In February, we have two brilliant planets to entertain us in the evening skies and a surprise celestial visitor (comet Lulin) swinging in the pre-dawn skies.
As the evenings are getting warmer, February is a great time for the amateur astronomer. Granted, the western sky is kind of dull. Fomalhaut, the brightest star near the southwest horizon, sets about an hour after the Sun. Most of the Great Summer Triangle has already set with the Sun but Deneb gives a bit of a show before dipping below the horizon.
However, there are many bright stars in the east and they will be visible until dawn. In the evening, at about 8.30 PM, you can see the Orion with three stars in its belt. Around Orion, you can easily identify the six brightest stars that belong to the so called 'Winter Hexagon'. The bright star to the south east of Orion the Hunter is the Dog star Sirius, the brightest star in our night sky. In fact this star is 25 times brighter than our Sun.
Upon closer observation, you will see that the hunter and his dogs seem to be chasing the Bull, Taurus, which is just to the west of them. The Bull's right eye contains the bright red-orange star Aldebaran, another member of the Winter-Hexagon. Notice that the three stars in Orion's belt point northwest to Aldebaran. The Bull's face and horns form a distinctive 'V' shaped pattern.
Comet Lulin, discovered in July 2007, should be the highlight of this season. It's predicted to reach about fifth magnitude in late February, so it should be easily seen through binoculars. It may even become detectable with the unaided eye in a dark, moonless sky. Both professional and amateur astronomers have been tracking this unusual comet. Its most interesting characteristic is that it is actually moving in the opposite direction to the planets. As it moves to its closest approach to Earth on 24 February, Lulin is expected to brighten to be visibile to the naked eye and will be observable low in the sky in an east-southeast direction before dawn.
Mercury is at its greatest separation west from the Sun on 13 February. But it rises only just over an hour before sunrise making the planet almost invisible this month. Venus is still a brilliant 'Evening Star' in the south-western sky at dusk. On the evening of 27 February, the narrow crescent Moon will appear directly below Venus, both fitting nicely into the same field of view through binoculars.
Mars is rising only a few minutes before sunrise and we won't be getting good views of the Red Planet until after the summer. Jupiter, like Mars, rises less than an hour before the Sun this month. This giant planet won't be easily observable until after the summer. Saturn is rising in the middle of the evening, and it's well up in the southern sky by dawn. Many of Saturn's moons can also be seen in the telescope including the largest and brightest saturnian moon Titan. On the evening of 11 February, the gibbous Moon will appear directly below Saturn, just a few degrees away.
As the international year of astronomy (IYA 2009) is being celebrated throughout the world, don't miss participating in some of its corner-stone projects, especially the global star party http://www.100hoursofastronomy.org/
Wishing you clear skies and great stargazing in February!