Stargazing: What to look out for in February

Stargazing sets out to inspire, encourage, and enable the first-time observer to seek out and identify the different stars and planets that are on view with the naked-eye, from month to month. Stargazing can also help the learner to understand how early civilisations perceived the night sky, and how through advances in technology, we’ve come to understand the stars as not just points of light, but as stars like our own Sun – that in some cases, have their own planets orbiting around them.

If you’re completely new to stargazing, then you might want to check out our beginner’s guide first before heading out, as this can introduce you to some astronomy basics. It’s also important to remember to wrap up warm on these cold winter evenings, and to allow yourself time to properly become adapted to the darkness of your surroundings. Also, if viewing from a nearby park or recreation area, stay safe, let someone know where you are, and preferably visit the location during daylight hours first, to get your bearings.

Before stepping outside to start your stargazing adventure, it can be useful to have an idea about what you can expect to see in the night sky at this time of year. Here, we’ll talk you through what to look out for in February.

Stars and constellations

Featured constellation: Orion The Hunter

During the winter months, the Southern half of the night sky is dominated by the constellation of Orion. The great thing about this constellation is that the main stars are easily visible with the naked eye, making for a wonderful target for anyone wishing to familiarise themselves with the late winter sky.

With a pattern to the stars shaped in the form of an hour-glass, the constellation consists of three stars at the top, spread apart; three ‘belt’ stars positioned close together directly below the two top stars, then a further two stars below the belt, which are equally as spread out as their counterparts to the top.

Orion in Mythology

The earliest known depiction of this constellation dates back to what is thought to be a carving of Orion, made from a mammoth tusk. Found in a cave in the Ach Valley in 1979, the carving makes for the oldest known interpretation of a star map, with an age in excess of 32,000 years. The figure measures 38mm x 14mm x 4mm, and was discovered inside a complex labyrinth of caves that were inhabited during the Upper Paleolithic era; the second half of the last glacial period.

Mythology is steeped with many stories surrounding Orion. In one such myth, Orion is said to have fallen in love with the ‘Seven Sisters’ – who are represented as a star cluster scientifically named the Pleiades – located up and to the right of Orion. The Pleiades can be seen as a small hazy patch of stars, which are a sort of ‘mini-plough’ shape in appearance. Once you locate them try and see how many of the Seven Sisters you can spot with the naked eye.

With the Seven Sisters having been scooped up by Zeus in mythology and placed in the heavens, Orion is destined forever to chase them across the night sky. Orion himself is also being pursued by a giant scorpion, which a proportion of myths attribute to his death. Along with Orion and the Seven Sisters, the scorpion too has been placed in the night sky. However, the scorpion (known as the constellation of Scorpius) was placed on the opposite side of the night sky to Orion, so that when it rises in the night sky to the East, Orion sets below the horizon to the West, and appears as though he is fleeing from his tormentor.

Additional myths relating to Orion

  • In Sumerian mythology, both Orion and the neighbouring constellation of Taurus the Bull are pictured as being engaged in an eternal fight (as it is believed that Taurus is also in pursuit of the Seven Sisters). The Sumerians called Orion URU AN-NA, meaning ‘The Light of Heaven’, referring to Taurus as GUD AN-NA, or ‘The Bull of Heaven’.
  • The Babylonians knew Orion as MUL-SIPA-ZI-AN-NA or ‘The Heavenly Shepherd’ in the Late Bronze Age, and associated the constellation with Anu, the God of the Heavenly Realms.
  • The Egyptians associated Orion with Osiris, the God of Death, Afterlife and Rebirth. Because pharaohs were believed to be transformed into Osiris after death, some of the greatest pyramids – the ones at Giza – were built to mirror the pattern of the stars in Orion. To make the transformation of the pharaoh easier from the present to the afterlife, the air shaft  in the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid was aligned with the star Alnitak, the name of one of the stars in Orion’s belt.
  • The Aztecs called the stars of Orion’s belt and sword, (the sword – a line of stars descending beneath the belt), the Fire Drill. Their rising in the sky signalled the beginning of the New Fire ceremony, a ritual Aztecs performed to postpone the end of the world.

