What’s Up This Month – February 2009

There’s lots to see this month.  Orion, Auriga, Taurus, and Gemini dominate the northern and parts of the southern sky, while deep-southern stargazers have both Sirius and the second brightest star in the sky, Canopus, almost directly overhead.  But the highlight is a strange new comet that may be visible to the naked eye in dark sky and will certainly present a fine view in binoculars or telescope.

Celestial Events This Month

Comet Lulin. Discovered by Chinese and Taiwanese astronomers, this comet is an odd one.  It moves around the Sun in the opposite direction from the planets, and in a parabolic orbit that suggests this is its first and last visit to the inner solar system.  It’s not expected to be a spectacular naked-eye comet, but it may be visible without optics in dark sky in mid-to-late February.  But remember… comets are unpredictable.  It could flare up and put on a better show than predicted.

Early in the month, the comet moves quickly through Libra, rising around midnight.  Then it moves westward, brightening towards mid-month and moving into Virgo and Leo.  On the 24th, Lulin passes a couple of degrees south of Saturn; on the 28th, it’s less than 1 degree from Regulus.  The comet is moving quickly across the sky at about 5 degrees per day by months end.  In a telescope, if you look carefully, you’ll see it’s motion over a period of 10 minutes or so.

The comet already has a small tail and anti-tail.

Comet Lulin in mid-to-late February (from Sky and Telescope)

Moon grazes Pleiades. If you need a break from Comet Lulin, take a look at the Moon grazing part of the Pleiades on Feb. 3.  Nice view in binoculars.

Penumbral Eclipse. Observers in western North America can see the Moon pass partly through the edge of Earth’s shadow on Feb. 9.  The northern part of the Moon will appear darkest.

The Planets

Venus. A spectacular sight in the evening sky, Venus lies some 40 degrees above the horizon in northern latitudes, and slightly lower in the southern hemisphere.  In late February, the planet reaches a magnitude of -4.8, bright enough to cast a shadow in extremely dark locations.  In a telescope, Venus appears 1/4 lit, but it’s larger than last month since it lies closer to Earth.  Over the next couple of months, Venus will appear to move towards the Sun again and will lie lower in the sky.

On the late afternoon of Feb. 27, you’ll get a great chance to see Venus in broad daylight.  The planet will lie just off the edge of a fresh crescent Moon.  Find the Moon in the western sky, using binoculars if you have to, and look for Venus just a degree or two to the upper right.   Then lower your binoculars and try to see the planet with your naked eye.

Mercury, Mars, Jupiter. These disparate planets play cat and mouse with each other in the morning sky all month.  Low in the sky on the 17th, Mars and Jupiter are just 0.8 degree from each other, easily visible in a telescope at low power.  On the 23rd, all three planets along with the crescent Moon are visible low in the eastern sky just before sunrise.

Uranus. This gas giant is too close to the Sun to observe.  But it lies at it’s furthest from the Sun– some 1.868 billion miles— on Feb. 27, an event that happens once every 84 years.

Ceres. The largest asteroid (or smallest dwarf planet) Ceres makes its closest approach to Earth for the next 2,000 years.

Sights To See

So much to see, so little time.  In the southern hemisphere, try the fine open star clusters NGC 2516 and IC 2602 in Carina.  The latter is often called the “southern Pleiades” because of its appearance in binoculars or low-power telescope.  Beautiful.

Open clusters NGC 2516 (lower right) and the southern Pleiades (upper left)

We northerners are spoiled for choice.  Last month, I recommended star clusters in Perseus.  Let’s stay in that constellation and enjoy NGC 1579, a lovely emission/reflection nebula often called the “northern Trifid” for its resemblance to M20, the Trifid Nebula in Sagittarius.  It’s a fairly easy target in a 6-8-inch telescope; a UHC filter may help.  Find it at RA4h30m, Dec35d17m.

Icy winter sky
Stargazer dreams of spring. Look-
A ghostly comet!