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Dr. Wayne Wooten: February skies of the Gulf Coast

Freddy Bowles
The Rosette Nebula, aka NGC 2237, lies about 5,200 light-years from Earth in the constellation Monoceros the Unicorn, and is about 130 light-years across. It is an emission nebula, meaning that the gases that compose it glow as they are energized by radiation from local stars. The young stars in the nebula’s center are gravitationally bound to each other; they are an open cluster formed together from the material of the nebula. The image was shot over the course of three nights.

For February 2022, the New Moon is Feb. 1 The slender waxing crescent is four degrees south of Jupiter in the twilight on Feb. 2, and by month’s end, all the naked eye planets will be behind the Sun or in the dawn sky. The first-quarter moon is Feb. 8, and the Full Moon, the Hunger or Wolf Moon, is Feb. 16. The last quarter is Feb. 23. The waning crescent rejoins the dawn planets at month’s end, passing below brilliant Venus and below it, much fainter and redder Mars, on Feb. 27.

Having swiftly passed between us and the Sun in late January, Mercury is low in the southeast dawn sky in mid-February, reaching the greatest western elongation, 26 degrees in front of the Sun, on Feb. 16 just below and to the left of bright Venus and Mars. Venus will dominate the dawn during most of 2022. It is at its brightest as a brilliant crescent on Feb. 7 and continues to pull away from the Sun and wax in phase until summer. Mars is south of Venus, moving slowly eastward. It will come to the opposition this fall. Both Jupiter and Saturn are lost in the Sun until March.

Visit skymaps.com for a more extensive calendar, and list of best objects for the naked eyes, binoculars, and scopes on the back of the map.

At Perseus’ feet for the famed Pleiades cluster; they lie about 400 light-years distant, and over 250 stars are members of this fine group. East of the seven sisters is the V of stars marking the face of Taurus the Bull, with bright orange Aldebaran as his eye; use it (mag. +0.9) as a comparison star to measure the fading of Betelguese. The V of stars is the Hyades cluster, older than the blue Pleiades, but about half their distance.

South of Gemini, Orion is the most familiar winter constellation, dominating the eastern sky at dusk. The reddish supergiant Betelguese marks his eastern shoulder, while blue-white supergiant Rigel stands opposite on his west knee. Betelguese is also known as Alpha Orionis, for it has been the brightest star in Orion most of the time. But for much for 2019, it faded due to an expulsion of condensing carbon dust (soot) blown off in our direction and was only one-third its greatest brightness. But now this cloud has dissipated and it is back close to normal.

Just south of the belt, hanging like a sword downward, is M-42, the Great Nebula of Orion, an outstanding binocular and telescopic stellar nursery. The bright diamond of four stars that light it up is the trapezium cluster, one of the finest sights in a telescope. Just east of Betelguese is the fine binocular cluster NGC 2244. But the much fainter Rosette Nebula that it lies in the center of requires bigger scopes or astrophotography.

In the east rise the hunter’s two faithful companions, Canis major, and minor. Procyon is the bright star in the little dog and rises before Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Midway between them is the fine Rosette Nebula, a star nursery including the nice open cluster NGC 2244, easily found in binoculars.

Bottom of Form

Sirius dominates the southeast sky by 7 p.m., and as it rises, the turbulent winter air causes it to sparkle with shafts of spectral fire. Beautiful as the twinkling appears to the naked eye, for astronomers, this means the image is blurry; only in space can we truly see “clearly now.” At eight light-years distance, Sirius is the closest star we can easily see with the naked eye from West Florida. For a sense of stellar distances, consider sunlight is eight minutes old by the time it warms your face. So the light from Sirius has taken the number of minutes in a year (eight minutes versus eight years), or 60 x 24 x 365.25 = 525,960 times; Sirius is more than a half-million times distant than our Sun. While it is 21x more luminous than our Sun in reality, no wonder the Sun rules the day! And Sirius is the closest star you can easily see from here. Almost everything you see in the night sky must be millions of times more distant from us than our home star.

When Sirius is highest, along our southern horizon look for the second brightest star, Canopus, getting just above the horizon and sparkling like an exquisite diamond as the turbulent winter air twists and turns this shaft of starlight, after a trip of about 200 years!

To the northeast, a reminder that spring is coming; look for the bowl of the Big Dipper to rise, with the top two stars, the pointers, giving you a line to find Polaris, the Pole Star. But if you take the pointers south, you are guided instead to the head of Leo the Lion rising in the east, looking much like the profile of the famed Sphinx. The bright star at Lion’s heart is Regulus, the “regal star”. Fitting for our cosmic king of beasts, who are rising at the end of this month means March indeed will be coming in “like a lion.”

We have set new dates for our public gazes at Big Lagoon State Park west of Pensacola for these Saturdays: Feb. 5 and 19, March 12 and 26, and April 8 and 23. Be sure to check-in at the gate before sunset.

For more information on the Escambia Amateur Astronomers and our local star gazes for the public, visit our website at eaaa.net or join us on Facebook. You can call our sponsor, Lauren Rogers, at Pensacola State College at (850) 484-1155, or e-mail her at lrogers@pensacolastate.edu.