Observing Orion

The Main Stars

Betelgeuse

Firstly, top left in Orion, is a star named Betelgeuse, serving as the Hunter’s ‘right shoulder’, and to the naked eye, appearing orangey in colour. Betelgeuse is massive, estimated at being in the region of 765 times the radius of our own Sun, from which it sits 548 light years away (a light year is the distance that a beam of light travels in one year – six trillion miles).

The colour of a star is determined by factors such as chemical composition, surface temperature, and age. As an analogy, observe a burning fire in a grate. The hottest part of the flame burns bluey-white, whilst the cooler part is orangey-red. The same principle can be applied to stars. The yellow colour of our own Sun represents that of a main-stream star; one that possesses a considerable amount of fuel to continue generating light and heat for thousands of years to come.

Betelgeuse is from a class of stars known as ‘red giants’ and is thought to be nearing the end of its life, which would mean the star exploding as a supernova (the biggest explosion that humans have ever seen). There has been much speculation in recent years about the star’s finality, with astronomical reports citing a dimming of Betelgeuse, an occurrence that happens before a star goes supernova.

To understand more about why a star goes supernova, it can help to take a closer look at what stars actually are. A star is basically a big ball of gas, which has hydrogen and helium as the main constituents. When these become depleted, the star shrinks in size as the fuel runs out, compacting the star down under gravitational force. Then, in one last gigantic outburst, the star explodes outward as a supernova.

It may be the case that Betelgeuse has already gone supernova but the light from the explosion has not reached us yet. When it does, it will be quite spectacular, perhaps visible during the daytime and outshining our own moon by night.

Rigel

The second star to locate in Orion is Rigel to the bottom right, serving as one of Orion’s left foot. Bluey-white in appearance, Rigel is the brightest star in Orion, with a radius 70 times that of our own Sun. Further away than Betelgeuse at 870 light years, the name Rigel comes from an Arabic phrase frequently translated as ‘The Left Foot of the Central One’.

Many stars that appear as one star to the naked eye are in fact two or more stars. Rigel has at least four stars, whereas Betelgeuse is a solitary star.

Meissa, Bellatrix and Saiph

After locating both Betelgeuse and Rigel, and before turning to Orion’s belt stars, try locating the other naked-eye stars in the constellation that are not as bright.

Firstly, representing Orion’s Head is Meissa, translating from the Arabic as ‘The Shining One’. Meissa, which actually consists of two stars, lies at a distance of 1,100 light years away from the Sun. The primary star of the two has been measured at 165,000 times brighter than our own Sun.

Next is Bellatrix, Latin for ‘female warrior’, representing Orion’s left shoulder. This star is the closest star to us at a distance of 244 light-years.

Saiph, translated from the Arabic as ‘sword of the giant’ represents Orion’s right foot. Saiph is 720 light-years distant.

Orion’s Belt Stars

Orion’s belt stars form a distinctive line of three in the night sky.  Also known as the ‘Three Kings’ or the ‘Three Sisters’, the stars, (from left to right), Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, have their names derived from Arabic meaning ‘string of pearls’.

In other countries and cultures, the stars are collectively known by different names. In China, for example, the stars are referred to as the ‘The Weighing Beam’.

Nebula – Gas Cloud

Under good, dark skies, away from artificial lighting, if you carefully pan down from Orion’s belt, you should be able to make out a line of three faint stars. This represents Orion’s sword.
Also, if dark enough, you may be able to spot midway down when looking at those stars, a hazy patch. This patch is in fact a gigantic cloud of dust and gas, known as a nebula. Most nebulae are difficult if not impossible to see with the naked eye, but the Orion nebula is one of the exceptions.

At 1,300 light years away from the Sun, and 30 to 40 light years in diameter (and for its relative ease of locating) the Orion nebula is one of the first nebulae that many new starters seek out in astronomy.

