Orion strides ever closer to the western horizon as winter gives way to spring. Following obediently behind him, you can see his dogs, Canis Major (with bright Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky) and Canis Minor and also, above them, Castor and Pollux, the heavenly twins. Discover the February night skies with our Dark Skies Advisor Steve Tonkin.
Above Orion we see an often-overlooked constellation, Auriga, the Charioteer – looking more like a wonky hexagon than any sort of human form. The primary star is Capella, the 4th brightest star visible from Britain. Capella means ‘she-goat’ and below her we see a pair of stars that represent her children.
On a dark night, you can just pick out a pair of asterisms (informal star patterns) with your unaided eye, but binoculars will really bring them to life. Near the bottom of the hexagon we find The Leaping Minnow, so called because the pattern of stars looks like a tiny version of the constellation Delphinus, the Dolphin.
You may recall from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that the Cheshire Cat disappeared, leaving only his mischievous smile. Above the Minnow, lying on its side, we find that smile and the last glimpse of his eyes. You may have noticed that there is a fuzzy blob on the upper corner of the Cat’s mouth. This is, in fact, a little cluster of about a hundred newly minted (in astronomical terms – about 250 million years ago) stars. It’s designated M38 in the chart. There are another couple of similar clusters, M36 and M37, nearby. What differences can you see between them?
Finally, this month, you have an opportunity to spot the 7th planet from the Sun, Uranus. In the 15th it will be very close to the first quarter Moon (see the chart above). You will need binoculars or a telescope to see it, but you should be able to detect that it has a greenish hue. This huge ice giant takes eighty-four years to make a complete circuit of the Sun, so it moves very little from night to night.
Of course, if you want help to see any of these celestial delights, come along to one of our public stargazing evenings and, weather permitting, we’ll be delighted to show you around the magnificent environment above the International Dark Sky Reserve’s horizon. Clear Skies!