BACKYARD STARGAZER: What to see in February’s cold, clear nights

By Francis Parnell

It’s February, time to do some stargazing and look forward to spring! If you were up early enough today, on the 3rd just before dawn, you might have looked high in the south-southwest before the Sun rose to see the waning gibbous Moon about 6.5 degrees from Spica, Virgo’s brightest star. Spica is 250 light-years away, 2,300 times the Sun’s luminosity, and is actually two stars in a very close binary system. Looking south-southeast 45 minutes before sunrise on the 6th, the 30 percent illuminated waning lunar crescent is 4.5 degrees upper left of Antares, the red supergiant star that’s the Heart of Scorpius. At 764 million miles in diameter, Antares, if placed at the center of the solar system, would reach between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter! High in the southwest at dusk on the 18th, find a fat crescent Moon with red Mars 3.5 degrees above it. They’ll sink westward and set around midnight. On the 19th, spot a neat open cluster of stars called the Pleiades about 8 degrees upper right of the 1st quarter Moon. The cluster is 446 light-years away. Binoculars give a nice view. After sunset on the 23rd, the waxing gibbous Moon is about 4 degrees below Pollux in Gemini. About 6 degrees upper right of Pollux is Castor, the other Gemini twin. Full Moon is on the 27th. For hundreds of years, Native Americans in the northeast and midwest have called the February full Moon the “Snow Moon.” That’s because the heaviest snows usually fall this month. Hunting was difficult, and to some tribes it was the Full Hunger Moon. FAST FACT: At a distance of 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way, the Sun speeds along at 514,489 mph and takes about 230 million years to complete one orbit of our galaxy. Continue staying safe and “Keep looking up!”

Author: Rachel Howell

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