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What’s In The Sky This Month?

February 2020


M41 Image: Wikisky

M41

Type: Open Cluster
Constellation: Canis Major
Distance: 2,300 Light Years
Magnitude: 4.5
Apparent Diameter 39’ 00”

M41 is a gem of a cluster. If you want a challenge and live under dark skies, you might be able to spot it with just your eyes; otherwise, you’ll need binoculars or a telescope. Fortunately, it’s easily found, making it an ideal target for both beginners and experienced observers alike.

It stands out with binoculars, even from suburban skies, and has a definite shape to it, with an apparent “hole” on the western edge, giving it the appearance of a lobster. Telescopically, at a low magnification of 35x, you’ll see a field richly scattered with stars. Most are roughly the same brightness and blue-white, but you may also notice a slightly brighter pair of stars, one of which has an orange hue.

Our Nearest Neighbors

There’s an opportunity to see Mercury in the first half of February. Look out for a pinkish-white star, low over the western horizon, from about 15 or 20 minutes after sunset.

Venusis also visible in the evening twilight and appears as an unmissable, brilliant white star in the west for over three hours after sunset.

Of Uranus and Neptune, only Uranus is still reasonably well placed for observation and, like Venus, is visible for about three hours after sunset.

Mars, Jupiter and Saturn appear almost evenly spaced in the pre-dawn sky. The crescent Moon appears next to each planet in turn, from the 18th to the 20th.

Lastly, the waxing gibbous Moon passes the bright star Aldebaran on the 3rd and turns full on the 9th. New Moon occurs on the 23rd, and then the Moon finishes the month as a crescent in the evening twilight sky.

The Moon Occults Mars

Some observers are in for a treat on the morning of the 18th. If you live in North America, you may have the chance to see the crescent Moon occult the red planet (see Stellar Concepts below.) Check online with the International Occultation Timing Association for more information.

Gemini

One of the most famous constellations, Gemini represents the twins Castor and Pollux. Immortal Pollux was the son of the god Zeus, whereas Castor was the son of Tyndareus, a mortal. When Castor was killed, Pollux was so distraught that he begged Zeus to help, and so the god immortalized them together in the night sky.

Castor

The second brightest star in Gemini and a relatively easy multiple star for telescopes. At a magnification of 100x, you’ll be able to cleanly split the star into two, with both components appearing brilliant white and of almost equal brightness. A third, much fainter lilac colored star may also be glimpsed with larger telescopes

M46

Despite residing in the southern constellation of Puppis, this fine open star cluster can be seen with binoculars but is best observed with a telescope.


M46 Image: Jose Luis Martinez

Sirius

Sirius is the brightest star in the sky and, at only 8 light years away, is also one of the closest.

Stellar Concepts

Occultation: When one celestial object passes in front of another. In the vast majority of cases, the Moon occults a bright star or planet, although planets can also occult stars and, on rare occasions, other planets.

Free Printable Celestial Calendar