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February night skies are dominated by “The Winter Hexagon,” the large hexagon-shape formed by the stars (clockwise from top): Capella, Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, and “the twins” Pollux and Castor, with Betelgeuse in the center (see February Sky Map). This month we will explore the constellations of the western-half of the hexagon: Auriga (the sheepherder), Taurus (the bull), Orion (the hunter), and Lepus (the Rabbit). (CLICK HERE FOR PRINTABLE COPY)
Start at the bright star Capella located near your zenith (straight overhead) on February nights. Capella is at the “top” corner of a pentagon of stars that make up constellation Auriga. The Milky Way (The Galactic Equator) runs through the center of the pentagon, making Auriga ripe with open star clusters and nebulae. With binoculars you can easily identify small wispy open clusters M38, M36, and M37 as you pan southward through the constellation. At higher powers with a telescope or camera, these star clusters each suggest their own shapes: M38 looks like a starfish, and M36 resembles a pinwheel. Near M38, you may find the smaller open clusters NGC1907 and 1931, and even try your luck at imaging the nebula IC405 (The Flaming Star).
All these clusters (and every other evening object you see this month) lie in the outskirts of the milky way, opposite the center of the galaxy (which is visible in summer). If the center of the galaxy is Greenville and we are Easley, then Auriga’s clusters are Clemson, Seneca, and Walhalla. (See “The Galactic Outskirts”).
Follow the hexagon south to Aldebaran, the “eye” of the Taurus the Bull. The V-shaped cluster of stars which form the bull’s face is another open star cluster called The Hyades (C41). The V-shape is misleading however; C41 is actually a spherical open cluster containing some 300 stars. And although orange giant star Aldebaran looks to be a part of the cluster, it isn’t even close; it is actually half-way between us and the Hyades.
Taurus also contains the unmistakable “dipper-shaped” open cluster The Pleiades (M45) to the north; and the supernova remnant The Crab Nebula (M1) to the east near Zeta-Tauri, or the tip of the the bull’s “southern horn.”
Moving further south on the hexagon you come to the familiar “hourglass-shaped” Orion. Constellation Orion can actually be used for navigation in the winter, (when the big dipper is too low on the horizon to point the way north). In mid February, when the hourglass appears straight up and down, Orion is due-SOUTH. “Orion’s belt” (or narrow part of the hourglass) is nearly parallel to the earth’s celestial equator; so drawing an imaginary arc from the belt to the horizons on either side of you marks EAST (to your left) and WEST (to your right). Turn around 180 degrees and find the Polaris, marking NORTH.
Orion also contains many famous clusters and nebulae. From top to bottom, look for open cluster NGC2169 (in “Orion’s club”) which looks like the number 37 in a small telescope; two neighboring nebulae M58 and NGC2071 (along the eastern side of Orion near the belt), and the dramatic line of clusters and nebulae - NGC1975, NGC1981, M43, M42, and NGC1980 - which form “Orion’s sword.”
Below Orion, not technically in the hexagon, is the bow-tie shaped constellation Lepus, the Rabbit. If you look carefully, you can just pick out his “ears” to the northwest and his “hindquarters” to the east. Below (south of) Lepus lies one of my favorite deep sky objects: M79. This compact globular cluster is unusual in that unlike most globulars which concentrate around the center of the milky way galaxy, it orbits in the outskirts of the galaxy. I like to visit M79 on cold winter nights.
February’s Solar System
Mars is slowly receding from the earth and getting dimmer, but it is still well placed overhead south of Aries. West of Mars is Uranus. Uranus looks like a dim star to the naked eye but appears as a bluish disc in small telescopes.
The New Moon will be on Feb 11 and the Full “Snow” Moon will be on Feb 27.
By Jim Feiste (email@example.com)
December 2020: "Heart Nebula" by Stan Smith
Monthly public meetings have gone virtual during the pandemic. Next meeting Monday, January 4, 2021.