I think I am turning into a ‘grumpy old man’ because last month I was complaining about the lack of clear skies and now that we have had some clear skies I’m complaining because it is too cold! However I was pleasantly surprised early one morning when I drew open my curtains and there was the full Moon about to set in the west- a beautiful sight. The big story in January has to be the successful deployment and positioning of the James Webb Space Telescope at its Lagrange L2 destination. It was quite tense at times as the various stages had to be completed but it all went off flawlessly. It will be exciting times when the data starts coming back.
The following chart represents the night sky at 10.00pm GMT on the 8th of February and at 9.00pm GMT on the 23rd February. To use the chart, face south at the appropriate time with the bottom of the chart towards the southern horizon and you will see the stars in the chart. If you are observing a little earlier in the evening then the view is shifted 15 degrees eastwards for every hour before the specified time.
With part of Orion, Gemini and the Winter Triangle comprising the stars Betelgeuse, Procyon and Sirius on show there is no problem with navigating the skies but our focus this month is on fainter stars to the east of them. Of course, I’m sure you will still enjoy viewing Orion and the brighter stars that were mentioned last month. The constellation Cancer- The Crab, lies to the southeast of Gemini and being a zodiacal constellation its name is relatively well known although perhaps not its location. It is the faintest of the constellations with its stars typically being of magnitude 4 or dimmer so dark skies are essential. Its brightest star, the one nearest Procyon, is of magnitude 3.5. Cancer does not lie on the Milky Way so is in a dark region of the sky not containing very much apart from an open cluster known as Praesepe- The Manger, or the Beehive Cluster or M44. It is visible to the naked eye, as a small nebulous patch, under good viewing conditions and has been known of since ancient times. Of course, it would be better viewed with a pair of binoculars.
Below and to the southeast of Cancer is the constellation Hydra- The Water Snake. It is the largest constellation in the night sky with the tail of the snake lying in the southern hemisphere. Unfortunately the chain of stars representing the snake is of an indistinct shape and mostly faint. The ringlet of stars representing the snake’s head is just south of Cancer while the brightest star, Alphard, sits on its own to the southeast of this. It is meant to be the heart of the snake and is an orange giant of magnitude 2. If you find this month’s constellations hard to spot just remember the night sky keeps changing and next month you will be enjoying an old favourite.
Something to look out for
The planets aren’t in good orbital positions for viewing at present. Mars passed through opposition in October and is now a morning object for a short time. Mercury and Venus are close to inferior conjunction while Jupiter and Saturn are close to superior conjunction. This is best seen in the orbital diagram below.
On Wednesday 2nd February there will be a close approach of the Moon and Jupiter just after sunset low above your west-southwest horizon so hopefully we will be able to see Jupiter in a good setting before it reaches conjunction.
The media seems to get quite excited about full moons these days and this month the full moon is on Wednesday 16th and is popularly known as the ‘Snow Moon’. Theoretically there is an exact time for a full moon but it can be observed at any time of night.