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Star Charts

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February 2018

After Sunset

Low in the west just a couple hours after sunset is the Great Square of Pegasus. The square marks the body of Pegasus the Flying Horse. The corner of the square lying opposite the horse’s head is called Alpheratz, “the navel of the mare”. Alpheratz istelf actually belongs to the constellation Andromeda the Princess.

Under ark skies, look for M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy. Try binoculars if you can’t see it with your unaided eyes. That faint smudge in the sky is a massive galaxy composed of hundreds of billions of stars, two million light years away from us.

We can use the stars of the Big Dipper to help us find Polaris, the North Star. The Big Dipper starts the evening low in the northwest, but will be high enough to easily see by 8 or 9 pm. Use the two stars at the end of the bowl of the Dipper to point you to Polaris. When you face Polaris, you’re facing due north.

Polaris is not a particularly bright star, but it does remain fixed in the sky throughout the night and throughout the year. When you face the North Star, you’re facing due north. Polaris is at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. This group of stars is officially known as Ursa Minor the Little Bear.

While you’re facing north, look for a group of five stars known as Cassiopeia the Queen. This group of stars can also help you find the North Star. The central peak of Cassiopeia’s W-shape also points you in the direction of Polaris.

High in the south you can find the bright stars of the winter evening sky. The most famous and easily found constellation is Orion the Hunter. Look for the three stars in a straight line that mark his belt, the two stars that mark his shoulders, and the two stars of his feet. Betelgeuse, one of his shoulder stars, is distinctly red in color. Learn to find Orion, and he can direct you to many other sights of the winter sky.

Follow the belt down and to the left for the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, in Canis Major the Big Dog. Follow the belt stars up and to the right to find orange star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull. Look just past Aldebaran and you may see a grouping of stars called M-45, or the Pleiades Star Cluster. While your eyes alone may just see six or seven stars in this cluster, a pair of binoculars will reveal dozens of stars.

Look below Orion’s belt to find M-42, the Great Orion Nebula. This faint patch of light is a massive star-forming cloud of gas and dust over one thousand light years away. Take a look through steady binoculars or a small telescope to see a little more detail.

Draw a line from Orion’s blue-colored foot Rigel up through Betelgeuse, and keep on going until you run into Gemini the Twins. The bright stars Castor and Pollux mark the heads of the twins. Under dark skies you may just be able to pick out two stick-figure bodies leading back towards Orion.

Skywatchers under exceptionally dark skies on moonless nights may see the Milky Way stretching from the southeast to the northwest, passing high above through Cassiopeia.

Stay Up Late

After 9 pm, look high in the east for the famous springtime constellation Leo the Lion. Look between Leo and Gemini to find... nothing? Unless you have particularly dark skies away from city lights you won’t see the famous but faint constellation Cancer the Crab. If you do have dark skies, look for M-44, the Beehive Cluster near the center of Cancer. It’s another great binocular target.

As midnight approaches, Cancer and Leo are nearly directly overhead. Ursa Major the Great Bear is high up too. The Big Dipper is not itself an official constellation, but just a part of Ursa Major.

A Look Ahead

As Earth orbits the Sun throughout the year, the constellations rise and set just a little bit earlier every day. You won’t see much difference from night to night, but you will over the course of weeks or months. What we see in today’s pre-dawn sky is a preview of the early evening sky in later months. Go out before dawn this month for a look ahead at the late spring evening sky.

Rising in the southeast in the wee hours after midnight are red planet Mars and brilliant Jupiter. They will be high in the south just before sunrise. Look for the Moon near the two planets on the 7th, 8th, and 9th. Mars will appear close to its rival Antares in Scorpius the Scorpion. Antares is a red supergiant star, its brightness and color led to its ancient name: it’s “anti-Ares.” Ares is the Greek name for the Roman god Mars.

Mars is heading towards a close approach with Earth this summer. It will gradually get brighter, reaching maximum brightness around the end of July. By that time it will be in our evening skies, just rising as the Sun sets. It will be close enough that small telescopes may be able to reveal usually hard-to-see surface features like the polar ice caps.

800 Fort Negley Blvd. Nashville, TN 37203
615-862-5160
Hours: 10:00am - 5:00pm
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