The sky guy: Bright stars light up south

Posted: Sunday, February 06, 2005

 

  Graphic courtesy of Andy Veh

Graphic courtesy of Andy Veh

The diagram depicts the sky around 9 p.m. in early February and about 8 p.m. later this month. I outlined a few prominent constellations and labeled the brightest stars.

In the south, find Orion the hunter with red Betelgeuse and blue Rigel and with binoculars the Orion nebula beneath the belt. To its lower left is Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, then Procyon and Castor and Pollux, the twin stars, to its upper left. Finally, the arrow-shaped snout of the bull Taurus with reddish Aldebaran and the star cluster Pleiades are above it (not labeled but easy to find), as well as yellow Capella in its pentagon of Auriga almost overhead.

The visitor among these bright stars of winter is Saturn forming an obtuse triangle with Castor and Pollux. You'll see its rings in a small telescope. The space probe Cassini arrived there last year and its companion Huygens plunged into the atmosphere of its moon Titan just three weeks ago. For images and scientific results of this mission, I refer to the Web site http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/ home/index.cfm.

Other bright stars visible in the night sky include Leo's Regulus in the southeast. The lion appearing in the evening means that spring is right around the corner. There's also the faint constellation of Cancer between Saturn and Regulus which hosts the pretty star cluster Praesepe or Beehive, a nice object to see with binoculars. Skimming the northern horizon, find Arcturus in the northeast as well as Lyra's Vega and Cygnus' Deneb (the Swan or Northern Cross) in the northwest. The latter are part of the summer triangle with Altair, which would complete the triangle but is beneath the horizon. As the name suggests, it's a pattern of stars visible in the summer but in Alaska we're so far north that some constellations like Lyra and Cygnus are visible year around. However, while we're gaining some northern constellations, we're also losing some southern constellations, hence Sirius' Canis Major, the Big Dog, is barely above the southern horizon.

To conclude our meanderings of the sky, find the Great Square of Pegasus in the west, and high in the sky the three circumpolar constellations Ursa Major and Minor — the Big and Little Bear or Big and Little Dipper. In the diagram, Polaris, the star that always stays put, is labeled, as is Cassiopeia, the Queen, visible as a small W.

Again using binoculars, find the double cluster in Perseus just beneath the lower left portion of that W and, if you peruse the sky nearby, you also may find comet Machholz. Their appearances as smudgy objects are really similar, which is why more than 200 years ago the French comet hunter Charles Messier set out to catalog a lot of smudgy objects (such as M45 Pleiades, M44 Beehive, M42 Orion nebula — the Perseus double cluster would have been worthy making the list but Messier just didn't include it), so that they would not be confused with comets.

The winter sky is impressive, especially the southern portion, because of the 25 brightest stars in the entire sky, 13 are visible right now (I didn't label Taurus' Elnath nor Orion's Bellatrix) and another 10 from the next 25 brightest stars which includes Castor and Polaris, as well as some stars from the Big Dipper, Auriga, Gemini, Canis Major and Perseus.

If you're a night owl, wait for Jupiter to rise just before midnight. If you're an early riser, look out for Jupiter as well, by then it's high in the south. Also look for Mars, which rises around 4:30 a.m. in the east.

Although it's cold outside, you may see me occasionally stargazing somewhere, for example, right now I'm offering a casual astronomy class through community schools for another three Tuesdays in February and March with the next meeting Feb. 15. Contact Carmen Triana at 262-6768 if you're interested in joining.

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



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