night sky

Eyes on the skies – February

Welcome to the Ontario Parks “Eyes on the Skies” series. This “space” 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, bundle up, 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:

The sun

Sunrise
December 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.

February 1 February 15 February 28
Sunrise 7:48 7:33 7:07
Midday 12:39 12:40 12:38
Sunset 17:31 17:47 18:10

The moon

The phases of the moon we see are produced by reflected light from the sun bouncing off the moon.

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. 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.

The moon goes around the Earth in about 29 ½ days. In all years, other than leap years, February has only 28 days. So if, by chance, the full moon occurs on January 31, then we will never get a full moon in February, but two full Moons in January and March!

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

The planets

stars over Frontenac

After the spectacular close encounter of the Moon with Jupiter and Venus (in the early morning skies of late January), the two planets are gradually moving further apart as seen from the Earth’s skies.

Venus is the only planet that is visible 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 is visible in the evening sky in the constellation of Aries. The Earth has moved much further in its orbit than Mars has, and as a result, we are now much further away than six months ago. At that point, Mars appeared (in telescopes) almost four times larger than it does today. Its next big viewing will be in late September, early October 2020.

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 am and is visible low in the southwest at sunrise, making it very difficult to see. 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.

Apollo Landing Anniversary

Observing the moon and its eclipses has fascinated us since ancient times. It should come as no surprise that when humanity devoted its tremendous energy and potential to crewed space exploration, the moon was its first target.

This year marks an incredible anniversary for humankind.

Fifty years ago, in July and December of 1969, humanity landed 2 crews (Apollo 11 and 12) onto the surface of the moon. This amazing feat was the result of the combined accomplishment of over 400,000 workers, including a number of key roles filled by Canadian engineers.

The Apollo 11 and 12 landing sites on the full Moon
Apollo 11 and 12 landing sites on the full moon

The crewed exploration of the moon has led to significant advancements in our knowledge of how both the moon and earth formed.

Perhaps, with a great deal of time, robotic spacecraft could have yielded similar results. But perhaps not.

While uncovering and investigating unique rocky outcrops with cameras and instrumentation back on earth has been extremely successful, it often lacks the context of how one rock relates to another and where they’re located.

Sometimes, it’s this context that makes all the difference in understanding  the difference between a unique find that completely changes our understanding or just another rock.

There is another legacy of the Apollo landings, a certain something to be said for humanity’s personal journey of exploration.

Apollo 11 landing site. Visible are the decent stage and numerous foot paths. Photo: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

It may be our drive to work together, to achieve a common goal to solve the mysteries of the universe that most separates us from the other animals.

Perhaps the myriad of inventions and discoveries that were made along the way.

In either event, this 50th anniversary should be remembered and celebrated by all of humanity as it was back in 1969.

There will be much celebration in regards to this event by science museums everywhere.

Science North and the Ontario Science Centre, as well as other venues will feature special programs devoted to this important historic event.

Now more than ever, we should look back to those days so many years ago and rejoice in our accomplishments while learning from our errors. Humanity is now looking towards going back to the moon and beyond to Mars.

Let’s learn from the failures of the past so we can succeed in our goals for the future.

February constellations

There are many popular constellations that are associated with this time of the year. Want to learn more about Gemini?

gemini-constellation

Meteor Showers

February and March are generally quiet months for meteor observing. Our next good meteor shower is the Lyrids, which peak in late April.

Did you know…

…you can actually improve your ability to see in the dark!

Campfire landscapeMost people do not realize there are a number of techniques you can use to improve your night vision.

Check out this article to discover four things you can do to see better in the dark.

We hope it will allow you to not only see more objects in the night sky, but to safely navigate your campsite at nighttime.

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!