Excuse Me While I Kiss the Sky -- Month of February 2024
Discovered by the German astronomer Johann Elert Bode in 1774, M81 is one of the brightest galaxies in the night sky. It is located 11.6 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Ursa Major and has an apparent magnitude of 6.9. Through a pair of binoculars, the galaxy appears as a faint patch of light in the same field of view as M82. A small telescope will resolve M81’s core. The galaxy is best observed during April. The galaxy’s spiral arms, which wind all the way down into its nucleus, are made up of young, bluish, hot stars formed in the past few million years. They also host a population of stars formed in an episode of star formation that started about 600 million years ago. Ultraviolet light from hot, young stars is fluorescing the surrounding clouds of hydrogen gas. A number of sinuous dust lanes also wind all the way into the nucleus of M81. The galaxy’s central bulge contains much older, redder stars. It is significantly larger than the Milky Way’s bulge. A black hole of 70 million solar masses resides at the center of M81 and is about 15 times the mass of the Milky Way’s central black hole. This image was captured with a Takahashi FRC-300 using a focal reducer (1770mm at f/5.9) [Video and Content Credits: NASA, the Office of Public Outreach – Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and JPL – Caltech, Preston Dyches, Christopher Harris, and Lisa Poje with subject matter guidance provided by Bill Dunford, Gary Spiers, Lyle Tavernier, and Molly Wasser] [Image Credit: Stephen Roffo, Astromart Gallery Contributor - https://www.astromart.com/gallery/photo/24279 , https://www.astromart.com/gallery/user/273 ]
Excuse Me While I Kiss the Sky -- Month of February 2024
Welcome to the night sky report for February 2024 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. Venus is beginning its exit from the morning skies this month, just as Mars returns to visibility. In February, the Winter Triangle is your guide to the night sky. The northern hemisphere is treated to views of the stars Procyon, Sirius, and Betelgeuse, as well as awe-inspiring views of the Great Orion Nebula (M42, NGC 1976), sculpted by the stellar winds of central bright stars as well as Bode’s Galaxy (M81, NGC 3031). The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
Venus is still a brilliant beacon in the morning, rising a couple of hours before the Sun. It has been steadily sinking lower in the sky for the past couple of months and by the end of February it's pretty much getting lost in the light of sunrise.
Venus will start making its return as an evening sight in July. You can catch the bright planet together with a slim crescent Moon on the morning of February 6th, just as the sky starts to brighten.
Next, Valentine's Day brings a nice pairing to enjoy with someone special. That evening, look for the crescent Moon near Jupiter, high in the southwest following sunset. They're just a couple of finger widths apart on the sky, meaning most binoculars will show them in the same field of view.
Returning to the inner planets, as Venus begins its exit, we find Mars returning to view. The Red Planet left the evening sky last September, passing through conjunction, where it was on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth, and thus not visible for a few months. It's now just starting to be visible in the predawn sky. In February it's quite low, and not super bright, but you can observe it brightening and rising ever earlier in the coming months. Those with an unobstructed view toward the southeast horizon can look for a close approach of Mars and Venus as the pair are rising during the last week of February.
February is a good time to view one of the famed Messier objects known as M81.
This is a spiral galaxy similar to our own Milky Way, but just a bit smaller, and it's one of the brightest galaxies in the night sky. It's located about 11.8 million light years away from us, which means that when you observe it, the photons of light hitting your eye have been traveling through space for more than 11 million years to reach you.
It was discovered by astronomer Johann Bode in 1774, which is where it gets its other common name, "Bode's Galaxy." At the time, it was simply cataloged as a nebula or faint, fuzzy patch. It wouldn't be until the work of Edwin Hubble in the 1920s that many such faint, fuzzy objects were understood to be self-contained galaxies of stars outside the Milky Way and incredibly distant from us.
