Weekly Column - Baja Night Sky #75

Date: 19/02/2015

BAJA NIGHT SKY #75 -- February 19, 2015:

1) On Friday, February 20, Venus and Mars will be less than half a degree apart in the west. Their conjunction will include a two-day-old thin crescent moon. Around 7pm should be a good time to view this triple gathering.

2) The other three visible planets, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mercury are also easy to find. Jupiter is the brightest object above the eastern horizon during the early evening. Binoculars should enable you see at least 3 of its 63 (so far) moons. Jupiter is also well-placed to guide you to the famous Praesepe or Beehive open star cluster also referred to as M44 (the 44th entry in Charles Messier's catalogue of hazy objects that are not comets). In dark skies it appears to the naked eye as a small cloud or hazy patch. It was known to the ancient Chinese, Greeks and other observers. But it was not until Galileo pointed his newly invented telescope at this patch in 1609 that is was shown to be a collection of at least 50 stars. Binoculars will show over 100, and a telescope several hundred. This open cluster likely formed from the same giant cloud of gas that the Hyades cluster in Toro the Bull came from. They are both about 600 million years old and at a distance of about 600 light years from Earth. To find M44, first locate Jupiter again in the eastern sky. Slightly less bright Sirius is off to the southeast. Now measure 10 degrees above Jupiter, one fist at arm's length, and scan just below that mark to find a hazy patch. To resolve the patch into individual stars, scan with binoculars. If you find it, you just found your first Messier object. Amateur astronomers try to find all 110 in a long evening of viewing.

3) To find Saturn and Mercury, you will have to be up between 5 and 6am, a beautiful time of the morning. Saturn is high in the southeast, just to the left of the scorpion's head in the large J-shaped constellation of Scorpio. It is the brightest "star" in the group.

4) Look for Mercury shining in the southeast, not more than a fist above the horizon.

5) And directly south, low on the horizon, is Alpha Centauri (also known as Rigel Kentaurus), closest star to Earth at 4.3 light years, and 3rd brightest star in the night sky.

6) If you actually got up before 5:30am, there are some other stars you can spot that normally you have to wait until a summer evening to see. The Summer Triangle made up of Vega (5th brightest star in the sky), Deneb and Altair is midway to the zenith in the east. Next, find the Big Dipper in the northwest and follow the arc of its handle south across the sky to Arcturus, 4th brightest star in the sky. Speed on past Arcturus to Spica. By the way, that bright "star" just setting in the west is Jupiter again. If you missed it rising last night, catch it now.

By: Tom in El Sargento at

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