In the Sky

We will really begin to see the change in day length in February. On Saturday, Feb. 1, sunrise will be at about 7:30 a.m., with sunset at about 5:10 p.m. By the end of the month, sunrise will be at 6:45 a.m., and sunset at 5:52 p.m. Day length will increase by about an hour and a half during the month.

In January I said I would describe something in the night sky you can observe with binoculars every month. January’s object was the Pleiades star cluster, but I’m not sure if anyone got a chance to check it out given our typical January weather. Not much in the way of clear skies!

This month’s object is a bright star in the constellation Orion—Betelgeuse. You may remember it from the movie, when it was pronounced “Beetlejuice,” but I think it is supposed to be “Betelgeeze.” At least, that is the way I say it. Betelgeuse is in the familiar constellation Orion, and is the shoulder star on the left side of the hunter, as we look at it.

Betelgeuse is one of the brightest stars in the night sky and appears distinctly orange in color. It is a supergiant, one of the largest stars we can see. If Betelgeuse were located where our Sun is, it would extend out beyond Mars! It is also a “variable” star, one that varies a bit in brightness, with the period of variance being about 400 days. And it is of current interest, as Betelgeuse has gone from the 10th brightest star in the sky to about 23rd as of last December.

It is normally much brighter than the star that makes up Orion’s other shoulder—Bellatrix. But right now the two stars are about the same brightness. Check it out when skies are clear. It is predicted that Betelgeuse will end its life in a supernova … in about 100,000 years or so. So don’t stay up late waiting for that!

A first-quarter Moon greets us on Feb. 1 in the southwest, to the right of Orion and Taurus. On Feb. 3, the bright Moon will lie just to the right of the bright star Aldebaran, another red-giant star. Compare it to Betelgeuse and see if you can detect the orange tint. Full Moon occurs on Feb. 9, with new Moon following on Feb. 23. On the morning of Feb. 18, the waning crescent Moon will lie just to the left of Mars, a nice conjunction to view. Check it out at about 5 a.m. if skies are clear.

Venus will again be prominent in the southwestern sky after sunset. In the first half of the month, Mercury will also be visible below and to the right of Venus. Mercury will be brighter than nearby stars, but look right after sunset, as our innermost planet will set soon after.

Another easily recognizable constellation is rising in the east during February—Leo the Lion. The “head” of the Lion resembles a backwards question mark, or a sickle. The brightest star, Regulus, has a small “companion” star that is visible in binoculars. Leo will be above the eastern horizon by 9 p.m. in early February.

Late in 2019, I had a call from a person who saw something odd—a line of white dots that appeared to move in unison across the sky. I think what the person saw was a group of “Starlink” satellites. The satellites are part of an effort to place small satellites in orbit for a global broadband network.

The company behind the project, SpaceX, initially launched 60 satellites in the spring, and another 60 in November. In January, 120 were launched.

After launch, and before they attain their full altitude, they are visible as a bright line of satellites in the morning or evening sky. Once they attain their full altitude and spread out, they are less visible. The company intends to launch thousands of satellites, and a few other companies are developing similar fleets of satellites.

Professional and amateur astronomers are concerned about the impact on photography and data collection. Companies are working with the astronomy community—hopefully they will not markedly interfere with our view of the night sky.

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