Let’s assume that, like most people, you don’t know the constellations. No problem: Just turn to the Moon, which this weekend displays its gibbous phase. This football shape allows lunar mountains and craters to be optimally illuminated. Point any small telescope or even steadily braced binoculars its way (or those yummy-if-pricey Canon image-stabilized models) and you’ll be surprised at how much gorgeous detail you see on its surface.
On Saturday night the Moon hovers next to a fairly bright orange star. This is Aldebaran, the “alpha” luminary in Taurus the Bull. Since normal reddish stars are so faint that they’re always invisible to the unaided eye, Aldebaran must be a giant. Even at its distance of 64 light-years, it stands out. Its mellifluous name, whose accent is on the second syllable, is Arabic for “the follower,” because Aldebaran follows the famous Pleiades or Seven Sisters star cluster across the night sky.
Two nights later, the Moon once again acts as guide – this time as it hovers beneath dazzling Jupiter. These are the brightest objects in the February heavens, so this is astronomy made simple. Thus, this Monday night we get a lovely pairing of the largest planet and nearest celestial neighbor.
One more worthy sky sight? Any night during the next week, if you happen to be awake at midnight, look toward the east. Lowish but standout-obvious are two side-by-side stars. The luminary on the left is distinctly orange and a bit brighter than the other. This is Mars. It is brightening explosively ahead of its close encounter with Earth on April 8.
The star on the right is distinctly blue: This is Spica, Virgo’s main star. What a gorgeous color contrast between these two! Spica happens to be the bluest first-magnitude star. It boasts the look-at-me combination of fierce temperature, large diameter and very high luminosity that allows it to shine brightly despite its 260 light-year distance. It lies 16 million times farther from us than Mars this week.
February 2014 stargazing: very much worth a look – and we didn’t even bring up Orion, this month’s dominant constellation. The ancient Hunter gets enough cold-weather attention over the centuries; this week, let him share the heavens.
Want to know more? To read Bob Berman’s previous “Night Sky” columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com.