Amazing Orion….. and more!
February is always a great month for Skygazing. The cold air makes for a clear atmosphere and there are many interesting astronomical objects than can be easily seen. So pick out a clear evening that doesn’t have a bright moon and allow your senses to enjoy the following sights.
Start, by looking high in the southern sky and find the magnificent constellation Orion (The Hunter). He's very easy to spot with his "belt" of three bright stars. (Use the chart to follow along.) Once you’ve found Orion's belt, look up to the next brightest star. If you look carefully, it should look like it has a reddish or pink color. That's because it’s a red giant star called Betelgeuse. It is so huge that if it were to replace our star (the Sun), it would reach all the way to the orbit of Jupiter! Truly a giant star.
Now look just under Orion's belt and you should see what looks like 3 stars in a row pointing down and away from his belt. This is referred to as Orion’s "sword". But wait..... look carefully at the middle star... does it seem fuzzy? It should, because it's actually not a star but a very bright nebula - a huge gathering of dust, gases and stars! Look at it with binoculars and you will see it's clearly not a star, but a bright patch of light. This is officially known as The Orion Nebula (M42). Look it up online and see how amazing it is when viewed by a powerful telescope!
Now, draw an imaginary line through Orion's belt stars and extend it to the right toward two bright stars. Just past those stars you will see what looks like a small fuzzy patch.
This is the Pleiades Star Cluster (M45) - a gathering of roughly 1000 stars held together by their gravity. It's easy to find with just your eyes, but it's beautiful to gaze at with binoculars. You will see several bright stars within the cluster, which is why it is also known as "The Seven Sisters".
Let’s go back to the two bright stars you passed when you traced the "line" from Orion’s Belt on the way to the Pleiades.
The first one is Aldebaran (another red giant) in the constellation Taurus. The other one however; is not a star at all, but the planet Jupiter!
If you have access to even a small telescope, it's worthwhile to use it to look at Jupiter. Of Jupiter's amazing 60+ moons, four of them are very large and can be seen with a small telescope. Try it if you can. Observe Jupiter on different nights and you will see how the moons have changed position as they orbit Jupiter. It’s fascinating to watch something that's 400 million miles away. It certainly amazed Galileo when he first observed it in 1609!
These are just some of the sights you can see in the February sky. For more information, visit these web sites.
If you have any questions, please email me at Paul@AstronomyNJ.com.
Next Month: A Spring Comet ?