February Skies: Celestial Jewels for Starry-Eyed Lovers

by Rod Kennedy

February is considered the month of romance. Lovers exchange cards, gifts of candy,
flowers and sometimes jewelry. Some hope for a beautiful “lover’s moon” to light the
night. Still others find nothing quite as romantic as a clear sky sprinkled with stars.
While the night skies of February might be a bit chilly for all but the hardiest lovers, it
does offer sparkling jewels that put all others to shame.

Skywatchers with an eye for romance will not have a beautiful, bright full moon to light
the night on Valentine’s Day. The moon will be in its “new” phase and lost in the glare
of the sun. However, this means the night sky will be dark enough to easily pick out
the stars and deep objects visible in the sky. Of all the deep sky objects visible, open
clusters are arguably the most beautiful.

The most famous of all open clusters is located in the shoulder of Taurus the Bull.
M45, or the Pleiades, has been known to humans for thousands of years. While it is
often called the Seven Sisters, the cluster itself contains more than 200 stars. From
moderately light-polluted skies, only five stars are visible to the naked eye.

Moving northeast from the Pleiades we find the constellation of Auriga the Charioteer.
Auriga is home to three bright open star clusters, of which M37 is the most beautiful.
While M37 is visible to the naked eye under dark skies, binoculars or a small telescope
are needed to truly enjoy this beautiful cluster.

Using a telescope, dozens of bright stars pop out around a central red star. M37 is
located 6 degrees north of the tip of Taurus’ western horn. Observing M37 in a pair of
binoculars allows observers to also see M36 and M38, which are within the “circlet” of
Auriga just to the west of M37. M36 also contains dozens of bright stars but because it
is located against the background of the Milky Way it is difficult to locate the edges.

M38 contains more stars than M36 but none of its colors is as distinct as colors in
M37.

Moving south of M37 (about the same distance from the tip of Taurus’ eastern horn)
we find M35. M35 contains hundreds of stars. While telescopes will reveal the fainter
stars, binoculars provide the best look because of their wide field of view.

To the east of Orion and Gemini is M44, the Beehive Cluster in Cancer the Crab. It is
almost impossible to use Cancer itself as a guide to find M44 because the stars of the
constellation are so faint. However, the Beehive is easily found by searching the skies
with binoculars just 4 degrees below a bright red-orange point of light. This bright
point of light is the crowning jewel of the February skies, the planet Mars.

This month, Mars is just a bit past opposition, which means 180 degrees opposite the
sun. This makes Mars very brightly lit in the evening sky. Although Mars is usually
called the “Red Planet,” it appears more orange than true red. Large backyard
telescopes may reveal some of the surface features of the planet, providing there is not
a dust storm in progress. Martian dust storms can obscure the surface of the entire
planet for days or even weeks at a time.

The skies of February offer many beautiful “jewels” for any “starry-eyed” lover. While
these gems in the sky are not as tangible as real gemstones, they are visible every
season from one generation to the next. Their beauty endures far beyond a human
lifetime, and best of all they are free to everyone willing to brave a February evening
for a few moments and look up.

Rod Kennedy is a technician at the Casper Planetarium. He can be reached at 307-577-0310 or rodk@tribcsp.com.

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