February 2003 Sky from the Keeble Observatory
As this is written, the world is just beginning to digest the awful news of the
breakup of the Space Shuttle Columbia. The oldest and heaviest of the shuttle orbiters,
Columbia was not the most launched of the fleet. It recently underwent an 18-month
refit and upgrade, and performed flawlessly on its previous mission to service the
Hubble Space Telescope. It was deemed space worthy, but there have been troubling
suspicions raised about possible damage to the heat-protective tiles on the left
wing, occurring about a minute and a half into the flight on January 16th. Telemetry
showed a rise in temperature on the left wing and the left side of the fuselage
a few minutes before the craft disintegrated at 200 thousand feet altitude, traveling
at nearly 18 times the speed of sound. The onboard computer was attempting to compensate
for increased aerodynamic drag on that side of the orbiter. Several investigations
are underway to determine the precise cause . we'll have more to say when their
work is completed.
Lunar phases for February: New Moon on the 2nd, and 5:24 pm; First Quarter on the
10th, at 8:16 am; Full Moon at 5:48 pm on the 18th, and Last Quarter at 3:34 am
on the 25th.
Early risers will still find Venus to the southeast, appearing as the brightest
star in the sky. Mercury will also put in a predawn appearance as a morning star
at the end of the month as it passes to the west of the Sun. It will be low on the
horizon, about halfway between the Sun and Venus, and probably will not be easy
to see unless you have access to an uncluttered horizon and a complete absence of
low haze. Mars is just to the right of Venus, appearing a dull red in contrast to
the brilliance of Venus.
Evening planet watchers will be treated to nearly all-night view of Jupiter and
Saturn. About two hours after sunset, Saturn will be almost overhead, with Jupiter
about 45 degrees off the eastern horizon. Binoculars or a small telescope should
give a good view of Saturn's rings, and of Jupiter's four largest satellites. Watching
from night to night, you'll see those Galilean moons shift positions relative to
the planet, confirming Galileo's notion that they were orbiting Jupiter and not
moving around the Earth.
About two hours after sunset, the constellation Auriga is almost directly at zenith,
with its two brightest stars (Capella to the north, Elnath to the south) aligned
with Saturn, which is nestled this month between the horns of Taurus. Orion is to
the south, with its distinctive belt of three stars dividing a deformed rectangle
of bright stars. Below the belt is the hazy spot of the Orion Nebula, revealed in
a small telescope as a vast cloud of gas and dust, illuminated by the emerging young
cluster known as the Trapezium. Sirius, to the southeast, rivals the brightness
of Venus. High above the eastern horizon, we find the bright twins, Castor and Pollux,
in the constellation Gemini. That bright star just above the eastern horizon is
Regulus, the heart of the Lion in the constellation Leo. The Milky Way divides the
sky from southeast to northwest. Sweeping along this hazy band with a pair of binoculars
reveals myriad faint stars, which so astonished Galileo when he first turned his
telescope on the sky.
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.