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This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2020 February 15 – February 22

Binoculars are great instruments for observing the brighter star clusters and nebulae in the night sky, and Orion is a great place for binocular treasures. Its most prominent naked eye feature is the angled line of three stars that make Orion’s Belt. This trio will fit easily within almost any binocular view. They are hot giant stars, with the one on the right, Mintaka, being a little dimmer than Alnitak on the left and Alnilam in between. Although they appear to be near each other, at a distance of 2000 light years Alnilam is nearly three times farther than the other two. Between Alnilam and Mintaka binoculars will show an S-shaped asterism, Orion’s S, which peaks above his belt.

Below the belt is a string of a few dimmer stars that makes Orion’s sword, one of which looks fuzzy to the eye. Binoculars reveal this to be the Orion Nebula or M42, a vast cloud of gas and dust where stars are forming. Just above the nebula is an asterism that resembles a person running or perhaps the figure in a WALK sign. Several double or multiple stars can be seen in this general area. Binoculars will also enhance star colours so check out Orion’s two brightest stars, blue-white Rigel and orange Betelgeuse. Defocussing your binoculars slightly will enhance the colours even more. Keep an eye on Betelgeuse over the next couple of months. It has dimmed considerably lately, dropping from the top ten in stellar brightness to about 25th. Will it continue to dim or will it regain its gleam?

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:22 am and sunset will occur at 5:44 pm, giving 10 hours, 22 minutes of daylight (7:26 am and 5:51 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:11 am and set at 5:54 pm, giving 10 hours, 43 minutes of daylight (7:15 am and 6:01 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at third quarter this Saturday and poses with three morning planets this week. On Tuesday, telescope users might catch it occulting, or passing in front of, Mars just before 9 am. It is then near Jupiter on Wednesday and Saturn Thursday. Mercury begins a ten-day evening plunge toward the Sun this weekend, while Venus continues to catch the eye moving in the opposite direction. If you are far from urban light pollution on a clear evening, look for the ghostly pyramid of zodiacal light along the western ecliptic starting an hour after sunset.

The provincial astronomy club, RASC NB, meets in the UNB Fredericton Forestry-Earth Sciences building this Saturday at 1 pm. There will be an astronomy presentation at 6 pm, followed by public observing, at Brundage Point River Centre in Grand Bay-Westfield on Monday and at the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre in Saint John on February 22.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason at nasonc@nbnet.nb.ca.


This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2020 February 8 – February 15

The most inconspicuous of the zodiac constellations is faint Cancer the Crab, which is nestled between Gemini and Leo. In mythology, the crab was sent by the goddess queen Hera to distract Hercules while he was battling the Hydra. The crab was no match for the strongman’s stomp. Ancient Egyptians saw it as their sacred dung beetle, the scarab. In the first millennium BC the Sun was in Cancer at the summer solstice, the time when it halts its northward motion and slowly starts heading south. This back and forth motion of the rising and setting Sun on the horizon was perhaps reminiscent of a crab sidling on a beach. The summer Sun is now situated above the foot of Castor in Gemini.

Cancer is recognized by a trapezoid of dim naked eye stars as the crab’s body, with a couple of other stars representing the claws. The four stars were also seen as a manger flanked by a pair of donkeys, Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australus. On a clear dark night we can see a hazy patch of hay within the manger, and binoculars reveal it as a beautiful star cluster called the Beehive, Praesepe or M44. Being near the ecliptic, the planets often pass through or near this cluster, masquerading as a bright guest star. The Beehive was once used to forecast storms, for if it could not be seen it was hidden by light clouds at the front of a weather system. Binoculars can reveal another star cluster, number 67 on the Messier list of fuzzy non-comets, less than a fist-width south of M44.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:33 am and sunset will occur at 5:34 pm, giving 10 hours, 1 minute of daylight (7:36 am and 5:40 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:22 am and set at 5:44 pm, giving 10 hours, 22 minutes of daylight (7:26 am and 5:51 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is full on Sunday morning and at perigee on Monday, resulting in high tides early in the week. Mercury is at its greatest elongation from the Sun on Monday; sitting a hand span below and right of Venus, which sets two hours later at 9:20 pm. Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are stretched along the ecliptic from south to east in the morning, with Mars zipping toward Jupiter and Jupiter edging toward Saturn. By April, Mars will have passed both. Starting Tuesday and for the next two weeks, the subtle glow of dust reflecting sunlight along the ecliptic can be seen in rural locations beginning an hour after sunset. The zodiacal light forms an angled wedge, and this year Venus is in the middle of it.

The annual INP Moonlight snowshoe hike and observing starts at 7 pm on February 8 at the Sheldon Point barn in Saint John. The William Brydone Jack Astronomy Club meets in the UNB Fredericton Forestry-Earth Sciences building on Tuesday at 7 pm, and RASC NB meets in the same location on February 15 at 1 pm. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason at nasonc@nbnet.nb.ca.

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Photos of the Month – February 2020

[Featured image above by Richard Haché]

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