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Astronomy Know How
Helping you See the Night Sky - Newsletter No. 40 February 2010
In this issue:
  1. February's Highlights
  2. Mars Still Looking Good
  3. Pleiades Occultation
  4. Venus, Jupiter and Moon in Conjunction
  5. Deep Sky Highlights of February
  6. News Links
  7. Become a confident Astronomer
  8. Are you interested in Imaging?
  9. Contact Us
February's Highlights

February brings us lots of interesting sights in the night sky.

On the 11th and 12th of the month the Moon and Mercury will perform a lovely dance. You have to stay up late or get up early to catch it though as on the 11th a thin crescent Moon will help you pinpoint elusive Mercury low down on the eastern horizon just before dawn. At 07:00 GMT you should be able to spot Mercury east and slightly lower in the sky than the Moon. If you still have trouble, then try again the next morning at the same time when the Moon will be an even thinner crescent and now just to the east and slightly above Mercury. I do stress that you will need a clear view of the horizon and clear skies as well! Good luck.

Mars is just past opposition and is still a lovely sight. More on this below.

Also on the 11th you can get a view of two of Saturn's moon in close proximity. Titan and Rhea can been seen on the western side of the planet. Titan is the brighter of the two and you will need a telescope with a medium power eyepiece for the best view. The two moons closest approach will be around 23:00 GMT

The 20th of the Month is a good time to see Asteroid 'Vesta'. This is the fourth Asteroid to be discovered and you can see it in the constellation of Leo. You shold be able to spot it in binoculars just to the west of the star Algieba in the 'sickle' asterism of Leo. It will just look like a star though, so if you wan to be sure that you've seen the Asteroid, you will need to observe it over a few nights to see which star appears to move. Drawing or photgraphing the field can help here, and if you spot a 'wandering' star, you've seen Vesta.

February 21st is a date for your diary, because this evening sees the gorgeous sight of the Moon occulting the fainter stars of the beautiful star cluster of the Pleiades. More about this below too.
Mars Still Looking Good

If you haven't yet had a good look at Mars, now's your chance.

Mars is just past opposition, that is, it is when it is exactly opposite the Sun in the sky from our viewpoint here on planet Earth. Thi sis always a good time to view planets and Mars is no exception.

You can find the planet in the constellation of Cancer, just to the east of the famous 'beehive cluster' or M44. This lovely cluster is in itself well worth spending some time on, but don't let it take too much of your time, because Mars will not be this good for much longer as by the end of the month, it will be noticeably fainter and it will be shrinking in size as our orbit takes us away from it.

You'll need a telescope and a fairly high power eyepiece for the best views; a red or orange filter can help improve the contrast as well, to enhance any features. See if you can spot the bright polar cap and some of the darker marking on the planet's surface. The planet always seems to be small in the eyepiece - well it is a long way away!- so give yourself time to study it carefully as concentration will help you to see any subtle features that might be there.

Pleiades Occultation

Set aside some time on the evening of the 21st and hope for a clear sky, because that's when we will have a treat to view.

Around 18:50UT (same as GMT) the Moon will begin to occult some of the fainter stars in the lower half of the Pleiades star cluster or M45. The Moon will be close to first quarter (showing a half illumination) and the dark 'half' of the Moon will appear to extinguish a chain of stars in the cluster one by one. They will then start to reappear from the brightly illuminated side around 50 minutes later.

It is best to start observing early, so go outside around 18:30 so that you have plenty of time to prepare for the display. Binoculars will show the event well, as will a small telescope with a low power eyepiece, choose one that will give you around 30 - 50x megnification. There will be some 'grazing' occultation to be seen from various locations as well. This is where the stars graze the outer edges of the Moon and can seem to wink on and off as they disappear then reappear again behind the Lunar mountains and valleys. Enjoy the show!

Venus, Jupiter and the Moon in Conjunction

Don't miss the the spectacular conjunction of Venus and JUpiter on the 16th.

A conjunction is when two or more celestial objects appear to be close together in the sky and this is going to happen to Venus and Jupiter and also the Moon as it joins these two planets in a superb sight.

