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:
Map 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.|
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.
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 in the evenings. 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.
For a star map that shows all the constellations and their names, click here.
This month’s bright planets
One bright planet dominates the evening sky at the moment – lovely Venus. It’s that really bright object over in the western sky after sunset. Right now it’s coming closer to Earth, and rising higher in the sky as it does so. As you know, it is in an orbit closer to the Sun than Earth, which means that it moves faster than Earth in its orbit. Look at the orbit diagram below and you’ll get the idea. It’s catching Earth up, and is currently well to the left of the Sun, which means that it’s well up in the evening sky. Next month it will be at its greatest separation from the Sun, and after that it gets closer to us but not so far away from the Sun in the sky.
Seen through a telescope at the moment it shows a phase, just like the Moon, but a lot smaller – you’d need a magnification of about 50 to see it well (as in the picture below). During the month the phase gets less, but it won’t appear at half phase until late March. And unlike the Moon, you won’t see any details on Venus, no matter how good your telescope, because it’s completely cloud covered. That’s also why it appears so bright in the sky.
You’ll also notice that Mercury is making its way around its orbit as well. It appears closer to the Sun than Venus does, and will be at its greatest separation, so highest in the evening sky, on 10 February. To spot it, you’ll need to look over to the west-south-west about 40 minutes after sunset, a week or so on either side of 10 February, and you should see Mercury quite close to the horizon. The view below shows the situation on 10 February.
Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are all in the morning sky at the moment, and you’ll need to be up around 6 am to see them, down in the south-east in the morning twilight. The three planets are in line, making a great sight. Mars is the highest, then Jupiter, then Saturn.
What about the Moon, then?
At the very start of the month the Moon is nearly at first quarter (which is a half Moon), which is actually on the 2rd, then full Moon is on the 9th. Last quarter is on the 15th, and the month ends with new Moon on the 23rd. If it’s clear on the 24th take a look low in the south-west about half an hour after sunset and you might spot the very thin crescent Moon. It’ll be easier to see on the 25th, then on the 27th it’s quite close to Venus.
Sorry, no eclipses this month. But we have a whole section of the website devoted to the Moon and its features.
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