Astronomy: The Week Ahead

Celestial events from Sunday, February 15th to Saturday, February 21st


Sunday February 15

M78 is a nice bright reflection nebula in Orion, easy to locate using the Belt Stars.

From suburban skies, you will be able to detect a glow. From dark skies though there are several nearby NGC sections visible as well forming a chain running along one side of this Messier object.

M78 is 8.7’x7.8′ in size and shines at magnitude 8.3, and belongs to the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, about 1,600 light years from earth. It was discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1780.


Monday February 16

Look to the west before sunrise this morning and see Jupiter about to set. Since it is close to opposition, the giant planet is in the night sky all night long.

Jupiter is nearly on the ecliptic, the green line in the image, representing the plane of our solar system. Note the bright stars Regulus in Leo and Spica in Virgo are very close to the ecliptic. Because the planets and Moon move along the ecliptic, varying a bit above and below it, we can see them occult these bright stars.


Tuesday February 17

How about a quick Crash Test? Note the band of the winter Milky Way standing almost straight up from the southeastern horizon after sunset. Many bright stars are found along and near the Milky Way. Here are several with a question mark by them – so what are they?


Wednesday February 18

There are 88 modern constellations in the sky, some dating back to ancient times.

Within the constellations, there are other shapes within constellations that have gained popularity. These are called asterisms. For example, most people looking at Ursa Major don’t see the constellation shape, but instead see the Big Dipper.

Here are a few other asterisms visible this morning. The Sail in Corvus, The Kite in Bootes, The Sickle in Leo, the Diamond of Virgo.


Thursday February 19

Try hunting down Messier 77 tonight high in Cetus. This is the brightest of the Seyfert Galaxies, which containing quasars.

M77 is a barred spiral, 47 million light years from us. Discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1780, you will see the bright inner core of the galaxy in amateur telescopes. On a very good night, it is possible to detect the tightly wound spiral arms around its core. At magnitude 9.6 and 7.1’x6.0′ in size, it is visible from suburban skies.


Friday February 20

Tonight make sure to look to the west and see this great conjunction of Venus, Mars and a very young Moon!

Venus will be easy to pick out as the sky is darkening. Shining -3.95, it will be the brightest object in the sky after sunset. Mars will appear much dinner at magnitude 1.26 and only 0’40” away from Venus. See if you can detect the color differences. Just over a degree away from Mars a very thin 2.4-day-old Moon will show its waxing gibbous crescent, with only 6% of its disk illuminated.


Saturday February 21

M76 is called the Little Dumbbell, and as the photo shows, is obvious in its bi-lobed shape. Find it at the ends of Andromeda and Perseus.

This is a planetary nebula, a star in its death throes, expelling its outer shells of atmosphere. At the core the dying star is radiating in oxygen 3, so it is a type of emission nebula. A narrow band filter will dim out the background and allow through the specific wavelength of light this object emits, so you will be able to see it in greater detail.

Happy viewing!