Stargazing in the February Skies

By Cam Wipper, CFHT remote observer

What You Need: Just your eyes! Everything in this guide can be seen with nothing more than your very own eyes. No special equipment required.

Where To Go: We here on the Big Island are blessed with some of the greatest night skies on Earth. You can find many of the targets listed here from your own backyard. Of course, if you live in Waimea, Hilo or Kailua, the lights of your town can make fainter objects more difficult to see. The best locations are those far from light sources. Some of my favourite locations are Pu’u Huluhulu off of Saddle Road (across from the Maunakea Access Road), along Chain of Craters Road in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (remember: there is no entrance fee after 8pm— perfect for stargazers) and along Mana Road on the slopes of Maunakea.

Surprisingly, the summit of Maunakea, though unbeatable for telescopes, is not the best site for human observers. Due to the thinness of the air, and resultant dearth of oxygen, at the altitude of the summit, human night vision becomes far less efficient than at altitudes closer to sea level. For this reason, it is best to stargaze no higher than 10,000 feet (3000 m). The Maunakea Visitor Information Station is an example of a site located near this elevation.

Sunrise and Sunset times for Waimea
Sunrise and Sunset times for Waimea

What To Look For: This month is a fairly quiet month for astronomical events—no meteor showers or eclipses visible from Hawaii—so we will focus on the basics: the constellations and planets. Starting with the planets, we have Venus and Mars visible after sunset in the western sky. They can be found here all month, though as the days go by, Venus will drift lower and lower relative to Mars. It’s best to search for them in the first half of the month when they are closest together.

Once they set, you’ll have a bit of a wait until our next planet is visible. Around 23:30, at the start of the month, Jupiter will rise. Unlike Venus and Mars, which are best viewed early in the month, Jupiter will be easier to find later in the month. This is because it is rising earlier and earlier—at the end of the month, you’ll be able to find it in the east by 21:30. Jupiter will be joined by the bright star Spica in the night sky. The two will be side-by-side for most of the month. On February 15th, they will be joined by the nearly-full Moon. With the Moon, Jupiter and Spica forming a line pointing north-south.

Moon phases for Waimea
Moon phases for Waimea

Finally, early risers will be treated to the most distant planet visible to the human eye, Saturn. Our ringed world appears in the east around 04:00 at the start of the month and as early as 02:30 at the end of the month.

Moving on the stars: Winter continues on Earth and we continue to be treated to our winter sky in the early evening.

We’ll start in the north with the Little Dipper. Visible all night, the Little Dipper, or Ursa Minor—the Little Bear—is rather dim. Far less obvious than it’s larger brother, the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper is nevertheless very important: it contains the star Polaris. Also known as the North Star, Polaris is the star at the very end of the Little Dipper’s handle. As this star is located just about at the Earth’s axis of rotation, Polaris never appears to move. The Little Dipper, and indeed the entire sky, simply spins around it. Polaris is also very important for navigation. Because of it’s location, one can use it to locate the direction North. Additionally, the latitude of one’s location on Earth can be determined by the North Star. This can be done by approximating the elevation of the North Star above the northern horizon. This elevation (in degrees) is the same as the latitude of your location! For example in Hawaii, the North Star is about 20 degrees above the horizon. Our islands are between 18 and 22 degrees North in latitude.

All other stars in the sky seem to move around the North Star, seen here just above the top of CFHT's dome.  Photo credit: Sean Goebel/CFHT
All other stars in the sky seem to move around the North Star, seen here just above the top of CFHT’s dome. Photo credit: Sean Goebel/CFHT

Starting in the east we have Taurus, the Bull, and it’s bright red star, Aldebaran, often called the “Eye of the Bull”.

Below Taurus, we have one of the most famous constellations in the sky: Orion. The famous Belt of Orion is one of the easiest night sky features to find. Look for a vertical row of three bright stars almost due east. To the north of them you will find Betelgeuse, a huge red supergiant star nearing the end of it’s life. To the south, you will see Rigel, a blue-white supergiant, estimated to be around 200,000 times more luminous than the Sun. These two stars are the ninth- and seventh-brightest stars in the night sky respectively.

Although, nearby in the sky, Taurus and Orion are not friends. Greek mythology describes Taurus and Orion as fighting in the sky, with Taurus defending the Seven Sisters from Orion’s rather lustful advances.

These sisters, in reality a stunning group of stars known as an Open Cluster, can be found as well. They are more commonly known as the Pleiades, and are positioned just above Taurus. A quick way to find them is to locate Betelgeuse. Then trace a line in the sky to connect Betelgeuse with Aldebaran. Finally continue that line past Aldebaran, and you will come to the Pleiades.

The Pleiades are well known across the Northern Hemisphere for their beauty and cultures around the world have their names for the group. In Hawaii, they are known as Makali’i, and they are mentioned several times in the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian Creation Chant, including on the fifth line of very first verse.

In Japan they are known as Subaru, a name which graces not only a successful automobile manufacturer (now you know my their logo are stars!), but also a telescope on Mauna Kea, which as you may guess, is owned by Japan.

Finally, in west we have the great legend of Perseus and Andromeda, playing out in the skies above our heads. The characters of this legend, the hero Perseus, the princess Andromeda, the king Cepheus, the queen Cassiopeia, the winged-horse Pegasus and the great monster Cetus can all be found in the sky tonight. The easiest of these characters to find are Pegasus and Cassiopeia. Pegasus most recognizable feature is the ‘Great Square’, as asterism of four stars which can be found in the east in the early evening, rising as the night goes on. Just to the north, we can see the characteristic ‘W’ shape of Cassiopeia.

Andromeda is a special constellation as it contains the most distant object visible to the human eye: the Andromeda Galaxy. This galaxy, likely at least twice the size of the Milky Way, is our galactic neighbor. It is so far away that the light reaching your eye from the stars in Andromeda has been traveling across space—at the speed of light—since before the human race even existed on the surface of the Earth.

Moving into the spring and summer sky, we have our first glimpse of the famous Southern Cross. With Hawaii being the only state in the USA to have a view of this iconic southern constellation, it’s appearance is a real treat for visitors and kama’aina alike. It will appear around 02:00 and reach it’s highest point at 04:30. If you’re sound asleep at this time, don’t fret! It will be visible at a more reasonable hour in the coming months.

The center of the Milky Way.  photo credits: Sean Goebel/CFHT
The center of the Milky Way. photo credits: Sean Goebel/CFHT

Lastly, rising in the southeast before sunrise we have one of the most spectacular sights in the sky: the Milky Way. The center of our galaxy, the Galactic Core, is found between the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpius, right near Saturn. You’ll need dark skies (i.e no Moon) to find it, so the best times will be at the beginning and end of the month. You’ll want to avoid the two week period centered on the full Moon of February 10th as it will be so bright, faint structures like the Milky Way are lost in the glare.

With that, I wish you clear skies and happy stargazing!

If you have any questions, comments or are new to stargazing and would like some tips on getting started, email me at wipper@cfht.hawaii.edu. Aloha!

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