Clear February nights present some great stargazing opportunities. Be sure to bundle up and keep warm while you get outside for some stargazing fun!
Here are a few of Orion's top picks for February stargazing:
- Five Pre-Dawn Planets - Through February 20th, get outside about an hour before dawn to see five planets line up above the eastern horizon. For the first time in over a decade, planets Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter will all be visible at once before the Sun rises. While you may need binoculars to spot Mercury, which will be very close to the horizon, this planetary line-up is not to be missed!
- Great Binocular Cluster - Get out your 50mm or larger astronomy binoculars for great views of the Pleiades star cluster (M45), which will be high in the northwestern sky during February. While M45 can be seen with unaided eyes from a rural location with dark skies, the open star cluster is a much more spectacular sight in binoculars or telescopes with a low-power wide-field eyepiece.
- New Moon - The New Moon of February 8th promises dark skies for a great, albeit chilly, opportunity to get clear views of the winter Milky Way and various deep space objects in larger telescopes. Skies will also be nice and dark for deep sky stargazing adventures on the evenings of February 7th and 9th.
- The Moon and Aldebaran - At approximately 11:40PM PST on February 16th (7:40 UTC), watch bright star Aldebaran make a very close approach to the Moon. Depending on your location, you may be able to see the Moon "cover up" Aldebaran in what's called an occultation event, otherwise the bright star will appear to pass within just 0.3° of Earth's only natural satellite.
- Jupiter and the Moon - Enjoy a close paring of the Moon and Jupiter in the early evening sky of February 23rd. Look above the eastern horizon to see gas giant planet Jupiter appear to pass just 1°36' from the Moon at approximately 7:58PM PST (3:58 UTC). This pretty pairing will be a wonderful sight in astronomy binoculars or with unaided eyes.
- Our Favorite Nebula - At around 9pm throughout February, almost due south and about halfway up from the horizon, our namesake constellation Orion will be in a great viewing position. Use 50mm or larger binoculars or a telescope and look in the area below the three recognizable stars of Orion's belt for a great view of M42, the Orion Nebula. Any telescope will show it, but use a 6" or larger reflector to immerse yourself in this stellar nursery (use an Orion Oxygen-III Nebula Filter or Orion UltraBlock Narrowband Filter if you try this from the city).
- Winter Star Clusters - Look east of constellation Canis Major's brightest star Sirius with a telescope to see two beautiful star clusters, M46 and M47 in the constellation Puppis. For more star cluster observations in February, look in the constellation Auriga and go after sparkling clusters M36, M37 & M38, or M35 in the constellation Gemini.
- Bright Galaxies - In late February, bright galaxies M81 & M82 will be about as high in the sky as they will get for North American stargazers. From a dark sky site, these galaxies are visible with a 50mm or larger binocular, but we suggest you use a large telescope to chase these galaxies down just off the leading edge of the Big Dipper asterism. Many observers consider M81 & M82 the best pairing of visual galaxies in the sky!
- Challenge Object - In the constellation Monoceros lies the 9th magnitude Hubble's Variable Nebula (NGC 2261), named after the astronomer Edwin Hubble (yes, the same as the Hubble Telescope). While small, this distant reflection nebula is bright enough to be picked out as a pin point of light with 70mm binoculars. As the name implies, it does vary in size and brightness since its glow is "powered" by a variable star buried within its nebulosity. What's the smallest telescope you can see it with - tell us on Facebook!
Talented astrophotographer Joe Roberts captured this beautiful astrophoto of distant galaxies M81 and M82 from the dark skies of Voluntown, Connecticut. Joe skillfully combined 51 separate 240 second exposures to create this sharp image of the pair of galaxies. Thanks for the beautiful image Joe!
All objects described above can easily be seen with the suggested equipment from a dark sky site, a viewing location some distance away from city lights where light pollution and when bright moonlight does not overpower the stars.