As we head into the depths of winter, February nights are filled with amazing cosmic sights from ghostly pyramids of light to stunning lunar pairings.
Every evening up until Feb. 16, about an hour after sunset, keen sky-watchers in the outer suburbs and especially the countryside can hunt down one of the most elusive of astronomical phenomena called zodiacal light.
This pyramid-shaped, tower of light is often mistaken for simple light pollution from a distant city and has also been called the “false dawn.” But this light has a true cosmic origin in that it is caused by sunlight reflecting off countless number of cosmic dust scattered between the orbits of neighbouring planets. Each particle represents the leftover debris, essentially the ancient building blocks, of the solar system from 4.5 billion years ago.
The best time to catch this ghostly sky light is during the evening twilight, looking toward the western horizon from dark skies.
On Feb. 11, early risers should look for the waning crescent moon posing next to the ringed planet, Saturn, hanging low in the southeast an hour before sunrise. While this magnificent planet is visible to the unaided eye, even within cities, to glimpse its famous rings, you will need a small telescope. This morning’s pairing with the moon should make it easy for beginner sky-watchers to track down Saturn and perhaps try out their new telescopes.
The following morning at dawn, on Feb. 12, face the south-eastern sky for two distinctly orange-hued stars – Mars and just below it, its legendary rival Antares.
The name Antares comes from ancient Greece, and actually means ‘Rival of Mars’ due to its similar colour and brilliance in Earth skies. But while Mars is actually a puny planet only one-third the size of Earth, 600 light year distant Antares is a truly gigantic sun astronomers call a Red Giant and is so large that if we would replace our sun with it, its outer atmosphere would reach beyond the orbit of Mars.
Its ruddy colour is appropriate since it marks the heart of the mythical scorpion constellation. While in February we see them in the frosty morning skies, Scorpius and Antares are really stellar landmarks of the warm, summer evening sky.
Look carefully and you’ll find the gap between the two brilliant objects will be only five degrees – equal to the width of your three middle fingers held at arm’s length. Astronomers call these close encounters between sky objects conjunctions, and this one promises to be quite eye-catching with two stellar rubies shining side by side.
By Feb. 23, the moon moves into the evening sky and will be in its first quarter phase. Watch it glide through the Taurus, the bull constellation. The bright orange star, Aldebaran which represents the eye of the bovine, will be less than five degrees to the lower right of the moon for most sky-watchers. If the lunar glare is too bright, then try using binoculars to spot the star quickly. Watch the pair over the course of the evening as the star appears to skirt the edge of the lunar disk.
And finally on the last day of the month, Feb. 28, look for the majestic celestial Leo constellation to rise above the eastern horizon as soon as darkness falls. The nearly full moon will appear perched just above the 78 light years distant star that marks the heart of the heavenly lion. The star will appear to glide behind the moon for observers in most of eastern Canada and the northeastern United States.
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Source: Montreal Gazette