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The Sky This Week, 2015 February 17 - 24

Comet Lovejoy hangs in there, and a great "photo op" with the crescent Moon.
Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy), 2015 FEB 14 (above) and 16, ~01:30 UT
Imaged from near Morattico, Virginia with an 80mm (3.1-inch) f/6 Antares Sentinel refractor,
iOptron Cube Pro mount, and Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR.
Note the tail "disconnection event" in the 2/14 image.

The Moon returns to the evening sky this week, rapidly climbing through the evening sky as she waxes toward the First Quarter phase, which will occur on the 25th 12:14 pm Eastern Standard Time.  The slender crescent Moon, brilliant planet Venus, and fainter ruddy Mars gather together for a wonderful photo opportunity in the deepening twilight on the evening of the 20th.  Look for all of them in the western sky that evening. 

Early in the week take the time to enjoy the colorful stars of the Great Winter Circle, which form a large asterism around the bright stars of Orion, the Hunter.  I have always associated these bright stars with snow-covered New England fields, and the current cold snap and snow-covered landscapes offer a chance to re-kindle those memories.  Orion himself straddles the meridian at 8:00 pm, which in turn neatly bisects the circle of bright stars that surround him.  Start your journey around the Circle with Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, to the lower left of Orion’s “belt”.  Now follow a sweeping arc northward past Procyon and the Twin Stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux.  Near the zenith you’ll find golden-hued Capella, and from there head south toward the reddish star Aldebaran, which appears embedded in the “V”-shaped star cluster known as The Hyades.  From here head southeastward to Rigel, the bright blue star marking one of Orion’s knees.  Within the confines of this circle you’ll find nine of the 25 brightest stars in the sky as well as some of the most colorful.  The ice-blue tint of Orion’s belt stars contrast nicely with the gold of Capella and the red of Aldebaran and Betelgeuse.

The first several nights of the week also offer another chance to see the departing Comet Lovejoy, which is now slowly drifting northward among the stars of Perseus in the northwestern sky.  I took advantage of the recent long weekend to visit friends in rural Virginia, and despite the cold enjoyed some very nice views of this celestial visitor.  From the dark skies of the Northern Neck I could just spot it with the naked eye, and it was very easy to track down in binoculars in the starfields of the winter Milky Way with a well-condensed round coma and a five-degree tail.  It’s still glowing at a healthy fifth-magnitude and should still be observable in binoculars from suburban and darker locations.  If you have a small telescope you might want to give it a look on the evenings of the 19th and 20th as it passes half a degree from Messier 76, a small “planetary nebula”.  Use the finder chart located here to help track it down.

Venus and Mars have their long-anticipated rendezvous this week.  Venus far outshines her ruddy neighbor, but their close proximity all week long should help you identify Mars as Venus glides by.  Their closest approach will be on the evening of the 21st when they are just under half a degree apart, but the previous evening should provide an even more spectacular view when the slender crescent Moon pays a call.  It should be well worth braving the winter’s chill to see this beautiful celestial arrangement.

Jupiter continues to beam down for most of the night.  He’s very hard to miss in the east in the early evening, and by 11:30 pm he crosses the meridian high in the south.  He leads the parade of springtime constellations into the night, so those of you who don’t like the winter’s chill can take heart; warmer weather is on the way.  After the Moon Jupiter is the best target for small telescopes, so be sure to give him a look.  On the evening of the 20th at around 9:00 pm EST you can watch a very close appulse between the jovian moons Europa and Ganymede.  On the following night shortly after 10:00 pm Europa will occult Io; 45 minutes later Europa’s shadow will fall on Io, eclipsing it for several minutes.  There’s always something interesting to watch here!

Saturn is still best seen in the pre-dawn sky, nestled in the stars of Scorpius.  For you real winter-haters this should be a welcome sign of the changing seasons; Scorpius is best seen in the evenings on hot summer nights!



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