Posted on December 9th, 2010

This page is a resource for backyard stargazers that includes information about astronomical events that can be observed with binoculars, telescopes and the naked eye.  You may be surprised by what that old ‘scope in the closet, or those dusty binoculars in the desk drawer will reveal.  And, if you know what you are looking for, the heavens can reveal astonishing sights just by setting your gaze in the right direction.  Check back often for updates, as the night sky is always changing.

February 2011 Astronomy Update

Winter is a great time of year to do some stargazing.  The cold air holds much less moisture than the warm summer air, greatly reducing the haze and cloud cover that can ruin a night of looking at the stars.  Aside from the discomfort that can arise when  you are outside in the cold all night, the cold air is also dense and can cause celestial objects to appear to twinkle or vibrate, especially in a telescope but it shouldn’t cause you too much trouble.

Jupiter is visible in the southwest just after sunset.  Look for the bright yellow-orange planet as soon as it starts getting dark out.  If you have binoculars or a telescope, focus in on Jupiter and see how many Jovian moons you can see.  Almost any amount of magnification should reveal four of Jupiter’s moons, which will appear as tiny pinpoints of light scattered around the planet.  Also, if you look very closely, you may be able to make out faint grayish and yellow stripes across the disk of Jupiter.  These stripes are actually bands of white, orange and red clouds that swirl around the planet.  If you have a medium-sized telescope you even might be able to make out the “Great Red Spot”, a massive cyclone that circles the southern half of Jupiter.  This huge storm is so big that you could fit three Earths into it and still have extra space!

The constellation Orion offers more great viewing opportunities this month.  Orion is a large, bright and easily recognizable constellation that will be high in the southern sky after nightfall.  Representing a hunter, the constellation’s most prominent feature is a row of three stars that mark his belt.  Just below the belt hangs Orion’s sword – A row of several faint stars.  One of the stars of Orion’s sword is actually a cluster of stars with a very bright nebula surrounding them.  A nebula is a mass of glowing gasses.  With you naked eye you might be able to make out the small, dim, fuzzy patch of the nebula but with a telescope or binoculars you will be able to see it glowing clearly with a group of four stars in the middle.

If you follow the line of Orion’s belt to the right you will run directly into the horns and head of Taurus, the bull.  Continue scanning past Taurus to your right (West) and you will find one of the most amazing objects in the winter sky – The Pleadies cluster, also known as the “Seven Sisters”.  While at least seven stars will be visible to the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope with low magnification will reveal many, many more of them – Bright blue flecks of light twinkling in space.  This is one of the very best objects to view through binoculars because it is relatively bright, easy to find and spread out over a large area.  With higher magnification you cannot even see the whole cluster because it is so big and spread out.  See how many of the stars in this amazing cluster you can pick out with your naked eye and then try to count them all through  your ‘scope.  You will be amazed at just how many of them there are, just barely too faint to see without some magnification.

Grab a nice warm blanket, a sleeping bag, a reclining lawn chair and brew up some hot chocolate and hit the backyard this week.  Warmer weather is on the way but by the time it gets here, many of these constellations and objects will be up during the day, where the bright light of the sun will wash them out.  So, take advantage of the clear skies and check it out.  We will be back with another update for the early spring sky very soon.  And, feel free to contact us with questions or if you would like to share with us what you have seen.  Or, visit our Facebook page and share with the entire Lab Ratz community.  Happy Stargazing!