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Night Sky

February 2011 Night Sky

—Charlie Christmann

With the cold, crisp night air calming the turbulence in the atmosphere, February is a great month to step outside and just look at many of the bright stars in the night sky. The sky chart this month is timed for the middle of the month at 9:00 p.m.

Our tour will look toward the southern sky, where viewing of stars close to the horizon may be difficult to see with the light pollution generated by Albuquerque to the south. It is here Canopus resides, right on the southern horizon. Second in brightness only to Sirius, it is a member of the southern constellation of Carina, representing the keel of the ship Argo.  Canopus is 15,000 times more luminous than the Sun, and at 310 light-years away, it only appears dimmer than Sirius because of its distance. Because of its brightness and location well away from the ecliptic, Canopus is used for space navigation. Many spacecraft carry a special camera known as a "Canopus Star Tracker."

Moving higher in the southern sky, you’ll find Adara and Wezen just below Sirius. Like Sirius, these two stars are a part of Canis Major, the big dog. Adara is the 19th brightest star in the sky. Wezen is an unusual yellow F-type supergiant—it would almost fill Earth's orbit if put in place of the Sun. While it is only about 10 million years old, Wezen has already stopped fusing hydrogen in its core. This core is now contracting and heating up. It should start fusing helium in less than 100,000 years and will become a red supergiant similar to Antares.

The next star higher in the sky is the brightest in the night sky—Sirius. At a distance of only 8.6 light-years, it is the fifth closest known star. Images from the Hubble Space Telescope show a small, faint white dwarf companion in a 50-year orbit. This companion is only faint because of its size, only 7,500 miles in diameter. In a few billion years, our Sun will also become a white dwarf star.

Above and to the left of Sirius is Procyon, number seven on the brightest list. It is bright only because it is close to us—11.4 light-years away. It is 1.4 times the mass, twice the diameter, and 7.5 times more luminous than the Sun. Procyon forms one of the three vertices of the Winter Triangle, along with Sirius and Betelgeuse. Observations indicate that Procyon has completely fused its core hydrogen into helium and begun to expand. Within the next 10 to 100 million years, the star will swell between 80 and 150 times its current diameter, becoming a red or orange color. It also has a companion white dwarf star.

Halfway up the eastern sky is Regulus, the heart of Leo the Lion. It rotates extremely fast at its equator—709,000 miles per hour—which distorts it into looking like a squashed ball, bulging around the middle.

Two-thirds of the way up in the southwest, you’ll find Aldebaran. It’s an orange giant star located about 65 light-years away in the constellation of Taurus.

Dominating the scene is Orion, the great hunter in the southwest, with several luminous stars: Betelgeuse (right shoulder), Rigel (left foot), Alnilam (center belt), Bellatrix (left shoulder), and Saiph (right knee). Check previous "Night Sky" articles for information on Rigel and Betelgeuse. Alnilam shines most of its light in the ultraviolet spectrum and is about 40 times heavier than the Sun. Stars of this size are headed for a spectacular ending as a supernova. Alnilam is only four million years old but has already exhausted most of its hydrogen and will start fusing larger atoms, then turn into a red supergiant more luminous than Betelgeuse. Bellatrix is approaching the end of the current stage of its lifecycle. It is expected to evolve into an orange giant within a matter of a few million years. Already, it is developing a growing shell of gaseous matter that signals the beginning of its transformation. Saiph is Arabic, meaning “The Sword of the Giant.” This star is white hot at 50,000 degrees.

The final bright star this month is high in the northwest—Capella. Capella is the brightest star in the constellation Auriga the Charioteer. At a distance of 43 light-years, Capella is one of the sky's most famous double stars. It consists of a pair of similar first magnitude stars so close together that it has long been a challenge to separate them with a telescope. One of the stars in the pair has a dead helium core that is slowly preparing to fire up to fuse to carbon and oxygen. The other star may already be making carbon and oxygen at its core. The fate of this pair is unknown. When the more massive companion finishes fusing helium into carbon and oxygen, it will expand, engulfing the other star.

So, go outside, brave the cold, and enjoy the view of our night sky.

THE PLANETS AND MOON

  • Look early in the month for Mercury in the east, 30 to 15 minutes before sunrise. Binoculars will help spot the planet in the dawn glow. Take care not to look at the Sun with binoculars.
  • Venus rises before 4:30 a.m. this month and is the bright “morning star” in the east.
  • Mars is rising and setting with the Sun and is not visible.
  • Jupiter will be high in the west at sunset this month. There is a Moon-Jupiter conjunction on the 6th.
  • Saturn is moving fast across the evening sky, rising at 10:40 p.m. on the 1st, 9:43 p.m. on the 15th, and at 8:49 p.m. on the 28th this month. One hour before sunrise on the 21st, look for a triple conjunction between the Moon, Saturn, and Spica. Spica will be above and to the left of the Moon.
  • The Moon will be new on Groundhog Day, February 2nd. The full Moon occurs on the 18th. Look for the Moon and Antares to cozy up on the 25th, about an hour before sunrise.

Happy New Year! February 3rd begins the Chinese year of the Rabbit.


Stargazing at the Monument

On Friday, February 11 at 7:00 p.m., the Rio Rancho Astronomical Society will host its monthly meeting and stargaze at Coronado State Monument, and a stargaze will follow the meeting, weather permitting. Telescopes provided by members of the Rio Rancho Astronomical Society will show views of the Moon and Jupiter as well as various nebula, star clusters, and galaxies. 

The public is invited to attend both events. The temperatures will be cold, so remember to dress warmly.

For more information, log on to www.rrastro.org or call 220-5492.

     

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