M81 is a bit too dim to see with the unaided eye, but it's visible with binoculars or a small telescope, where it appears as a dim patch of light. With a 6-inch telescope you can resolve the galaxy's bright core, and with an 8-inch telescope, you can begin to make out the spiral arms.
Locating M81 is not too difficult, with the Big Dipper to guide you. Starting with the star on the end corner, called Dubhe, imagine a line twice the distance from the star on the opposite corner of the Dipper, Phecda. Pointing your telescope or binoculars in that area ought to put you pretty close to M81. You might also notice its faint, fuzzy companion nearby, which is M82. This is another galaxy, but seen edge-on, and it gets its other common name, the "Cigar Galaxy," from this appearance.
This pair of galaxies is "circumpolar" in the Northern Hemisphere, meaning that they rotate around the north celestial pole and never set. (Unfortunately, this means they're not visible from the Southern Hemisphere.) Although it's visible all year in the Northern Hemisphere, from about February through May, you'll find M81 high in the northern sky in the first half of the night, making it easier to observe.
The brightly starred winter sky beckons on the clear, cold nights of February. Orion, the hunter of Greek mythology, dominates the heavens with a bright belt of three stars. The hunter’s shoulder is marked by the red supergiant Betelgeuse, a massive star nearing the end of its life.
Betelgeuse is roughly 1000 times the size of our sun. An image from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows its huge atmosphere with an enormous, mysterious spot, glowing brightly in ultraviolet light. Hubble’s sharp vision allows astronomers to monitor features of the star’s atmosphere and better understand how it changes over time.
Marking Orion’s foot is another bright, hot supergiant: blue-white Rigel. Massive stars like Rigel lead short, brilliant lives. Below Orion’s shining belt lies the Orion Nebula, a hazy spot to the naked eye. A small telescope reveals it to be a diffuse, glowing cloud in space, illuminated by the energy of bright, hot stars in its center.
February is also a perfect time to enjoy the Great Nebula in Orion. The Great Orion Nebula is an enormous cloud of gas and dust where thousands of stars are being born. In fact, it's the nearest large star-forming region to our Solar System, at around 1500 light-years away. The bright, central region of the Orion Nebula is a giant cavity in the cloud being carved out by the intense ultraviolet light from a handful of extremely massive young stars.
Finding the Orion Nebula is easy on February nights, as the constellation Orion will be high in the south around 8:00 or 9:00 PM. Look for the three stars of the hunter's belt and then find the stars that hang below it forming Orion's sword. In the center of this line of stars is one that looks kind of fuzzy. That's the nebula. It's visible to the unaided eye under relatively dark skies, and is easily seen with binoculars as a faint haze. And through a telescope, it's a sight you'll never forget.
NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes reveal the nebula in festoons of glowing gas and dust, sculpted by the stellar winds of central bright stars. The Orion Nebula is an immense stellar nursery, filled with hot young stars that glow brightly in X-ray light detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.
Follow the belt of Orion down and left to find blue-white Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Sirius lies in the constellation Canis Major, the Great Dog and companion to Orion. Sirius is also one of the nearest stars, just 8.6 light-years away, and has a faint white dwarf companion star.
Just below Sirius lies a star cluster called M41 (NGC 2287). It is easily seen with a pair of binoculars as a scattered twinkling. M41 consists of about 100 stars that formed together from a giant cloud of gas and dust.
Above and left of Sirius is another bright star, a yellowish giant named Procyon. Procyon is part of the constellation Canis Minor, the smaller dog and Orion’s second companion. Procyon, Sirius, and Betelgeuse form a geometrical pattern called the Winter Triangle.
The night sky is always a celestial showcase. Explore its wonders from your own backyard.
The following Deep Sky Objects are found in constellations that peak during the month. Some can be viewed with a small telescope, but the majority will require a moderate to large telescope. The following is adapted from my personal viewing list: "The Guy Pirro 777 Best and Brightest Deep Sky Objects."
