The February 2016 Night Sky
Goodbye January blues, hello February fun! We’re already into the second month of our new year and it’s been absolutely amazing for stargazing already. Before we get in to what you can hope to gaze at this month, I want to point out to you all that this February is in fact a leap year! If you’ve ever been a bit confused as to how we get leap years here is how it works. It takes the Earth 365 ¼ days to orbit the Sun once. To help synchronise the calendar year with the solar year, every four years these ¼ days are added up to make that one extra day, giving us a year with 366 days.
The first thing I would urge you to see this month is something that is pretty rare, and pretty spectacular too. From 20th January, right up until 20th February, you have been able to see all five of the brightest planets in our Solar System in the sky at once. This hasn’t happened since 2005. When I use the term “brightest planets,” I am referring to the fact that these planets can be seen with the unaided eye. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn will be visible in the sky just before dawn, so if you were to set your alarm early for anything, to see this wonderful sight would be the thing. Make sure to take a telescope or a pair of binoculars to get the best views.
Tiny Mercury is the most challenging of these planets to see as it is so low in the sky and close to the Sun but by 7 February Mercury will be at its greatest western elongation in the sky. This elongation will be at 25.6 degrees from the Sun. This will be the best time to view the planet as it will be at its highest point on the horizon. We’re going to be keeping a close eye on Mercury this year and here’s why. Thirteen times a century Mercury can be observed from the Earth passing across the face of the Sun in an event called a “transit.” The next will occur on 9 May 2016! How exciting! The first ever transit of Mercury was recorded in 1631, and the last transit of Mercury that was observed from Earth was back in November 2006. Weather permitting, May’s transit will be visible across the Americas and western Europe, so have your solarscopes ready!
If you hadn’t already remembered, February is the month of Valentine’s Day. If you’re stuck for something to do with your Valentine this year, why not try going out stargazing. There are some brilliant love stories up in the night sky, so why not impress your loved one with your new found knowledge of these constellations.
Corona Borealis, otherwise known as the Northern Crown, can be seen this month low down on the eastern horizon at around 11pm. The story of the Northern Crown is one of heartache and joy, just like any good love story. The Northern Crown represents the crown worn by Princess Ariadne on her wedding day. The story goes that after helping Theseus defeat the Minotaur and escape that infamous labyrinth, Ariadne decided to set sail with the hero. She soon found herself abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos. Here she wept for what had happened and the god Dionysus spotted her, and instantly fell in love. The god saved the Princess from the island and soon the two were married. At the wedding, Ariadne wore a crown made by the god Hephaestus, and threw it into the sky after the ceremony. It is said that the jewels turned into stars which now form the constellation.
Now if that wasn’t impressive enough, here are some science facts about the constellation too, and this should really wow your valentine. The brightest star in this constellation is Alpha Coronae Borealis (also known as Alphecca), and it is located roughly 75 light years away from the Earth. An A0V type star, Alphecca is actually the primary of a binary system with a G5 type companion star. Alphecca seems to be circled by an extensive dusty disc similar to the one around Vega.The area within the constellation Corona Borealis (inside the crown, not the stars that make up the pattern) also contains some very intriguing stars. The yellow supergiant R Coronae Borealis is the prototype of a rare class of giant stars, the R Coronae Borealis variables. R Coronae Borealis variables are an eruptive variable star that varies in luminosity in two ways, one low amplitude pulsation (a few tenths of a magnitude), and one irregular unpredictably sudden fading by 1 to 9 magnitudes.
The constellation Virgo also has a love story behind it, although it is a rather more sinister one. You could maybe describe this story as one of unrequited love. Virgo can be seen in the east at 11pm and it is the second biggest constellation in the night sky. The story of this constellation focuses on the Greek gods, namely Persephone, Hades, Demeter and Zeus. Persephone was the goddess of the spring and was the daughter of Demeter. She was out wandering the fields when Hades spotted her, abducted her and took her back to the underworld to be his wife. Persephone was a stubborn goddess however and she refused Hades’ attention in the underworld. Hades did everything to try and win her, gave her jewels, fine clothing and even people to be her own personal entertainment, but she still refused him. She also refused to eat anything. When her mother, Demeter found out about her daughter’s abduction she was furious and refused to allow anything to grow. Soon famine spread and people started dying.
Demeter went to Zeus to try and get him to bring Persephone back, but there was one condition that Zeus stipulated. If Persephone had eaten anything while in the underworld then she would have been considered a guest and not a captive and would have to remain as the wife of Hades. Demeter sent Hermes to go and retrieve her daughter, but Hermes found out that while in the underworld Persephone had eaten some pomegranate. Until she got her daughter back Demeter refused to let anything grow and so Zeus made a compromise. He would allow Persephone to stay with her mother for six months, but would then have to spend six months in the underworld with Hades. Demeter agreed to this however she said that when Persephone would be in the underworld nothing on the Earth would grow. Now here is some science about the constellation too, just to impress your loved one. The brightest star in the constellation of Virgo is called Spica and it is the fifteenth brightest star in the night sky. About 250 light years from us, blue giant Spica is the primary of a binary system where the stars (both B-types) are so close their gravitational pulls have distorted their shapes from spheres to ellipsoids. In early February 2016 Spica can be seen low in the sky between Mars and Jupiter.
Finally at the end of February we have a full Moon in the sky and so the sky will be illuminated with light, blocking out some of the deep sky stars and celestial objects. This full Moon is most commonly known as either the full snow moon, as heavy snow is most likely to fall in this month, or the full hunger moon. This month would have been the hardest for hunting and so many of our ancestors would have been feeling the hunger during this month.