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Manitoba Skies – February 2014

The early evening sky in February reveals the constellations of winter: Orion stands in the southeast, his belt of three stars unmistakable, while overhead the familiar “W”-shape of Cassiopeia may look more like a letter “M” if you are facing north. There are many bright stars and star clusters scattered across the sky at this time of year, and you’ll discover many beautiful sights by scanning the sky with binoculars or just your eyes. Avoid the lights of the city for the best views (although ensure you take proper winter precautions in terms of transportation and clothing… skywatching is not an aerobic activity, so you can get cold fast!)

Constellation charts for Winnipeg and surrounding areas can be printed here.

Highlights for February 2014

Jupiter is the dominant feature in the evening sky this month, shining brightly high in the southeast as darkness falls. It’s over in the constellation Gemini, with the two “twin” stars Castor and Pollux to its upper left. A pair of ordinary binoculars will reveal that Jupiter has several tiny dots of light near it – the four largest moons of Jupiter. From night to night, they change their positions relative to the planet, and occasionally pass behind or in front of it.

No new moon in February? It’s true: February 2014 does not have a New Moon. The internet has all sorts of information and what this non-occurrence “means”, but allow me to sum it up for you: it means NOTHING. The moon takes about 29 ½ days to go from one phase, all the way through its cycle, and back to the same phase. That is just slightly longer than the shortest month of the year, February. So, if you happen to get a particular phase of the moon on January 31 late in the day, February will go by before that phase returns again. People only notice when the January 31 phase happens to be a “name” one like “New” or “Full” that is written on a calendar, but it actually happens every single February – whatever phase the moon is on January 31st, does not occur in February that year. It’s an artifact of our calendar system, which is based on but does not follow celestial cycles that the phases of the moon.

Most of the internet memes related to this call it the “Black Moon” or some variation, and also talk about its “visibility” – which is ridiculous. By definition, you cannot see a New Moon – New Moon occurs when the side of the moon facing us is not illuminated at all by the sun.

Calendar of Celestial Events – February 2014

Feb 1 (early evening) – The planet Mercury and the thin crescent moon are visible together in evening twilight. As the sky darkens, look low in the west first for the this crescent moon. Mercury is about halfway down to the horizon – you may need binoculars to see it.

Feb 6 – First Quarter moon

Feb 10 – The gibbous moon appears near the planet Jupiter this evening. Watch their relative positions throughout the night, and you will see two motions. The entire sky will appear to move slowly together, due to the rotation of the Earth, but you will also see the Moon creep slowly closer to Jupiter throughout the night – a sresult of the Moon’s orbital motion around our planet.

Feb 14 – Full Moon on Valentine’s Day this year. Doubtless an internet craze about this can’t be far off.

Feb 19 (before dawn) – the planet Mars and the bright star Spica are both near the Moon.  Mars is the brighter and higher of the two objects to the left of the moon.

Feb 22 – First Quarter Moon

Feb 26 (before dawn) – brilliant planet Venus and thin crescent moon are close together, low in the southeastern sky before dawn.

 

Space Station sightings

Most of February is a good time to spot the International Space Station – the brilliant spacecraft makes at least one evening pass every night over Manitoba from February 7th through the 25th. Times and directions to look can be found at http://www.heavens-above.com/PassSummary.aspx?satid=25544&lat=49.883&lng=-97.167&loc=Winnipeg&alt=231&tz=CST&cul=en-GB

For a few days around February 13, you can also spot the Chinese space station, Tiangong 1, as it passes across the southern sky as seen from Manitoba. Tiangong 1 is much fainter than the ISS, and fainter than the stars of the Big Dipper, so you really need to watch carefully for it. Times are found here: http://www.heavens-above.com/PassSummary.aspx?satid=37820&lat=49.883&lng=-97.167&loc=Winnipeg&alt=231&tz=CST&cul=en-GB

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Scott Young

Manager of Science Communications and Visitor Experiences

“Scott is the Planetarium Astronomer at the Manitoba Museum, developing astronomy and science programs. He has been an informal science educator for thirty years, working in the planetarium and science centre field both at The Manitoba Museum and also at the Alice G. Wallace Planetarium in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Scott is an active amateur astronomer and a past-President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.”