You can start observing once the Sun has set around 17:30 GMT and look low down in the west. You'll need a clear horizon and a clear sky! Venus will be bright and you'll probably spot this first. Jupiter will be just above and slightly to the west of Venus. The Moon will be a thin crescent further up and to the east.

You can take a look on the evening before (15th) as the Moon will be even closer to the pair and showing an even thinner crescent, but Venus and Jupiter themselves will be at their closest on the 16th. They will be just 1.5-degrees apart and this will make a lovely sight and a great photo opportunity. So have a go and see if you can spot this lovely celestial meeting.
Deep Sky Highlights of February

February is often a good month for deep sky observing as the nights are still relatively long and the weather can improve over that in January.

If you like looking at star clusters, another one not to miss is M35 in Gemini. You can find this just near the left foot of the twin Castor (not the star, the other end of the constellation), the higher of the twins. It too is a lovely sight in binoculars and a small telescope with a medium power should resolve most of the stars in the cluster.

If you look north towards Ursa Major, there are several interesting galaxies in this region that are worth a visit with practically any size of telescope.

A challenge for small telescopes is M108 just below and to the left of the star Merak or beta Ursa Majoris. This is a spiral galaxy that will appear as a faint smudge of light is small scopes on a Moonless night from a reasonably dark sky site. Nearby, again slightly below M108 is M97 - The Owl Nebula. You will need a large aperture telescope to make out the two dark areas in the nebula that give it its name, but even a 100mm refrator should show this up as another faint smudge of light.

An easier pair of galaxies are M81 and M82. You can find these by drawing an imaginary line from Phecda (Gamma Ursa Majoris) and Dubhe (Alpha Ursa Majoris) and continued about the same distance again as between the two stars. M81 and M82 lay quite close together. M81 is a beautiful spiral galaxy known as 'Bode's' galaxy and M82 is an edge on irregular galaxy known as the 'Cigar' galaxy, for reasons that will become obvious when you spot it.
  Here are some links to some other recent news stories that I thought you would find interesting...

TV Star!

I recently appeared in a TV show for the Sky Information Channel, called 'Stargazer'. The first half of the programme is a brief biography of yours truly and later in the show you can see me explaining how to set up a small reflector telescope. I also present two other scopes that I took along to the studios, to show the type of equipment now available to modern amateur astronomers, such as yourself. The programme runs for 30 minutes and you can now view it on our website by
clicking here so do take a look if you have the time and let me know if you think I should have a series (wink!)

James Webb Space Telescope's First Primary Mirror Segment Meets Flight Specifications, Achieves Significant Milestone
The first primary mirror segment of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has met flight specifications at ambient temperatures, the result of a process that has been six years in the making. more...

As more planets emerge, astronomers are confident they'll find one like Earth
Astronomers say it's increasingly obvious that the galaxy is lousy with planets. more...

Herschel space telescope restored to full health
Europe's billion-euro Herschel Space Telescope is fully operational again after engineers brought its damaged instrument back online. more...

Astronomers detect earliest galaxies
Astronomers, using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, have broken the distance limit for galaxies by uncovering a primordial population of compact and ultra-blue galaxies that have never been seen before. more...

Goldilocks of space telescopes finds first five planets
This week NASA announced that $591 million Kepler mission found the first five planets since it was launched into orbit last March. more...

  Do you want to learn more about the night sky and how to use telescopes and binoculars to see it better?..

My online course gives you all the essential information to be a good astronomer, without lots of jargon or difficult maths. You'll get loads of free bonuses and it also has videos and animations to help make the explanations clear and concise. So if you want to know what Sir Patrick wished for...

...please take a look at my eCourse called
'Basic Astronomy with a Telescope'. It's what Sir Patrick wished he'd had when he started out in astronomy!

  Are you interested in Imaging?

You can learn how to take stunning images of the night sky with your digital slr camera that will amaze your friends and family with the eBook
DSLR Astrophotography - A Beginners Guide which I co-wrote with my friend Jon Walton...

To contact us

You can telephone me on +44(0)208 144 1091

or contact me by email

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