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The Sky This Week, 2014 February 11 - 18

The Snow Moon lights the way.

Jupiter, 2014 FEB 11, 00:04 UT
Imaged at the U.S. Naval Observatory with the Clark-Saegmüller 12-inch refractor

The Moon brightens the overnight hours this week, casting her soft glow over what may be a wintry landscape. Full Moon occurs on the 14th at 6:53 pm Eastern Standard Time. February’s Full Moon is commonly known as the aptly named Snow Moon, and since heavy snowfall made hunting difficult and agriculture impossible it was also known as the Hunger Moon. Look for the Snow Moon just five degrees south of the bright star Regulus in the constellation of Leo, the Lion. She ends the week as a waning gibbous closing in on Mars and the bright star Spica.

If the weather forecast holds true the bright Moon will shine down on a blanket of fresh snow in the Washington, DC area and much of the eastern U.S. This will produce more than the usual brightness in the sky associated with the Full Moon. However, the bright stars of the Great Winter Circle should offer a nice backdrop to illuminated snow fields. The Circle straddles the meridian at 9:00 pm with its colorful array of stars set in the deep blue background of the moonlit sky. These are the nights when the best observing is done with the naked eye. I like to wrap up in a big blanket and take in the view from the patio, sipping hot cider or cocoa as Orion and his cohorts wheel overhead. The snow on the ground muffles the sound of traffic from the few people out and about as the stars slowly wheel by. The background glow of the sky seems to accentuate the colors of the brighter stars: Betelgeuse and Aldebaran shining like distant burning coals, Rigel and Sirius gleaming with icy-blue abandon. Directly overhead is the distinctly yellow star Capella, and punctuating the center is the unmistakable glimmer of Jupiter. As the night passes (with a few breaks to warm up inside) these majestic lights slowly wheel toward the western horizon. By midnight they are slowly being replaced by a few scattered bright stars, but these new ones are associated with spring, giving us a heavenly sign that winter’s grip won’t last much longer.

Bright Jupiter still dominates the evening sky as the brightest object after the Moon. The giant planet is best viewed in the mid-evening hours as he crosses the meridian high among the stars of Gemini. Dedicated amateurs will shovel out areas to set up their telescopes in their snowy yards, but you can get a decent view of the planet and his four bright Galilean moons with a pair of binoculars. Telescopic observers like to take advantage of snow-pack for observing, though, since very little of the Sun’s heat gets trapped in the ground keeping the lower atmosphere nice and steady. I hope to take advantage of this myself once I get my yard shoveled out!

You still have to wait until the late evening to catch Mars rising on the southeast, but he should be easy to recognize as the midnight hour approaches. He’s currently keeping company with the bright star Spica in the constellation Virgo, and the color contrast between the two objects is quite remarkable. Mars currently rivals rose-tinted Arcturus, the bright star climbing in the east, but as the next few weeks pass the red planet will become considerably brighter. For the telescope enthusiast the planet’s apparent diameter is now greater than 10 arcseconds. For many amateurs this is the threshold for dedicated observing.

Saturn is on the meridian at 6:00 am as morning twilight starts to brighten the eastern sky. After Jupiter this is probably the most rewarding planet for the neophyte to observe. The planet’s rings are tipped generously toward us and will remain so throughout the planet’s current apparition. After the Moon, Saturn probably has the best "Wow!" factor of any object in the sky. He’ll be at his best in the evening sky in May and June, when we can all expect warmer nights!

Venus is low in the southeast as twilight gathers. Although she’s less than 15 degrees above the horizon you should have no trouble spotting her. She will reach her greatest brilliancy for the current morning apparition on the 15th.

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