“What’s Up Tonight?” – February 2009 Planets and a Comet

Be sure to circle February 27 on your calendar

Be sure to circle February 27 on your calendar. In the early evening, earth’s two closest neighbours, the crescent moon and Venus, pair up for a beautiful conjunction. With a little bit of planning you might capture a beautiful landscape or special building in the foreground for a memorable photo. Then use binoculars or a telescope for a close up view of Venus which resembles the moon’s crescent phase. As Venus begins its sprint between the sun and the earth, only a small portion of the planet is illuminated from earth’s perspective. This offers us a beautiful crescent similar to the new moon. In early March you may notice that Venus doesn’t appear as high in the sky as it gets dark. A combination of shorter nights and the planet’s movement between earth and the sun take Venus rapidly out of our evening sky.

The ringed planet, Saturn, rises in the east in the late evening in the constellation, Leo. Saturn saunters slowly around the sun once every 30 years and every 15 years its rings appear “edge on” from earth. If you view Saturn through a telescope on a February evening, it appears mostly as a round ball of light with a line through it. Evenings in the spring will be prime viewing time for Saturn. So where are the other planets? If you rise early on February 22 and 23 you may spot Jupiter, Mercury and Mars clustered together in the pre-dawn eastern sky. A waning crescent moon appears slightly higher and to the south of the planets on the morning of February 22 and slightly lower and to the north of these planets the following morning. Binoculars and a clear view to the eastern horizon will offer a special visual reward to those making the effort to look for these four solar system bodies.

As we soak in the wonders of the universe, it is tempting to think that we can predict most celestial events. But the sudden appearance of a comet such as Comet Holmes in November 2007 or the fireball across Western Canada in November 2008 or the view of a meteorite streaking across the night sky – are all reminders that surprises await those who peer out into the cosmos. This month you should be able to see a comet. Grab the binoculars and look in the area of Saturn on the evening of February 23 for Comet Lulin. You may or may not be able to identify a tail but over a period of several nights, a tail may become more visible. A comet is mostly a large snowball visitor from the outer solar system and its visit to the inner solar system near the sun allows some of the snow to melt and form a tail – one of the most spectacular objects in the night sky.

Be sure to use February evenings to also view some of the winter constellations. Orion, the hunter, dominates the southern skies. If you follow the line of three stars in Orions’s belt down and to the east, you come to the brightest star in our skies, Sirius, which is part of the constellation Canis Major. Each night in February, the hunter (Orion) makes its journey across the night sky, followed faithfully by its companion dog (Canis Major).

We hope you will take advantage of some spectacular views this month to make a personal connection with our beautiful cosmos.

During the International Year of Astronomy, Ken and Bev From will be offering regular public observing nights at their acreage near Didsbury, Alberta. Information on observing nights and links to IYA are available on their website, www.WhatsUpTonight.net.