February 2008 Sky from the Keeble Observatory
Last month we noted that there will be only one more service mission to refurbish
the Hubble Space Telescope. In one of its last missions (the entire fleet is scheduled
for retirement in 2010), space shuttle Atlantis will carry astronauts to a final
rendezvous with the “People’s Telescope” in August.
Here is the current state of the telescope, orbiting some 300 miles overhead, circling
the Earth every 90 minutes:
Here’s what the service team will be doing:
Lunar phases for February: New Moon on the 6th, at 10:44
pm; First Quarter on the 13th, at 10:33 pm; Full Moon on the 20th,
at 10:30 pm; Last Quarter on the 28th, at 9:18 pm.
Full Moon on the 20th will be accompanied by a total lunar eclipse. Unlike
solar eclipses, there is no danger in viewing this with the naked eye. First contact
with the outer part of Earth’s shadow will occur at 7:37 pm, with the Moon fully
in the penumbra at 8:43. The inner part of the shadow (the umbra) will touch the
Moon’s limb at 8:55, and the eclipse will be total from 9:56 to about 10:52. You
will still be able to see the Moon, it should appear a dull red, as light from the
Sun refracts through Earth’s atmosphere to illuminate the full moon with the glow
of sunrise/sunset. The last vestige of penumbral eclipse will end at 1:16 am on
Predawn sky watchers will find Jupiter and Venus to the southeast, rising together
about two hours before sunrise at the beginning of the month. They’ll move at a
shallow angle to the horizon, reaching about 17 degrees altitude by sunrise. They
will be very bright, with only about ½ degree separation – about the width of a
full moon. By the end of February, Venus will be lower and Jupiter higher and to
the south-southeast at dawn. Mercury joins Venus around mid-month, and will be only
a degree away by the end of February. Saturn is to the west at dawn early in the
month, about 15 degrees above the horizon. By month’s end it will set at sunrise.
Regulus, in the constellation Leo, is below and to the right of Saturn.
Mars remains visible most of the night, beginning the month high (about 45 degrees)
above the eastern horizon at sunset. By the end of February you’ll find it even
higher – at almost 70 degrees to the east-southeast. Also by month’s end, Mercury
leaves the evening western sky for the morning eastern sky. Saturn will be rising
about 45 minutes before sunset to the east-northeast.
Our overhead view at mid-month, about two hours after sunset finds the Milky Way
dividing the sky, running from southeast to northwest. Capella, in the constellation
Auriga, is the brightest star near zenith. Toward the eastern horizon we find the
familiar “sickle” of Leo rising – its brightest star is Regulus, seen at this time
above Saturn. Higher and to the right lies the open cluster M44, also known as the
Beehive. This will look like a swarm of bright “no-see-ums” with binoculars, but
it is actually a cluster of stars about 500 light years distant. From the distribution
of stellar colors, we ascertain that this cluster is somewhat older than the Pleiades,
perhaps 400 million years – still much younger than the Sun! Castor and Pollux,
the “twins” in the constellation Gemini lie above Leo.
Orion is to the south-southwest, easily the most recognizable of the winter constellations.
Above and to the right are the Pleiades, a bit closer than the Beehive at 400 light
years, and much younger (“only” 10 million years or so!).
Ursa Major is to the northeast, with the “handle” of the Big Dipper towards the
horizon, and the “pointer stars” at the end of the bowl high above. Follow the line
between these stars north to find Polaris, only about a degree from the true north
celestial pole which lies directly above Earth’s North Pole. Northwest lies Cassiopeia,
now tipped to look like a Greek sigma (S). Follow the line through the bottom two
stars to the left – you’ll find the Andromeda Galaxy.
For your own monthly star chart, you can direct your web browser to
http://www.skymaps.com. You will find extensive descriptions of what's worth
looking for, and you can download and print a single copy for your personal use.