NGC 2632 Open Cluster M44 Beehive Cluster
NGC 2682 Open Cluster M67
NGC 2775 Galaxy C48, Herschel 400 H2-1
Constellation: Canis Major
IC 468 Diffuse Nebula P132
IC 2165 Planetary Nebula P133
NGC 2204 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H13-7
NGC 2207 Galaxy P216
- IC 2163 Galaxy - Interacting with P216
NGC 2217 Galaxy P72
NGC 2243 Open Cluster P134
NGC 2287 Open Cluster M41
NGC 2345 Open Cluster P73
NGC 2354 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H16-7
NGC 2359 Diffuse Nebula P20 Thor’s Helmet
NGC 2360 Open Cluster C58, Herschel 400 H12-7
NGC 2362 Open Cluster C64, Herschel 400 H17-7 Tau Canis Major Cluster
NGC 2367 Open Cluster P74
NGC 2374 Open Cluster P75
NGC 2383 Open Cluster P135
NGC 2384 Open Cluster P76
Constellation: Canis Minor
NGC 2419 Globular Cluster C25, Herschel 400 H218-1
NGC 2683 Galaxy Herschel 400 H200-1
NGC 2782 Galaxy Herschel 400 H167-1
IC 434 Diffuse Nebula P92 Horsehead Nebula
NGC 1662 Open Cluster P39
NGC 1788 Diffuse Nebula Herschel 400 H32-5
NGC 1976 Diffuse Nebula M42 Great Orion Nebula
NGC 1977 Open Cluster P40 Running Man Nebular Cluster
- NGC 1973 Diffuse Nebula - Part of P40
- NGC 1975 Diffuse Nebula - Part of P40
NGC 1980 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H31-5
NGC 1981 Open Cluster P41
NGC 1982 Diffuse Nebula M43 DeMairan Nebula
NGC 1999 Diffuse Nebula Herschel 400 H33-4
NGC 2022 Diffuse Nebula Herschel 400 H34-4
NGC 2023 Diffuse Nebula P93
NGC 2024 Diffuse Nebula Herschel 400 H28-5 Flame Nebula
NGC 2039 Open Cluster P94
NGC 2068 Diffuse Nebula M78
NGC 2071 Diffuse Nebula P42
NGC 2112 Open Cluster P170
NGC 2141 Open Cluster P171
NGC 2143 Open Cluster P172
NGC 2169 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H24-8
NGC 2175 Open Cluster P43
- NGC 2174 Diffuse Nebula - Part of P43
- IC 2159 Diffuse Nebula - Part of P43
NGC 2186 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H25-7
NGC 2194 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H5-6
NGC 2298 Globular Cluster P98
NGC 2396 Open Cluster P99
NGC 2409 Open Cluster P100
NGC 2414 Open Cluster P101
NGC 2421 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H67-7
NGC 2422 Open Cluster M47, Herschel 400 H38-8
NGC 2423 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H28-7
NGC 2432 Open Cluster P241
NGC 2437 Open Cluster M46
NGC 2438 Planetary Nebula Herschel 400 H39-4 Part of M46
NGC 2439 Open Cluster P46
NGC 2440 Planetary Nebula Herschel 400 H64-4
NGC 2447 Open Cluster M93
NGC 2451 Open Cluster P47
NGC 2453 Open Cluster P176
NGC 2455 Open Cluster P242
NGC 2467 Open Cluster P102
NGC 2477 Open Cluster C71
NGC 2479 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H58-7
NGC 2482 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H10-7
NGC 2483 Open Cluster P103
NGC 2489 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H23-7
NGC 2509 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H1-8
