February 1, 2017

The Night Sky:
Look for Mars and Venus at sunset in February


Mars and Venus will be visible in the SW at sunset for all of February.  Uranus starts the month slightly higher in the skies but you will probably need a good pair of binoculars to see it. Throughout most of the month, it will appear to get closer and closer to Mars.  On the 26th, you might be able to see both planets at the same time.

On February 1, Jupiter will rise in the east at 11:00 PM.  Right behind it and slightly to the South, another bright object will rise.  Don’t mistake it for a planet.  That’s Spica, the 15th brightest star in the night sky.

The bright star in the East at sundown is Procyon.  It’s the 8th brightest star in the night sky with a visual magnitude of +0.4. If you look closely (with a telescope), you will see it’s a binary system, but Procyon’s companion is much dimmer, with a visual magnitude of +10.80.

Procyon is an ancient Greek word for “before the dog.”   It got this name because Sirius, the dog star, rises just after Procyon.  Procyon, Sirius, and Betelgeuse (the Eastern shoulder star in Orion) are the corner stars of the “Winter Triangle.”


This image offers four nebulae for the price of one.  The Horsehead Nebula is displayed on the right of the page and the Flame Nebula is on the left.  In between and below them are two small reflection nebulae, NGC 2023 and HD 38087 (surrounding the double star.)  Even though the image makes all four look close to each other, they are really pretty far apart.  The Horse Head Nebula is 1500 light years away from us while the Flame Nebula is only about 1350 light years away.  When you think about 150 light years, it might not sound like a great distance, but that’s 900,000,000,000 (9 hundred billion) miles between the two! Not the kind of distance you want to drive for the weekend! HD 38087 is relatively close to us at 180 light years but that means it is not even close to the Horse Head Nebula. NGC 2023 is, astronomically speaking, very close to the Horse Head.  It’s about 1470 light years away, which means it could be within 30 light years of the Horse Head (that’s still 180 billion miles!)

I couldn’t help but notice that NGC 2023 and HD 38087 don’t appear to have any common names associated with them.  For some reason they remind me of Nags Head and Buxton.  Maybe the pair could be called the Outer Banks Nebula?

If these distances make you uncomfortable, don’t feel alone.  When I started putting these figure together, I had to take pause a couple of times to consider them.  This anecdote might make them a little bit more understandable:

Recently, an Earth-size planet was been discovered orbiting Proxima Centuri.   Proxima Centuri is the closest star to Earth (not counting the Sun).  It’s only 4.37 light years away.  You probably remember the great images of Pluto that came from the New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. It took  New Horizons 9.5 years to reach Pluto.  Traveling at the same speed (52 thousand mph) a similar vessel could get to Proxima Centuri in about 54 thousand years!  If you have the time and money and could build a spaceship using the same technology, you could reach the Horse Head Nebula in about 6 million years.  A lot of changes can come and go in that amount of time!

Moon phases:

First Quarter: February 3
Full moon: February 10
Last Quarter: February 18
New moon: February 26

(Gerry Lebing is a retired computer scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C.  He has visited Hatteras Island since the mid-1970s. He and his wife, Karen, have owned property here for several years and moved to their home in Waves full-time in 2013.  Astronomy is a subject that Gerry says he has always been interested in and one that he pursues seriously -- he's built an small observatory next to his house. You can send him questions about the night sky through e-mail, [email protected]g.)

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