Popular Astronomy

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What's Up for February 2016

The stars are out. It can't be all that hard to learn the sky, can it? But then you get out there and the stars all look, well, starry. So what's the secret? Read on and find out.

But before you do anything these days you have to carry out a Risk Assessment. Being eaten by a ravenous wild animal? Hasn't happened yet. Being scared out of your wits by next door's cat suddenly jumping on you? That's more likely, assuming next door have a cat. Being frozen to the guts? Even more likely this weather, but at least you can do something about that one by putting on two of everything (within reason, of course). 

You will need a star map, and you will need to know how it works. This may seem obvious, but there is a knack to understanding these things. Here's our map for this month:

Whole sky for February 2016

All maps produced using Stellarium software.

Wrong way round?

Now don't write in and tell us that we have the points of the compass all wrong. This is a map of the sky, so it shows what's over your head which reverses all the directions.  If you hold it over your head, east and west will be the right way round. Easy enough with a phone or a tablet, but not recommended with a desktop computer. Maybe that should go in the Risk Assessment as well.

It shows the whole sky, so the scale is quite small. Normally you turn to see different parts of it, so to see the view looking north, for example, hold the map upside down with north at the bottom.

The map shows the sky in mid month at about 7.30 pm, at the start of the month at 8.30 pm, or by the end of the month at 6.30 pm. All times are GMT.

TIP If you aren't sure of the direction of north from your location, click here for a page on Getting Your Bearings.

Find Orion

At this time of year one of the best constellations (star patterns) of all is in the sky – Orion. Look just to the left of your south point and you should spot three stars in a line, with four other stars forming a sort of box around them, as shown on the map below.

Sky for February 2015

Orion has more bright stars than any other constellation, so it shows up no matter how bad your light pollution is. You can't mistake it for anything else in the sky. As well as the three stars in a line there are two brighter stars, called Betelgeuse and Rigel, at top left and bottom right.

The three stars in a line are known as Orion's Belt. Orion is meant to represent a hunter, usually facing westwards towards Taurus, the Bull. Dangling from his belt is a sword, which is the line of fainter stars just below the belt where the map is marked M42.

You can follow the Belt stars up and to the right (the west) to the bright star Aldebaran, in Taurus, and beyond that to the best star cluster in the sky, the Pleiades (pronounced Ply-a-deez). Then following the Belt stars down and to the left you get to Sirius, in the constellation of Canis Major, the Greater Dog. Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky (note: smart-alecs love to point out that the brightest star in the sky is the Sun so you always have to be vary careful to say the night sky to avoid giving them the satisfaction of doing so).

Other constellations to look for

Also look out for Auriga, some distance directly above Orion. Its brightest star, Capella, is almost overhead from the UK at this time of year. There is a little group of three fainter stars just to one side of it. There are four other stars in a big pentagon making up the rest of the constellation.

Above and to the left of Sirius is Procyon, then high up above Procyon is a pair of stars called Castor and Pollux. When you have stopped sniggering, we will just say that these are the main stars of Gemini, the Twins. Click to find out more about these stars and the constellation.

For a star map that shows all the constellations and their names, click here.

This month's bright planets

This is simple. There aren't any, at least not at the time that the map is for. But a bit later in the evening you'll see a bright star over in the eastern sky which is Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system. Next month it will be rising earlier and will be at its closest to us for the year. Then during the spring and summer it will a good object to spot in the early evening, though slightly farther away. It's worth looking at it through binoculars, as you should see three or four of its moons like tiny stars on either side of it. With a telescope you can see a couple of its dark equatorial belts as well.

The other planets are in the early morning sky, though Venus is getting rather low now. Mars and Saturn are well up in the eastern sky before dawn, though.

What about the Moon, then?

It begins the month around last quarter, which is on the 1st. That's when the Moon is only in the morning sky, so it's not visible in the evening sky, and then we have new Moon on the 8th, when it's in the same part of sky as the Sun and isn't visible. But if you have a really clear sky on the 9th, try looking out for a really thin crescent Moon in the western sky about 45 minutes after sunset, which means about 5.45 pm, though times vary around the country. First quarter – that's a half Moon – is on the 15th and then full Moon this month is on the 22nd.

We have a whole section of this site about the Moon and what to observe.

Get more helpful info

OK, you've read all this for nothing, now comes the plug. This page is brought to you by the Society for Popular Astronomy, which is a really great society to join. It's based in the UK but there are members in other countries as well. It doesn't cost much to join, and there is a special rate for Young Stargazers. At least take a look at what we have to offer

Text by Robin Scagell