February’s night skies are dominated by the most striking and best known asterism of all, the stars of Orion’s Belt in the constellation Orion the Hunter. Depicted in mythology as he fights off Taurus the Bull (to the upper right), the hunter is also accompanied by his two dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor. As the famous three stars of his belt rest near the celestial equator, Orion can actually be viewed and enjoyed from both hemispheres. For amateur astronomers the jewel of this constellation lies in the sword below the belt. Catalogued as NGC 1976 and more commonly as M42, the Orion Nebula is an awe-inspiring object. The nebula can be seen with the naked eye but really comes into its own when viewed with a small telescope or binoculars. This ghostly looking cloud is called an emission nebula. It is a star-forming region that is one of the brightest nebulae in the entire sky. It is the closest region of massive star formation to Earth. The entire cloud is estimated to be some 42 light years across and 1,500 light years away. Hundreds of suns will be born from this stellar nursery.
For a nice change this month, a predicted comet, Comet Lovejoy (C2014 Q2), is actually living up to our expectations! The comet is now a naked eye treat at about magnitude 3.8, as bright as it should get, it should remain visible throughout the month. It is high in the evening sky for your binoculars or low-power, wide-field telescope to observe. It’s also dimly visible to the unaided eye under dark-sky conditions — if you know exactly where to look! Look on-line for charts showing its night-by-night progress across the sky. The image here was taken locally in mid January.
Jupiter is still very prominent in the night sky. The planet reaches opposition on February 6th at which time earth is directly between Jupiter and the Sun, Jupiter will then be at it’s brightest for 2015. Check it out in the eastern sky. Mars is visible in the early evening this month, look for it as a reddish “star” low in the western sky. On February 20th Mars, Venus and the waxing moon will all lie within 1 degree of one another at dusk.