Poster’s Note: The text for this month’s installment from Dee Sharples, “The Sky In February 2024,” is provided below. Those wishing to listen to the article can click on the audio link below.
The month of February is not the most comfortable month in which to observe the night sky for long periods of time. It is, however, a good time to become an ‘armchair astronomer’. From reading science fiction novels or non-fiction educational books, to watching astronomy documentaries on PBS, to perusing the NASA web site, there’s something for everybody. NASA.gov offers a wealth of information on all aspects of astronomy, our solar system, exoplanets, space missions, and outstanding photos taken by amateur and professional astronomers, as well as space telescopes.
One of the easiest constellations to observe in the winter is Orion the Hunter which lies due south halfway up from the horizon in February. Step outside on any clear night at 8:00 p.m. at the beginning of the month and 7:00 p.m. toward the end of the month to immerse yourself in its breathtaking beauty. Orion’s distinctive belt made up of three equally spaced bright stars will immediately catch your eye.
Orion offers many interesting characteristics. Over a dozen stars make up the constellation, but two are especially noteworthy. The red supergiant Betelgeuse in the upper left corner of the constellation and the blue supergiant Rigel on the lower right stand out as the brightest members of the constellation.
The first direct image of a star, other than the Sun, was Betelgeuse made with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: Andrea Dupree (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), Ronald Gilliland (STScI), NASA and ESA.
Betelgeuse is a young star, only 10 million years old, compared to our Sun which is 4.5 billion. It’s so huge that if it replaced the Sun at the center of our solar system, it would reach out almost to Jupiter.
Betelgeuse is destined to end in a supernova blast. In 2019, scientists saw a dimming of Betelgeuse following an outburst caused by the star blowing off a large portion of its visible surface. There’s a small chance Betelgeuse will go supernova in your lifetime.
The Orion Nebula, located in Orion’s sword which hangs below his belt, is a star factory where new stars are being born. On a clear night, you can spot his sword with your naked eye, looking like a fuzzy swath of light. With binoculars you can see even more detail.
Scientists have discovered exoplanets orbiting stars in Orion. One of them is a giant gas planet three times more massive than Jupiter.
Mintaka, the star on the right side on Orion’s belt isn’t just one star, but actually five stars in a complex star system.
Rigel is also a young star, about 8 million years old. Rigel is much larger than our Sun, and its surface is thousands of degrees hotter than Betelgeuse, making it shine blue-white rather than red. Rigel is the brightest star in Orion and one of the brightest stars in the night sky.
The only planet putting on a show in the night sky this month is Jupiter, shining at a brilliant magnitude -2.4. As darkness falls, you can find Jupiter high in the south-southwest looking like a very bright star. It sets right after midnight and by the end of February has dimmed slightly to magnitude -2.2.
For any outside observing in the winter, be sure to dress in layers of very warm clothing.