupiter in the west? Jupiter and Saturn in the evening's eastern sky? Also, the zodiacal light is visible during the last two weeks of February. A short explanation can be found at the "Earth and Sky" radio show's earthsky.com/2000/es000327.html.

Andy Veh is the physics and astronomy instructor at Kenai Peninsula College. This column will appear on the first Sunday of each month. He can be reached at aveh@uaa.alaska.edu.



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