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The Night Sky Tonight: February 17 – February 25

By Mark Wagner

Friday, February 17
Here's a challenge object for those of you ready to dip their toes into the deep end of deep sky observing. It is just the beginning. NGC 2024 is the Flame Nebula. It is located adjacent to the bright star Alnitak in the Belt of Orion. This nebula is best seen with the star outside the field of view, and a filter such at the Orion Ultrablock will help, as well. But most important, dark skies are necessary. This is an emission nebula, 30'x30' in size. On good nights, the reason for its name is obvious, the glow of the nebula looks very much like a flame. Do you have an observation of the Flame? Post it in the comments section on our Facebook page!

Skill Level: Intermediate

Suggested Gear: Orion SkyQuest XT8i IntelliScope Dobsonian Telescope, 1.25" Orion UltraBlock NarrowBand Filter

Tomorrow Morning: Last Quarter Moon

Saturday, February 18
Early risers will enjoy views of spectacular and divergent areas of the lunar surface on Saturday morning. The upper image is showing the crater Aristillus, with Autolycus just below and Archimedes to their left, all in the region of the Montes Apenninus, showing at lower right. Below is the crater Tycho, with its obvious central peak, surrounded by a heavily cratered moonscape. All of these features are visible in binoculars, but to draw out some of the finer details, a 50mm instrument is necessary. The differences in these areas are dramatic, spend a little time and you'll be hooked.

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion MoonMap 260, Orion Observer 60mm Altazimuth Refractor Telescope

Tomorrow Evening: More Orion Deep Sky Targets

Sunday, February 19
M78 is an intriguing small nebula in the eastern reaches of Orion, appearing to be two stars throwing out a fan shaped glow. Here, Jeremy Perez?s nice sketch shows the effect well. M78 was discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1780, and included in Charles Messier?s famous catalog. It is a reflection nebula, showing blue in photographs, whereas emission nebulae appear red. M78 is actually the brightest of a few nebulae in the region, including NGC 2064, NGC 2067 and NGC 2071, all part of the larger Orion Molecular Cloud, 1,600 light years away. M78 is 8.0 arcminutes in size, glowing at magnitude 8.3.

Skill Level: Intermediate

Suggested Gear: Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope, Orion StarSeeker IV 150mm GoTo Mak-Cass Telescope

Tomorrow Morning: Moon, Mars and Antares

Monday, February 20
Monday morning offers a nice pairing of red Mars, 5 degrees from a 33% illuminated waning crescent Moon in eastern Ophiuchus. Red Antares, the heart of Scorpius, is to their west. Mars is magnitude 0.53 and a with an 18 arc-second size, the Moon is bright at magnitude -11.49. Antares is a challenging double star. Its companion star Antares B, also called the Green Pea, is close by, ranging from 3.3 to 2.8 arc seconds separation. At magnitude 5.5, it is difficult to see in the glare of Antares.

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion SkyQuest XT6 Classic Dobsonian Telescope, Orion DeepMap 600 Folding Star Chart

Tomorrow Evening: Observe a White Dwarf in Eridanus

Tuesday, February 21
Have you ever viewed a white dwarf star? Here?s your chance. 40 Eradini is an easy to locate magnitude 4.4 star, named Keid. It is odd to find dimmer stars with a proper name. It is located just off the magnitude 4.03 star Beid, 16.4 light years distant. It is a triple star system, whose magnitude 9B component is a main sequence white dwarf, and 11th magnitude C star is a red dwarf! This is the easiest white dwarf to observe, compared to the next two brightest white dwarfs, Van Maanen?s Star (magnitude 12) and Procyon B, which is overwhelmed by its bright primary. This is your opportunity to look at a star that is a super-hot remnant, the dead core of a star, and will probably give off radiant heat for a trillion years.

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion SkyQuest XT8i IntelliScope Dobsonian Telescope, Orion SpaceProbe 130 EQ Reflector Telescope

Tomorrow Morning: Moon and Mars Pairs

Wednesday, February 22
Wednesday morning, a thin crescent Moon rests gracefully in an asterism near the Teapot of Sagittarius, called the Teaspoon. Saturn, too, is paired, with a more difficult shape, that of a dark nebula seen only in the darkest skies. Tipped upward, the shape of a dark horse can be seen just to the right of Saturn. The back leg of the horse is the Pipe Nebula, another dark nebula with the bowl to the left. Who here has seen either the Pipe or the Horse? When they?re easy to see, you know it?s a great, dark and transparent night!

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion Star Target Planisphere, 30-50 degree, Orion DeepMap 600 Folding Star Chart

Tomorrow Evening: An asterism in Orion

Thursday, February 23
Orion is up in our southern skies as the evening sky darkens. There are a pair of asterisms in the constellation. The Belt is very obvious, consisting of the stars (left to right) Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka, which are all bright and fairly evenly spaced. Hanging off the eastern end, is a dimmer asterism, Orion?s Sword, which contains the famous deep sky object M42, the Great Orion Nebula. In the Sword, can you see a somewhat fuzzy spot? Look in binoculars, you should easily see it. While you have the binoculars out, sweep the area of these asterisms, you?ll be amazed at the star fields!

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion UltraView 10x50 Wide-Angle Binoculars, Orion Scenix 10x50 Wide-Angle Binoculars

Tomorrow Morning: Binocular Globular Cluster!

Friday, February 24
M4 is a large and bright globular cluster, next to a very bright star, making it a perfect target for beginners to hunt in binoculars. M4 is one of the closest targets of this type, at a distance of 9,000 light years, and is dense while appearing coarse. If you observe it as the sky brightens, what will show predominantly are the large red giant stars. Here is a nice sketch by Jeremy Perez. If you view it, let us know your impressions on our Facebook page. Or, send in a sketch or your astrophoto of M4.

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion Scenix 10x50 Wide-Angle Binoculars, Orion SpaceProbe 130ST Equatorial Reflector Telescope

Tomorrow: Evening Planets

Saturday, February 25
Venus and Mars are riding the western line of Pisces tonight. Venus is very bright at magnitude -4.61, a large 45 arc-second 20% illuminated crescent. Check it out in either binoculars or your telescope. Mars is further up the line, bright, except by comparison to Venus. Mars shines at magnitude 1.28, and is 1/10th the size of Venus, at 4.6 arc-seconds. Two asterisms are in the area as well; the Great Square in Pegasus, and partially set, the Circlet of Pisces, dipping below the horizon due west. Venus will dominate the western evening sky until mid March, and will provide some nice conjunctions with the Moon and Mercury.

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion StarMax 90mm TableTop Maksutov-Cassegrain Telescope, Orion Observer 60mm Altazimuth Refractor Telescope

Tomorrow: New Moon

Charts from Starry Night Pro, available from Orion Telescopes & Binoculars. NGC 2024, M78 and M4 sketches courtesy Jeremy Perez Belt Of Venus Blog. Moon images from Virtual Moon Atlas. Data from Starry Night Pro 6 and Wikipedia.

Mark Wagner is a life-long astronomy enthusiast and deep sky observer in the San Francisco bay area. Visit our Facebook Page if you'd like to post comments, questions, sketches or images you've taken to our Night Sky Tonight post.