The February night sky

news: The February night sky

WELCOME to the February night sky. This is the month of the grand constellation Orion shining brightly high in the south. This constellation sits on the Equator of the sky and that means that it is visible from all over the world at this time of the year.

The line of the celestial Equator passes through the ‘belt’ of Orion, made up of three stars in a neat line. Slightly up and to the left of the belt is the orange star, Betelgeuse. This is a giant star with more than one million times the volume of our sun and it is around 450 light years away. Below the belt and to the right is the brilliant white star, Rigel. This star is twice as far away as Betelgeuse and shines fifty thousand times more brightly than our sun.

Last month, the Comet Machholz was visible gliding past the Pleiades star cluster. This comet was seen as a faint ‘smudge’ about the size of the moon. The comet is now much further north and very much fainter – it will be thousands of years before it returns again.

The picture shows the comet as a blue fuzzy cloud – the colour is due to ionised vapour and gas around the icy nucleus. This cloud is more than 100,000 miles across, but the nucleus, or the comet itself, is probably less than one mile across.

On January 14, the European Space Agency (ESA) probe, called Huygens, parachuted to Titan, landed safely and transmitted the first sounds and pictures from the surface of Saturn’s giant moon. Planet Saturn is still well visible high in the south-east. The pictures it sent back were of a deep frozen world, similar to the primitive earth – except the temperature was 185 degrees below zero, with lakes and rivers of liquid methane. Many hundreds of pictures were sent back, but it will be several weeks before they are all processed and analysed.

By the end of the month, the giant planet Jupiter comes into view low in the south-east soon after sunset.

The moon is at last quarter on February 2, new moon on the 8th, first quarter on the 16th and full moon on February 24.

• Clive Jackson is the director of the Astronomical Observatory of Tavira and the Torre de Tavira-Camera Obscura in the centre of Tavira, specialising in education and public outreach. Tel 281 321 754, Fax 281 324 688, email: [email protected] or visit website