This is Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Friday, February 22 through Sunday, February 24, written by Sam Salem.
On Friday, the Sun rises at 6:43am and sets at 5:36pm; the waxing gibbous Moon rises at 9:29pm and sets at 8:43am. View the Moon and Spica, the constellation Virgo’s brightest star, rising into eastern sky around 10 to 11pm, on Friday night.
Mars, shining at magnitude 1.1, appears in nearly the same spot in the sky from night to night, while the starry background seems to drift slowly westward. Mars sets a little before 11pm. Jupiter, at magnitude –2.0, Venus, at magnitude –4.2, and Saturn, at magnitude 0.6, rise in the morning sky. Jupiter is first up, a little after 2:30pm, while Saturn and Venus rise together roughly around 4:30am, two hours before the Sun. Get outside around 6am and look to the south-southeast to catch all three planets nicely arrayed against the stars of summer.
Beginning this weekend and for the next two weeks, take advantage of moonless evenings to seek out the zodiacal light. You need dark skies to be able to watch it. The phenomenon results from sunlight scattered by dust particles residing in the inner solar system. Look for a cone-shaped luminance in the west after darkness falls.. Usually, the zodiacal light is about as bright as the winter Milky Way.
Take advantage of the moonless early evening hours this weekend to do some deep-sky observing. This is when the constellation Auriga is nearly overhead. The leading light of the pentagon-shaped group is the 0.1 magnitude star Capella. Capella’s luminosity partly stems from the fact that it’s only 45 light-years away, about 10 times farther than the closest star system to our Sun. Auriga is home to three splendid open clusters, M36, M37, and M38.. These clusters are members of the Milky Way Galaxy and relatively nearby. M36 and M37 are around 4,000 light-years distant, while M38 is nearly 6,000 light-years away. Each cluster is a rewarding sight in a small telescope,or in binoculars if your viewing conditions are good enough. The easiest binocular target is M36. It’s the most compact member of the trio. In a telescope, M36 displays a spider-like appearance, with rows of faint stars forming the spider’s legs, radiating from the cluster’s center, or spider’s body. Telescope users will likely find M37 to be the most rewarding Aurigacluster, as it’s richly packed with stars. M38 is less impressive. However, it leads to the small, dim cluster NGC1907, which lies just 30 arc-minutes south-southwest of M38.