However, there is something even more breathtaking about this hazy patch in the night sky. The Orion nebula, also known as M42, (Messier Object 42, after French astronomer Charles Messier 1730–1817, who catalogued such phenomena), is in fact a gigantic stellar nursery where new stars are being formed. At just a million or a couple of million years old each, these are literally babies in the lifetime expectancy of stars.

As a tip to spot the nebula, try looking either slightly to the left or right of it’s given position. This should allow the light from the nebula to fall on a more sensitive part of the eye, which will make it easier to see. This technique is called averted vision, and can be used to spot other faint objects.

Sirius

Whilst not part of the constellation of Orion, keep a watchful eye out for the brightest star in the entire sky: Sirius, which is positioned down and to the left of Orion. Sirius is also known as the ‘Dog Star’, because the constellation within which it lies. It’s constellation; Canis Major, represents a dog faithfully positioned at the heel of its master, Orion. You may need a particularly good view of the Southern horizon to spot Sirius, but when you do, it will be instantly recognizable, outshining every star.

February’s planets

For those with a good view of the South and South-Western horizons, the planet Mars is comfortably on view to the naked eye during February. Easy to spot as a reddish object, Mars will be on view until after midnight. On the evenings of February 18th and 19th, look for a crescent Moon. The Moon will be very near to not just Mars, but also the Seven Sisters star cluster.

For any early risers, there are three planets on view in the pre-dawn sky, all visible with the naked eye. Looking in a south-easterly direction, Jupiter will show as the brightest of the three planets. Pan up and to the right and you should locate a fainter Mercury, with Saturn positioned further over to the left from Mercury, and somewhat brighter in appearance. If you can only spot one of the three planets, it’s likely to be Jupiter. All three of the planets will be on view from around 6.00 to 6.30 a.m.

February’s moon phases

To understand why we see phases of the Moon, we have to understand the relationship between the Earth, the Moon, and the Sun. The phases result from the changing angles of the Moon and Sun, as viewed from Earth. As the Moon orbits the Earth every month, the angle of it alters, revealing different portions of the moon’s surface.

During the Moon’s journey around the Earth, the same side of the moon always presents itself to us, a phenomena known as ‘tidal locking’. The Moon is tidally locked to the Earth because it rotates in exactly the same time that it takes to orbit the Earth, which is 29.5 days, or one lunar cycle.

There are four main phases of the moon. Together, these four phases create the outline for a lunar cycle that begins with the new moon, then the first quarter moon, next the full moon, and then finally the third quarter (or last quarter) moon, before the cycle starts all over again.

To be able to more clearly see and understand the Moon’s phases, it can help to take a note of the dates below; where on a clear night, you should be able to see each phase.

Dates for February’s Moon phases:

Third Quarter February 4th; New Moon February 11th; First Quarter February 19th; Full Moon February 27th.

February’s sunrise/sunset times

Glasgow

Start of February: Sun rises at 8.10 a.m. Sets at 4.51 p.m.

End of February: Sun rises at 7.10 a.m. Sets at 5.49 p.m.

Cardiff

Start of February: Sun rises at 7.50 a.m. Sets at 5.02 p.m.

End of February: Sun rises at 6.59 a.m. Sets at 5.51 p.m.

London

Start of February: Sun rises at 7.38 a.m. Sets at 4.50 p.m.

End of February: Sun rises at 6.47 a.m. Sets at 5.39 p.m.

Jonathan is a contributor to the BBC Sky at Night magazine. He has written three books on astronomy, Cosmic Debris; Rare Astronomical Sights and Sounds (which was selected by ‘Choice’ magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2019); and From Cave Art to Hubble, all of which are available from Amazon. Jonathan worked at BBC Radio Wales as their astronomy correspondent and is currently a columnist at the South Wales Argus. He has also written a book on castles, ‘Fortress Wales’, and was part of the writing team for the BBC Television show, ‘The Fast Show’, which won a BAFTA.

Are you interested in astronomy? Do you plan to look out for any of the stars, planets or moons above? Join the conversation on the community forum or leave a comment below.

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