I love February. It is the start of the Milky Way season when the Southern Cross rises earlier each night. It also means that the galaxy centre becomes more and more visible!
This month we will consider the constellation of Gemini the Twins. This is another of the traditional 48 constellations derived from Greek mythology like Orion. However, because it is also on the ecliptic, it is also a sign of the Zodiac. The ecliptic is the apparent path that the Sun, Moon and planets seem to follow across the sky throughout the year. Did you know that of the three none naked-eye planets (Uranus, Neptune and Pluto), two were discovered while they were in Gemini?. In 1781, William Herschel discovered Uranus, the first planet to be found using a telescope while it was in Gemini. Then in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh found Pluto (now a dwarf planet) photographically while it was also in the constellation of the twins.
The mythical twins of Gemini were called Castor and Pollux, which are the names given to the two brightest stars in the constellation. They also mark the position of the heads of each twin.
Many Australian Indigenous groups also view these stars as brothers. In the Wergaia traditions of western Victoria, they are the brothers Yuree and Wanjel. Yurree and Wanjel. Yurree is the fan-tailed cuckoo, and Wanjel is the long-necked tortoise. These hunters pursue and kill the kangaroo Purra. In eastern Tasmania, the constellation Gemini represents two ancestor men who created fire, walking on the road of the Milky Way – similar in orientation to the Greek constellation.
The Moon this Month
(All times are in Australian Eastern Daylight Time)
- New Moon: 4:49 pm February 1st
- First Quarter: 12:50am February 9th
- Full Moon: 03:56 am February 17th
- Last quarter Moon: 09:32 am February 24th
On the 11th, at about 1pm, the Moon will be at its furthest point or apogee when it is 404,897km away. While on the 27th at 8am AEDT, the Moon will be at perigee – the closest it comes to Earth – being a mere 367,789 km away from us.
Planets in February
Start watching on the mornings of February 11 to 16, 2022, to see all the rocky inner planets in our solar system – Mercury, Venus, Mars (and Earth beneath your feet). Look in the sunrise direction as dawn is beginning to break.
- Mercury returned to the eastern morning sky in late January. It now will ascend towards its greatest elongation 26° west of the Sun on the 17th. Mid-February to early March marks the best period this year for observing Mercury in the morning sky. It then commences to sink back towards the Sun, it finishes the month 4° above Saturn. Stay tuned for an even closer rendezvous early in March. After February 16, the bright morning twilight quickly overpowers Mercury’s diminishing light.
- Venus is now rising in the early morning in the constellation of Sagittarius. In early February 2022, you’ll easily spot Venus near the sunrise. It is very bright! It is sharing the constellation with the red planet Mars, and by the end of the month, the two planets will be only about 5° apart. Venus reaches its greatest brilliancy on the 13th at – 4.8 magnitude. This is known as its greatest illuminated extent. This occurs when the planet’s bright portion or dayside covers the greatest amount of sky. At this time, if we were to look through binoculars or a small telescope, we would see Venus like a small crescent or similar to the three- -day old Moon.
Be careful using binoculars when looking at the planets after twilight due to their close proximity to the Sun. Do not try if the Sun has already risen or is in the process of rising.
- Mars was not visible as it travelled behind the Sun as seen from the Earth. By late December 2021, Mars was just visible, with difficulty, before the Sun came up. Throughout January, it was similar. It has been seen very low in the East before sunrise, but only with some difficulty. But Mars grows slowly in brightness throughout February, as it very slowly climbs out of the sunrise. Mars spends February 2022 perched directly south of brilliant Venus. Mars will be between Venus and the pretty crescent moon on February 27. These early-morning sightings – so near the Sun – can be tricky. If you look too early, Mars won’t have risen yet. If you look too late, bright twilight will drown Mars from view.
- Jupiter may be glimpsed early in the month low in the early western evening twilight. It then becomes too close to the Sun for observation and reappears in the morning sky in mid-March.
- Saturn returns to the morning eastern twilight at the end of the month after solar conjunction on the 5th. The planet is in Capricornus and remains in this constellation throughout the year. On the 28th, Saturn and Mercury appear 4° apart, and in early March, the pair get even closer.
- Uranus in Aries appears low in the early north-western evening sky after astronomical twilight. The planet remains in the constellation of the Ram until moving into Taurus in 2024. Do not confuse the nearby star, 29 Arietis, with Uranus as both are very close in magnitude. On February 7th, the day before the Moon reaches the first quarter, it will lie directly east of Uranus,
- Neptune is lost in the evening twilight as it is nearing conjunction with the Sun in mid-March.
Alpha Centaurids, one of the major Southern Hemisphere meteor showers,is visible from January 28 to February 21. The meteor shower originates from dust grains ejected from an unknown comet. These tiny dust grains (meteoroids) are distributed along the parent comet’s orbit, concentrated close to the comet nucleus with fewer grains farther away from the nucleus. The peak occurs overnight on February 8/9th. Although this shower does not produce a lot of meteors – it often has some nice bright fireballs. The predicted rate is about 8 an hour but can reach 25. The shower is known for its bright yellow and blue coloured fireballs that frequently reach negative magnitude. The Alpha-Centaurids are well known for their long-lasting trains that vary from seconds to several minutes. Since the radiant is above the horizon all night and their activity is spread over such abroad period, observers are sure to catch the odd meteor at any time. However, the Moon will be an issue early in the night as it does not set until after midnight local time.
Sky Views for February
Object of the Month – Pleiades
At about 9 pm AEDT on mid-February evenings, the Pleiades open star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters, is well above the horizon in the Northern sky. The rest of its home constellation Taurus, the Bull, sits to the East of the cluster.
Visually, the cluster is composed of medium-bright, hot blue stars named Asterope, Merope, Electra, Maia, Taygeta, Celaeno, and Alcyone. In Greek mythology, those characters were the daughters of Atlas and half-sisters of the Hyades. They are indeed related — recently born of the same primordial gas cloud. Only six sister stars are usually apparent; their parents, Atlas and Pleione, are huddled together at the east end of the grouping. Many more stars are visible through binoculars, and over a hundred stars may be seen through a telescope.
Many cultures, including the Australian Indigenous people, have stories and interpretations of this lovely star cluster. It was significant that the ‘Dance of the Pleiades’ was performed by Pitjantjatjara Aboriginal women from the Central Desert at the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in September 2000. However, when you are out camping in the bush in Australia, you know that the Pleiades women have visited your camp when you wake up with a freezing nose and the canvas of your tent or swag covered in icy white crystals. The Pleiades women first appear in the southern hemisphere in the early morning and flamboyantly sweep across the sky, excreting frost.
In Japan, it is called Subaru and forms the logo of that particular car brand.
Due to its similar shape, the Pleiades are sometimes confused with the Little Dipper.
Binocular challenges for this month.
Grab your binoculars, and if you have a stargazing app on your phone, head outside try for these objects in the evening sky.
Now the Milky Way is rising, there are some great opportunities to check it out in the binoculars. You can easily see the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds if you have dark enough skies. These are the 2 satellite galaxies orbiting the Milky Way in the Southern Sky early in the night. They look like 2 faint clouds to the west and above the Southern Cross.
Look above the Southern Cross into the Milky Way and check out as many ‘fuzzy’ patches as you can – it is a minefield of clusters and interesting binocular objects!
Clear skies until next month! Stay up to date on my Facebook page.
Donna ‘the Astronomer’