night sky

Eyes on the skies — February, 2017

Welcome to the new Ontario Parks “eyes on the skies” series. This space (<– see what we did there?) will cover a wide range of astronomy topics with a focus on what can be seen from the pristine skies found in our provincial parks.

The month of February brings the promise of both warmer weather and clearer skies. So grab a cup of tea or hot chocolate, dress warmly, and spend the day outdoors.

And when the sun goes down and the stars start to shine, don’t forget to head back out to enjoy the season’s beautiful night skies!

Here are our astronomical highlights for February, 2017:

The sun

winter hiker sipping hot chocolateDecember and early January are the darkest months of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. The ancients noticed this fact and were very much concerned that the sun’s apparent southerly motion would continue, leaving us with no light at all to nourish our crops, animals and ourselves.

Many cultures worshiped the sun and celebrated festivals to appease the sun god or goddess into returning higher in the sky. By the end of February, it is quite apparent that the sun is much higher and this gladdens the heart, both ancient and present.

The moon

The phases of the moon are the effect produced by reflected light from the sun bouncing off the moon, as it moves around us during its 271/3 day cycle.

We generally see the “waxing crescent” through “full moon” phases in the evening and late night and “waning gibbous” through “waning crescent” in the early hours of the morning.

phases-of-the-moon
Click to embiggen 😉

New moon occurs when the moon lies (relatively) between us and the sun. No light is reflected towards us, rendering the moon invisible.

The moon’s motions are quite interesting in that the moon goes around the earth in exactly the same time as it takes to rotate once. As a result, we always see the same side of the moon pointing towards us (we never see the far side of the moon). The “dark side of the moon’ is simply the portion that we see that is not fully lit.

February’s evening phases of the moon occur as follows:

  • Waxing crescent on February 1
  • First quarter on the February 4
  • Waxing gibbous on February 8
  • Full moon on the February 11

Check back next month to learn how to find the “lady in the moon.”

The planets

stars over Frontenac

Venus and Mars continue to be visible in the night sky. Venus is so bright, it’s hard to miss and may mistaken for other objects (distant lights, planes, etc.).

Venus is the only planet that is visible even during the daytime without a telescope or binoculars. In a clear provincial park sky, far away from sources of pollutants, you may be able to see it if you shield yourself from the sun. The best way to look is to note where it is at sunset on a certain day and then come back the next day a little before sunset and try to find it a little higher up in the sky.

Mars continues to be visible a little bit to the left of Venus, but it is noticeably dimmer. Mars will become prominent and shine brightly again in another year or so.

In the morning sky, two planets are now visible. Jupiter, described in last month’s blog, is well placed, high in the south by around 3:00 am.

saturnSaturn, the ringed planet, rises around 4:30 in the morning and is visible low in the southwest at sunrise. Because of its size and beautiful ring system, Saturn is considered to be the “crown jewel” of the solar system.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a telescope or can access an observatory in one of our provincial parks, you will be able to see the rings, as in this picture taken through the Killarney Provincial Park Observatory telescope.

Featured constellations

winter-campsiteFor thousands of years, people have looked to the stars to try to understand their purpose and the role they play in our lives. To help memorize the different stars, patterns of connect-the-dot figures were created by many different cultures. Today, we recognize 88 official patterns or “constellations” of stars. A constellation is merely a two-dimensional view of the stars as seen from our planet. The stars are actually at quite different distances from us and are generally unrelated to the other constellation stars.

In last month’s blog, we discussed Orion the Hunter, as well as a number of other prominent constellations seen in the winter. This month’s post will focus on three others, most notable Gemini the Twins.

Gemini the Twins

gemini-constellation

High overhead is the constellation of Gemini the Twins. Unlike many constellations, Gemini really looks like what it is supposed to be – twin people. The constellation is a pair of stick figures “Castor” and “Pollux.” Each figure is named for the brightest star at its head. To remember which is which, remember that the star Castor is closer to Polaris, the North Star, than his brother Pollux.

The star Pollux was one of the first discovered to be harbouring an extrasolar planet (2006) – a planet beyond our solar system. Now, thanks to various methods including the orbiting Kepler spacecraft, we know of thousands of extrasolar planets.

Pollux’s brother star, Castor, is a remarkable star. Astronomers have found that nearly half of all stars have companions. While most of these companion groupings occur as double stars (two stars in orbit around one another) Castor actually is made up of 3 pairs of double stars (6 stars in total). Unfortunately, most of the 6 stars are too close together for us to observe without a special telescope.

The body of Castor extends downwards to its giant foot. Looking above its toe in binoculars, one can find an open cluster; a loose grouping of stars that have all formed together from a giant gas cloud. While the cloud may have dissipated, the leftover stars can still be seen.

Auriga, the Charioteer

gemini-constellation

To the right of Gemini the Twins lies the constellation of Auriga, the Charioteer. Unlike its neighbour, seeing a charioteer here requires a tremendous amount of creative imagination. However, if you stretch your perspective a bit, you’ll see a house with a base, two walls and a three-pointed roof.

The brightest star in Auriga is Capella. This star is one of the brightest stars in the winter sky, though it can also be seen rising around midnight during the summer. Many a time a camper who stay up past midnight in the summertime will note a bright twinkling object rising in the east. That star is Capella.
Within Auriga, towards its left (east) side are three more open star clusters each similar to the one found in Gemini.

Canis Minor, the Lesser Dog

Rounding out our three February constellations is Canis Minor, the Lesser Dog. The brightest star in this very small constellation is Procyon, which means “before the dog” because it rises before the bright dog star – Sirius.

This completes our review of February skies

Remember to bundle up and take in the view from our parks. The stars await those who make the effort to enjoy them!

Killarney observatory

Spending Family Day Weekend at Killarney? Don’t miss the Saturday Stargazing at the Observatory!