It's February and the winter constellations of Orion, Taurus, Auriga and Gemini continue to fill our night sky as they make their annual journey westward. During the first part of the night, you can see them in the south and, using Orion’s belt as a guide, you can easily find your way around them. Another good signpost or guide is the Winter Circle asterism, a giant hexagon linking the bright stars Capella, Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, and Castor.
This month, the sun sets around 5:20 pm and the stars and the constellations start to become visible from about 7:20 pm onwards. In addition, the night sky for this month is very similar to last month’s with Orion (the Hunter) Taurus (the Bull) and Auriga (the Charioteer) filling much of it. As darkness falls, the most obvious constellation you’ll see is Orion, which can easily be found by spotting the line of three bright stars (Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka) which make up Orion’s Belt. You’ll see it appear not long after dark if you look in the sky to the south along with the quadrilateral of other stars that surround it to make up Orion’s torso and legs. His shoulders are formed by Bellatrix to the right and the far brighter, blood-red Betelgeuse to the left. The slightly brighter, blue-white Rigel is Orion’s right foot, while the fainter Saiph is his left foot.
If you follow the line of Orion’s belt heading left and slightly down, you will find Sirius the brightest star in the constellation of Canis Major (the Greater Dog), the larger or Orion’s two hunting dogs which is depicted as chasing Lepus, the Hare – a faint constellation directly below Orion. Sirius is also the brightest star in the night sky and appears very low down at our northern latitude. This can cause it to twinkle quite strongly, especially on a clear frosty night.
Orion other dog, Canis Minor or the Lesser Dog, can be found directly to his left and its main star is Procyon, the 8th brightest star in the sky. Above Procyon are two stars, Castor and Pollux, which mark the heads of the Twins, Gemini. The bodies of the Twins are the two lines of stars which extend towards Orion.
Another thing you can see in the southern sky is the Winter Circle, a pattern of stars that is not a constellation. It’s made up of a lot of separate stars, in different constellations, so it’s what is called an asterism. It doesn’t form a perfect circle, but instead a hexagon that you can find if you start at Capella and move clockwise to Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, and Castor. In addition to the Winter Circle, Orion’s bright star Betelgeuse forms an equilateral triangle with the stars Sirius and Procyon. This what is called the Winter Triangle.
If you go back to Orion’s belt and look carefully about half way down between it and the two stars that mark the Hunter’s left and right feet, you should be able to see a bright patch. This is the Orion Nebula, one of the brightest nebulae, or clouds of gas from which stars are born in the sky. One of many in our Milky Way galaxy, it lies roughly 1,300 light-years from Earth and is some 30 to 40 light-years in diameter. Look at it with binoculars or a telescope and you should see swirls of gas, though the darker and clearer the sky you have, the better. In it, you should also be able to pick out The Trapezium Cluster, which is made up of four bright stars that are only a million or so years old, babies on the scale of star lifetimes.
Looking north, the thing to bear in mind is that the constellations you see do not change from month to month, it is only their orientation that changes. Look for the seven stars of the Plough, up in the north-east, and the W-shape of Cassiopeia, high up in the north-west at this time of year. The Plough is known as the Big Dipper in North America. Use its two right-hand stars to point towards the Pole Star, Polaris, which is always in the same position in the sky. Once you’ve found it, you can use it to get your bearings on any night, though all the other northern constellations wheel around it anticlockwise.
Polaris is a second-magnitude star, about the same as the stars in the Plough or Cassiopeia, so don’t expect anything particularly bright. It’s just by chance that this millennium it happens to be very close to the pole of the sky, but there is a slow movement of the sky over the centuries that shifts the position of the stars, and 1000 years ago it wasn’t as close as it is now.
As Capella is pretty much overhead you will also see it when you are looking north. It is the sixth-brightest star in the night sky, and the third-brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere after Arcturus and Vega. You’ll find Arcturus over in the North-East. It is the brightest star in the constellation of Boötes (the Herdsman), the fourth-brightest in the night sky, and the brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere. You’ll find Vega low down on the northern horizon. It is the brightest star on the constellation of Lyra (the Lyre), the fifth-brightest in the night sky, and the second-brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere.
The first quarter moon is on 19 February when it will by lying to the left of Mars, the right of Aldebaran and below the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster. The night before, on 18 February, it will by lying below and very close to Mars.
You’ll see this month’s full moon on 27 February. It is named the Snow Moon after the snowy weather typically found in North America in this month and some North American tribes named it the Hunger Moon due to the scarce food sources during mid-winter, while other names are Storm Moon and Chaste Moon, but the last name is more common for the March Full Moon.
Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury and Venus have all now disappeared from view, leaving the only one of the five bright planets, Mars, visible to us this month. It continues to move further and further away for us, becoming less bright as it does so, however it is still bright enough for us to make out its reddish glow.
If you have a telescope, you may be able to spot Neptune and Uranus, our two outermost planets, lying to the lower right of Mars. Neptune sets at around 7:30pm while the slightly brighter Uranus sinks below the horizon around midnight.
We are now in a quiet period for meteor showers, until the Lyrid meteor becomes active on 16 April. It will peak on the night of 21-22 April, the night after a first quarter Moon. This means that the moon will be quite bright, so the best time to try and spot the Lyrids will be in hour or two between moonset and dawn.
Hi, I’m Steven Marshall, a Scottish landscape photographer based at Rockpool House in the heart of the beautiful West Highland Peninsulas of Sunart, Morvern, Moidart, Ardgour and Ardnamurchan. Get in touch for photography tuition, tours and print sales.