The Evening Sky in February 2023
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The Evening Sky in February 2023
Venus and Jupiter are the ‘evening stars’, both low in the west. Brilliant Venus sets 70 minutes after the Sun through the month. Golden Jupiter sets more than two hours after the Sun at the beginning of the month but sinks steadily lower night to night. At the end of February Jupiter will be near Venus. The thin crescent Moon will be beside Venus on the 22nd and above Jupiter on the 23rd.
We are moving to the far side of the Sun from Jupiter, hence its steady fall in the west. It is 840 million km away mid-month. Venus, on the inside track, is slowly catching up with us. As it does so it will move higher in the evening sky till June. After that it will fall lower as it passes between us and the Sun.
Mars is a bright orange-red ‘star’ low in the sky a little west of due north. Above it are the orange stars Aldebaran, fainter than Mars, and Betelgeuse, similar in brightness to Mars. We are leaving Mars behind so it is fading. At mid-month it is 150 million km away. The Moon will be near Mars on the 28th.
Sirius and Canopus are the brightest true stars. Sirius, the brightest of all the stars, is north of overhead. Canopus, the second brightest star, is a bit south of overhead. Both stars are white in colour.
Sirius, 'the Dog Star', marks the head of Canis Major the big dog. A group of stars above and right of it make the dog's hindquarters and tail, upside down. Procyon, in the northeast below Sirius, marks the smaller of the two dogs that follow Orion the hunter across the sky. Sirius is 8.6 light years* away.
Below and left of Sirius are bluish Rigel and orange Betelgeuse, the brightest stars in Orion. Between them is a line of three stars: Orion's belt. To southern hemisphere star watchers, the line of three makes the bottom of 'The Pot'. The handle of The Pot is Orion's sword, a fainter line of stars above the bright three. At its centre is the Orion Nebula; a glowing gas cloud around 1300 light years away.
Orion's belt points down and left to the orange star Aldebaran. Continuing the line finds the Pleiades or Matariki star cluster, well to the left of Mars. Aldebaran makes one eye of Taurus the bull. It is on one tip of an upside-down V of stars making the face of Taurus. These constellation pictures were thought up by northern hemisphere folk so are upside down to us.
The V-shaped group is called the Hyades cluster. It is 130 light years away. Aldebaran is not a member of the cluster but merely on the line of sight, 65 light years from us. It is a red-giant star 145 times brighter than the sun. The Pleiades/Matariki star cluster is also known as the Seven Sisters and Subaru among many names. The cluster is 440 light years from us. From northern Aotearoa the bright star Capella is on the north skyline. It is 90,000 times brighter than the sun and 3300 light years away.
Crux, the Southern Cross, is in the southeast. Below it are Beta and Alpha Centauri, often called 'The Pointers'. Alpha Centauri is the closest naked-eye star, 4.3 light years away. Beta Centauri is a blue-giant star hundreds of light years away, as are most of the stars in Crux. Canopus is also a very luminous distant star; 13 000 times brighter than the sun and 300 light years away.
The Milky Way is brightest in the southeast toward Crux. It can be traced up the sky, fading where it is nearly overhead. It becomes very faint east, or right, of Orion. The Milky Way is our edgewise view of the galaxy, the pancake of billions of stars of which the sun is just one.
The Clouds of Magellan, LMC and SMC are high in the south sky, easily seen by eye on a dark moonless night. They are two small galaxies about 160 000 and 200 000 light years away.
Mercury is in the morning sky, rising in the southeast around 4:30 a.m. at the beginning of the month. It is a lone bright ‘star’ in an empty region of sky. The thin crescent Moon will be above Mercury on the morning of the 19th.
*A light year (l.y.)is the distance that light travels in one year: nearly 10 million million km or 10^13 km. Sunlight takes eight minutes to get here; moonlight about one second. Sunlight reaches Neptune, the outermost major planet, in four hours. It takes four years for sunlight to reach the nearest star, Alpha Centauri.
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