Venus continues to put on a great show this month. It is still well up in the southwestern sky at dusk, and visible for more than three hours in the early evening. As it moves closer to Earth, it is appearing larger and more crescent-like. A small telescope, or possibly even steady binoculars, will reveal its changing size and shape.
At the same time in the southeast, Orion can help you find several other constellations. Orion's two brightest stars, Betelgeuse and Rigel, are part of two asterisms, recognizable star patterns that are not actually constellations. Betelgeuse, the bright shoulder star, is the top star of the Winter Triangle. The other two stars are Procyon, in Canis Minor, and Sirius, in Canis Major. In lore, Canis Major and Minor are the dogs accompanying Orion, the Hunter. Sirius, on the lower right, is the brightest star in the night sky.
A larger asterism is the Winter Hexagon. In addition to Procyon (1) and Sirius (2), it includes Rigel (3, in Orion), Aldeberan (4, Taurus), Capella (5, Auriga), and Pollux (6, Gemini).
If you have binoculars, you may be able to see two special objects in February. Ceres, the largest known asteroid, is moving through Leo, and on February 25, will be the closest it has been to Earth since 1857. At almost 600 miles across, about the size of Texas, Ceres is large enough to be considered a dwarf planet. It's not that impressive in binoculars or a telescope, looking like just another small star, but if you observe it over several days, you will be able to identify it by its movement against the background stars. A detailed sky chart, such as this one, will help you locate Ceres and track its movement.
Comet C/2007 N3 (Lulin) should be reaching its brightest in February, visible with binoculars, and perhaps even unaided, as it moves through Libra, Virgo, and Leo. Comets are sometimes unpredictable, though. Sky and Telescope's Comet Lulin page has regular updates about how the comet looks, as well as downloadable charts to help you locate it over the next couple of months.
If your weather is too lousy for astronomy, you can still entertain yourself indoors by, say, guiding the Hubble. Hubble's Next Discovery You Decide is letting visitors vote on the next deep sky object that will be viewed by the Hubble Space Telescope. The nominees are objects that the Hubble has never observed before. You have until March 1 to vote, and pictures of the winning object will be released in early April. You can also enter to win a photograph of the Hubble's observation of the winning object.**********
Cool Thing of the Week: Astronomy Picture of the Day
Astronomy Picture of the Day is just what you would think it is. Every day since 1995, APOD has shown a photo of our amazing universe, with a brief annotation written by the founders, two professional astronomers. It's not a fancy site, just a great photograph, some information about it, and plenty of links if you want to learn more. There is also a complete archive of all fifteen years of photos.**********
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