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What to look for in February night skies

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By Mike Lynch
February gifts us with the best stargazing of the year in the Northwest night skies.
Try to get away from city lights; but even if you're restricted to urban stargazing you'll like what you see.
You might want to hold off late next week because there'll be a full moon on Feb. 7. After that the moon won't rise until very late at night, and you can really take in those magical dark skies.
If you want to train that new Christmas telescope on planets look in the western sky as soon as you can after evening twilight. Venus and Jupiter will greet you. By far they are the brightest starlike objects in the evening sky. Venus is the lowest and brightest and Jupiter is just a little to the upper left of Venus.
While it's not quite as bright as Venus, Jupiter is a whole lot more fun to look at through even a small telescope. Even though it's almost a half a billion miles away you can clearly see up to four of its brighter moons that resemble tiny little stars on either side of the planet's disk.
Because they orbit Jupiter in periods of two to 17 days, the moons are constantly changing positions and regularly pass in front of or behind the largest planet in our solar system. You may even see some of Jupiter's cloud bands that stripe the planet.
Venus is brighter and closer to Earth at just over 93 million miles, but it's completely cloud covered and pretty boring.
Face south and you'll be anything but bored. You'll get an eyeful of what I call "Orion and his gang." The majestic constellation Orion the Hunter is standing more or less upright above the southern horizon.
Its visual calling cards are the three distinctive belt stars lined up so perfectly and the bright stars Rigel and Betelgeuse.
To the upper right of my favorite constellation is the constellation Taurus the Bull with the bright star cluster the Pleiades. To the upper left of Orion is the constellation Gemini the Twins and directly overhead is Auriga the Charioteer that looks like a lopsided pentagon.
To the lower left of Orion is the bright star Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, and also the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, the Big Dog. Draw a line through the three stars in Orion's belt and extend that line to the lower left, and it will point right at Sirius.
Sirius is a Greek name that means "the scorcher." To the upper left of Canis Major is Canis Minor, which honestly isn't much of a constellation, but is the home of another bright star, Procyon.
Connect Procyon, Sirius and Betelgeuse and they make an absolutely perfect triangle aptly dubbed "The Winter Triangle," one of the coolest things to see in the cold winter sky.
In the northern sky the Big Dipper is standing up on its handle and Cassiopeia the Queen is high in the north near the overhead zenith. It's as bright as the Big Dipper and looks like an upside down W that outlines the throne of Queen Cassiopeia. The queen is tied up in her throne because she bragged that she was more beautiful than Hera, the Queen of the Greek gods and the owner of the largest ego in history.
In the eastern sky there's a sign of spring. Look for the diagonal backward question mark that outlines the chest and head of Leo the Lion.
Star map instructions
To use this map, cut it out and attach it to a stiff backing. Hold it over your head and line up the compass points on the map's horizon to the actual direction you're facing. East and West on this map are not backward. This is not a misprint. I guarantee that when you hold this map over your head, East and West will be in their proper positions. Also attach a red piece of cloth or red construction paper over the lens of a flashlight. You won't lose your night vision when you look at this map in red light.
Story tags » Star Gazing

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