Star Charts

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Star Charts

February 2020

DOWNLOADABLE STAR CHART

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After Sunset

As soon as the sky begins to darken, look for bright planet Venus high in the west. It’s easily the first point of light you’ll be able to see on a clear night.

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, also known as the North Star. 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. 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. The Big Dipper itself is officially Ursa Major the Great 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.

Stay with Betelgeuse for a moment to witness a bit of a cosmic mystery. It’s a red supergiant star almost 2,000 times the diameter of our own Sun. It’s also a variable star, meaning that it gradually changes its size and brightness over time. Since October of last year it’s decreased in brightness much more than usual. Usually the brightest star in Orion, it’s now fainter than Orion’s other shoulder star, Bellatrix. The difference is noticable to frequent stargazers.

Betelgeuse is also well-known for being close to the end of its life, ready to go supernova. Astronomers estimate that it may have another 100,000 years left. That may seem like a long time to wait, but it’s a blink of an eye in cosmic time.

Although the star’s sudden dimming is intriguing, there’s not much evidence that a big explosion is imminent. It’s more likely that it will be back to normal within a few months. Keep watching!

Learn to find Orion, and he can direct you to many other sights of the winter sky. Follow the belt stars up and to the right to find a “V”-shaped group of stars. At one end of the V-shape is a bright orange-red star called Aldebaran. The rest of the stars are part of a cluster called the Hyades. Aldebaran is not part of the Hyades itself. It just happens to sit in front of the star cluster, lining up in just the right spot. Together, Aldebaran and the Hyades mark the face 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.

Follow Orion’s belt down and to the left for the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, in Canis Major the Big Dog.

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.

Other bright stars to look for are Capella in Auriga the Charioteer, and Procyon in Canis Minor the Small Dog.

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 winter night sky.

Compare the locations of the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia from where you saw them in the early evening. These two star pictures stay on nearly opposite sides of Polaris so that as one is high in the sky, the other dips low to the northern horizon.

Just before dawn, our winter constellations have set in the west. The Big Dipper is now nearly straight overhead. Just below it is famous springtime constellation Leo the Lion.

Look to the southeast to find the red planet Mars rising. It stars the month very close to the red star Antares, in Scorpius the Scorpion. The name Antares literally means “rival of Mars” because the the red color can make the two objects hard to tell apart. A handy trick to help you out: stars twinkle, but planets don’t. Over the month, Mars will drift further from Antares. By the end of the month it will be joined by two more planets, Jupiter and Saturn. Keep watching on into March and April to see Mars closely pass both planets. Look for the Moon and Mars close together on the morning of February 18.

Desktop planetarium software like the free, open-source Stellarium (stellarium.org) can show you more precisely where night sky objects will be on any date and time, and help you plan your observing.

From Dark Skies

Bright outdoor lighting can make it hard to see all but the brightest stars. On a clear night, find a dark spot far away from city lights, give your eyes time to adjust to the dark, and look for even more celestial sights.

Winter evenings are great for spotting the Milky Way, coursing from the south, high overhead through Cassiopeia, and on towards the northwest horizon.

Just beneath the belt of Orion is a faint patch of light that marks the hunter’s sword. This is M-42, the Great Orion Nebula. A small telescope can reveal the overall shape of the nebula. A quartet of young stars near the center are called the Trapezium. These stars formed out of the gas and dust of the nebula.

Don’t have a telescope? Don’t know where to find dark skies? The next free public star parties hosted by the Barnard-Seyfert Astronomical Society are scheduled for Saturday, February 1 from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Shelby Bottoms Nature Center and Saturday February 29 from 7:00pm to 9:00pm at Edwin Warner Park. Come observe the Moon, Venus, star clusters, the Andromeda Galaxy and more, through telescopes provided by BSAS members.

Visit the BSAS web site at bsasnashville.com for details. If the weather is bad, the star party will be canceled. Make sure to check their web site for updates before making the trip to a star party, especially if the weather is iffy. On the BSAS web site you’ll also find driving directions and a list of future events.

 

800 Fort Negley Blvd. Nashville, TN 37203
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