Sky Notes for February 2014 with James Abbott #stargazing
Jupiter remains the dominant object in the night sky throughout February and is visible almost all night throughout the month in Gemini. The Jovian equatorial diameter declines a bit from 46″ to 43″ through the month.
By the end of February Mars is starting to become more readily observable and by midnight will be in the South East near Spica, the leading star of Virgo. Mars will by then be significantly brighter than the nearby star and showing a diameter of over 11″. More detail will be becoming visible in telescopes, although rather low altitude will affect seeing
Venus may be seen low in the South East in the pre-dawn twilight towards the end of the month and will be very close to the waning crescent Moon on the morning of the 26th. Mercury may be glimpsed at the beginning of the month. On the 1st the 5% illuminated crescent Moon will be 7 degrees above the innermost planet in the Western evening twilight.
The Moon reaches Full on the night of the 14th/15th and will be lower in the sky than during the preceding winter months – a sign that Spring is on the way.
Daylight starts to advance more quickly during February and by month’s end it is light until almost 6pm with astronomical twilight ending at around 7.30pm.
Another herald of Spring is the appearance of the brilliant orange star Arcturus in the East. By mid-month it is well up by 10pm and can be found by following the curve of the tail of Ursa Major downwards. Arcturus is about 37 light years distant and is one of the most strongly coloured stars in the night sky.
On January 21st a new supernova SN 2014J was discovered in the relatively nearby galaxy M82. Despite the plethora of automatic ground based telescopes and space telescopes searching for new objects – and the dedicated supernova hunters around the world – it was a team of four students assisted by their teacher at the University of London Observatory in Mill Hill who were first to raise the alert. It was quite a discovery, as in addition to the light pollution of north London, it was also clouding over at the time – and they were taking test images to learn how to use CCD cameras !
The supernova is type 1a (exploding white dwarf) and at the time of writing is mag +10.6 so should be visible in medium sized amateur telescopes visually. Most extra-galactic supernovae are well below visual range other than in larger instruments so this is a good opportunity to see one.