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February Night Sky

February 2008 Night Sky

—Charlie Christmann

A Comet Worth Watching

There is a new comet in the night sky and it should be visible in mid-February. Comet Lulin (C/2007 N3) was discovered by astronomers from Taiwan and China in 2007. During the beginning of the month, it will be a dim target even for binoculars—a small telescope should be able to find it.

On February 24, Lulin will glide by Earth 14.5 times the distance to the Moon. Hopefully, it will have brightened to a 5th magnitude object, visible to those away from city lights. Using binoculars, look in the constellation Libra in early February. By the 12th, the comet will enter Virgo. On the 16th and 17th, you will find the comet just above Spica, the brightest star in Virgo, rising in the east just after 10:00 p.m.

On the 24th, at closest approach, Lulin will be just below Saturn. Look for Leo, in the east at 7:00 p.m., to find Saturn. Then, on the 28th, you can find Lulin just below Regulus, the brightest star in Leo.

Comet Lulin will be speeding along at more than five degrees per day! This means that in a telescope or binoculars, you will be able to see the comet’s motion relative to the background stars. This is an usual effect, a real must-see.

All accounts indicate this is a virgin comet making its way to the inner solar system for the first time. Almost anything can happen as Lulin approaches, and then leaves the Sun and warms up. Stay tuned.

Iridium Flares

A neighbor saw his first Iridium flare last month and wondered what caused this bright flash in the sky. If you have never seen one of these, there are many chances both night and day to see one.

Iridium flares are caused by the sun reflecting off one of the Iridium satellites‘ solar panels or its giant dish antenna. These satellites belong to the satellite telephone service you may have seen reporters using from Iraq in the past.

The antennas sometimes reflect the sun to Earth in a narrow six-mile-wide path that travels very quickly—and briefly—across the Earth’s surface. These flares are very predictable. Some flares can reach a brightness of -8 magnitude.

Are you ready to catch this one- to two-second-long event? I use heavens-above.com to find satellites to observe. They predict the flares very accurately for the next week. (See box for examples of flares over Placitas during the end of January.)

You have to be ready and look quickly, but you will be amazed at this spectacular event.

Planets and Moon

Mercury will spend its time in the glare of the Sun in February.

Venus sets in the west around 9:00 p.m. It is still shining very brightly and is hard to miss. The Moon joins Venus in sky on the 27th.

Mars can be found in the east late in the month, rising about 5:45 a.m.

Jupiter, too, is a morning g star late in the month rising about 5:30 a.m. On the morning of the 22nd, look for a Moon-Jupiter-Mercury conjunction fifteen minutes before sunrise. Jupiter will be to the left of the Moon with Mercury between them.

Saturn graces the sky about 9:00 p.m., rising in the east. There is a Saturn-Moon conjunction on the 10th.

Look for a penumbral lunar eclipse on the 9th. This means that the Moon will not be in full shadow, but will dim slightly. The event starts at 7:49 p.m. MST. The Moon is full on the 9th and new on the 24th.

     

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