Stargazing: Longer days, shorter nights, plenty to see

The Up Helly A’ festival is past and the fire festival season heralds the return of the longer, lighter days. The length of the night shortens. This year the best astronomical action occurs after midnight, so maybe it should be early to bed, early to rise, as there is a little comet to find.

Sun  :  Moon
Rise – Set  :  Rise – Set

1st 8.19am – 4.18pm  :  8.56am – –
14th 7.46am – 4.53pm  :  – – 8.05am
28th 7.06am – 5.29pm  :  7.08am – 10.26pm
New Moon is on the 25th and Full Moon is on the 9th.

Sunset to 10pm
The Moon is out of the sky from the 11th to the 27th.

While Venus remains prominent in the evening sky the planet Uranus comes closer to the horizon and harder to find. On the 27th there is a two-and-a-half-day-old Moon just below the planet Venus.

From the 23rd Comet Lulin can be found in the evening sky, higher in the sky than Saturn in the east.

10pm to 2am
The Moon is out of the sky from the 15th to the 28th.

The planet Saturn is the planet of the skies after Venus sets. It is nearly due south at midnight as it heads to its opposition in March. Look for it at the tail end of the constellation Leo. Binoculars should show the little spikes that are the planet’s famous rings and small telescopes should resolve them.

2am to sunrise
The Moon is out of the sky from the 1st to the 4th and the 18th to the 28th.

The morning hours are the times to look for Comet Lulin. Yes, you can wait until later in the month and try to find it in the late evening, but it will be fainter. So try for an early rising yourself to catch the comet and the planet Saturn.

If you have a large telescope then Pluto has returned lows down in the morning skies.

As the evening draws in the planet Venus is that bright object in the south-western sky. There are only four astronomical objects that I have known to cast a shadow. There is that everyday object the Sun. Obviously the Moon casts shadows. I have seen shadows from very bright fireball meteors and the fourth object is the planet Venus.

You need somewhere very dark where you can let your eyes fully adapt over 20 minutes. You then turn your back to the planet and, maybe with averted vision, hopefully see a faint shadow of yourself in the “light of Venus”.

Averted vision is when you do not look directly at the thing you are interested in but usually you look to the right of it. This brings the eyes’ more light sensitive but less colour sensitive area into use.

There are no large meteor showers in February. There is a minor shower called the Delta Leonids so there will be “shooting stars” to view.

There are many telescopic comets about but February may bring a binocular comet into view – Comet Lulin. The map shows its path across the sky in February so you can search carefully above the south and south-western horizon before dawn.

It will not be a spectacular “poke your eyes out” comet, more a fuzzy star. On the 24th, around 2.30am, the comet will be within half a binocular field below Saturn and this is also the day it is closest to Earth, about 14 or 15 times the dis­tance of the Earth to the Moon away.

Another point of note about this comet is that it is moving around the Sun in the opposite direction to the planets so for a comet it fair races across the sky. Find it and watch it long enough and you may see that it has moved against the stars and each 24 hours it will move around a binocular field across the sky. For a more accurate map those with internet access can use the Heavens Above website. And why Lulin? It was dis­covered during the Lulin Sky Survey for dangerous near Earth objects.

Every month brings a sprinkling of astronomical and space re­lated anniversaries, but this year has been designated the International Year of Astronomy. The reason is the 400th anniversary of when Galileo used the telescope on astronomical objects. The 445th anniversary of his birth is on the 15th.

Clear skies.

Chris Brown


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