The February night sky.jpg

The February night sky

By CLIVE JACKSON [email protected]

Clive Jackson is the Director of the Astronomical Observatory of Tavira (Sitio do Malhão, Tavira) and the Camera Obscura (next to the Castle in Tavira), specialising in education and public outreach.

Welcome to the February night sky.  Traditionally, this month is cold and damp in Portugal but frost is rare at our latitudes, unlike the rest of northern Europe where subzero temperatures are normal. At sunset over in the west the planet Venus, is still blazing away in the constellation of Pisces, and on the evening of February 27, the two-day-old thin crescent Moon will be seen close to Venus.

On the first of the month over on the eastern horizon at 9pm, the planet Saturn was visible just rising in the constellation of Leo. This constellation is recognisable due to a large curving shape of stars that look like a backwards question mark.

This represents the head of the Leo the Lion. The brightest star of this constellation is called Regulus and this star is at the bottom part of this curve. Regulus is a white star of the first magnitude. Saturn is at the other end of Leo in the part of the constellation that represents the tail and back legs. On the night of February 11, the Moon just past full will be close to Saturn.

This month we have a faint comet passing through the constellation of Leo, which is called C2007 N3 Lulin. This name is made up from the year of discovery, the order of discovery for that year and the name of the discoverer.

This comet may not be visible to the unaided eye, but should be easy in binoculars. On the night of February 24, it will be seen just below Saturn, and on February 28 just below Regulus. Comets are lumps of frozen liquid and gas left over from the formation of the Solar System and, typically, only a few kilometres in diameter, but when the heat of the Sun transforms the ice into gas, it produces a tail that can spread out from many millions of kilometres. This comet will be more than 60 million kilometres from us this month. Comets spend most of their life in the depths of space far from the Sun where their temperatures would be around 250ºC below zero. This comet may be experiencing the warmth of the Sun for the first time in billion of years.

The Moon was at First Quarter on February 2, full on February 16, Last Quarter on February 18 and New on February 25.

Clive Jackson can be contacted by phone on (00351) 281 321 754, by fax on (00351) 281 324 688, or by email to [email protected]. To visit his website, click on the link to the right of this page.