NGC 2527 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H30-8
NGC 2533 Open Cluster P104
NGC 2539 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H11-7
NGC 2546 Open Cluster P48
NGC 2567 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H64-7
NGC 2568 Open Cluster P177
NGC 2571 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H39-6
NGC 2579 Open Cluster P105
NGC 2580 Open Cluster P178
NGC 2587 Open Cluster P179
NGC 2588 Open Cluster P243
NGC 2613 Galaxy Herschel 400 H266-2
NGC 2627 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H63-7
NGC 2635 Open Cluster P244
NGC 2658 Open Cluster P180
NGC 2818 Planetary Nebula P245
Constellation: Ursa Major
Messier 40 Double Star M40 Winnecke 4
IC 2574 Galaxy P121 Coddington’s Dwarf Galaxy
NGC 2681 Galaxy Herschel 400 H242-1
NGC 2742 Galaxy Herschel 400 H249-1
NGC 2768 Galaxy Herschel 400 H250-1
NGC 2787 Galaxy Herschel 400 H216-1
NGC 2841 Galaxy Herschel 400 H205-1
NGC 2950 Galaxy Herschel 400 H68-4
NGC 2976 Galaxy Herschel 400 H285-1
NGC 2985 Galaxy Herschel 400 H78-1
- NGC 3027 Galaxy - Paired with H78-1
NGC 3031 Galaxy M81 – Bode’s Galaxy
NGC 3034 Galaxy M82, Herschel 400 H79-4 Cigar Galaxy
NGC 3077 Galaxy Herschel 400 H286-1
NGC 3079 Galaxy Herschel 400 H47-5
NGC 3184 Galaxy Herschel 400 H168-1
NGC 3198 Galaxy Herschel 400 H199-1
NGC 3310 Galaxy Herschel 400 H60-4
NGC 3556 Galaxy M108 Herschel 400 H46-5
NGC 3359 Galaxy P202
NGC 3587 Planetary Nebula M97 Owl Nebula
NGC 3610 Galaxy Herschel 400 H270-1
NGC 3613 Galaxy Herschel 400 H271-1 Paired with H244-1
NGC 3619 Galaxy Herschel 400 H244-1 Paired with H271-1
NGC 3631 Galaxy Herschel 400 H226-1
NGC 3665 Galaxy Herschel 400 H219-1
- NGC 3658 Galaxy - Paired with H219-1
NGC 3675 Galaxy Herschel 400 H194-1
NGC 3726 Galaxy Herschel 400 H730-2
NGC 3729 Galaxy Herschel 400 H222-1
- NGC 3718 Galaxy - Paired with H222-1
NGC 3813 Galaxy Herschel 400 H94-1
NGC 3877 Galaxy Herschel 400 H201-1
NGC 3893 Galaxy Herschel 400 H738-2
- NGC 3896 Galaxy - Paired with H738-2
NGC 3898 Galaxy Herschel 400 H228-1
NGC 3938 Galaxy Herschel 400 H203-1
NGC 3941 Galaxy Herschel 400 H173-1
NGC 3945 Galaxy Herschel 400 H251-1
NGC 3949 Galaxy Herschel 400 H202-1
NGC 3953 Galaxy Herschel 400 H45-5
NGC 3982 Galaxy Herschel 400 H62-4
NGC 3992 Galaxy M109, Herschel 400 H61-4
NGC 3998 Galaxy Herschel 400 H229-1
- NGC 3990 Galaxy - Paired with H229-1
NGC 4026 Galaxy Herschel 400 H223-1
NGC 4036 Galaxy Herschel 400 H253-1 Paired with H252-1
NGC 4041 Galaxy Herschel 400 H252-1 Paired with H253-1
NGC 4051 Galaxy Herschel 400 H56-4
NGC 4085 Galaxy Herschel 400 H224-1 Paired with H206-1
NGC 4088 Galaxy Herschel 400 H206-1 Paired with H224-1
NGC 4102 Galaxy Herschel 400 H225-1
NGC 4605 Galaxy P252
NGC 5322 Galaxy Herschel 400 H256-1
NGC 5457 Galaxy M101 Pinwheel Galaxy
NGC 5474 Galaxy Herschel 400 H214-1 Paired with M101
NGC 5473 Galaxy Herschel 400 H231-1
NGC 5631 Galaxy Herschel 400 H236-1
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