February 18, 2022: Morning Star Venus and Mars are in the southeast before sunrise. The moon is in the western sky. Taurus is high in the south during the early evening.
by Jeffrey L. Hunt
Chicago, Illinois: Sunrise, 6:42 a.m. CST; Sunset, 5:28 p.m. CST. Check local sources for sunrise and sunset times for your location.
Brilliant Venus shines from the southeastern sky before sunrise. Look for it about 15° above the horizon at forty-five minutes before sunup.
Through a small telescope or spotting scope, the planet displays a morning crescent that is 30% illuminated.
The planet is slowly moving eastward in front of the stars of Sagittarius. Its retrograde ended on January 30. During the next week it moves eastward nearly 0.69° each day along the plane of the solar system.
Dimmer Mars passed the brilliant planet two mornings ago in a wide conjunction. This morning the Red Planet is 6.0° to the lower right of Venus. In the starfield, Mars is 2.7° to the lower left of Albaldah – “the city.”
During the next week, Mars is moving 0.74° eastward each day, slightly faster than Venus.
Venus picks up speed and passes Mars again on March 6 for the third conjunction in a series of three – a triple conjunction.
Farther westward, the bright moon – 96% illuminated – is over 20° above the western horizon. Leo makes the starry background. The lunar orb is 8.6° to the lower left of Denebola – “the lion’s tail” – and 21° to the upper left of Regulus – “the prince.”
The winter sky is full of bright stars. Half of the dozen brightest stars seen from the mid-northern latitudes are visible during winter evenings. This evening look for Taurus. Its brightest star is Aldebaran – “the follower.” It is a rusty star to the upper right of Orion. Betelgeuse is brighter and to the lower left of the Bull’s eye.
Aldebaran is nearly 70 light years away and shines with the luminescence of over 300 suns. Its color and intrinsic brightness indicate a red giant star. Such stars have exhausted hydrogen at their cores and their visible layers puffed out and reddened when helium began to fuse in their cores.
Betelgeuse, at Orion’s shoulder, is larger and brighter than Aldebaran and referred to as a red supergiant.
Along with the Hyades star cluster, Aldebaran makes the head of Taurus.
The Hyades and the nearby Pleiades star cluster show that stars are initially formed in bunches. Each star in these clusters has been classified by its stellar chemistry, and its stellar lifespan predicted.
During the late 19th century a group of “calculators” at the Harvard College Observatory started work on a catalog of stars, from photographs, brighter than 9th magnitude, about four times dimmer than those visible to human eyesight. One calculator, Annie Jump Cannon, classified over 350,000 stars!
The Pleiades are vivid blue-white stars, indicating younger stars that have not yet reached the red giant phase, while the Hyades cluster has some reddened stars.
In his Celestial Handbook, Robert Burnham, noted the connection of bull figures in historical artifacts like coins and art. He writes, “Mankind, for at least the last several thousand years, has seen the V-shaped Hyades group as the head of the Bull, with ruddy Aldebaran as the Bull’s eye. Taurus is one of the very earliest constellations to be recognized and was probably named as early as 4000 BC. . .” (p. 1813).
While Aldebaran’s name is translated as the follower, the Pleiades, commonly known as the Seven Sisters, is sometimes referred to as “the leader.”
In yesterday’s article, the constellation Auriga was highlighted. Its bright star Capella – “the little she goat” – is sometimes known as “the driver,” as it seems to be herding the Pleiades westward.
Burnham further relates the literary references of the Hyades and Pleiades by Tennyson, Job, Manilius, Milton, and others.
The bull has two long horns, not like a Texas longhorn, rather resembling an addax or oryx. The points of the horns are marked by Elnath, “the one butting with horns,” and Zeta Tauri.
An exploded star, known as the Crab Nebula and cataloged as Messier 1 (M1), is near Zeta.
Through a backyard telescope, the nebula appears as a smudge. Time exposure photography collects light to provide the details of the tangles of gas. The cloud is rushing outward from a rotating neutron star, the rapidly spinning mass of the stellar core. The rotating pulsar sends out a stream of light, like that of a lighthouse. When the star turns earthward, we record a flash of radio waves. When timing equipment is used, the pulsar can be seen flashing.
The nebula is the remnant of a supernova that appeared in the skies of Earth during the year 1054. Chinese astronomers recorded the event. The supernova was visible for two years before it faded from the view of the human eye.
The Crab Nebula represents the terminal state of the life cycle of a star. It confirms stellar evolution theory, similar to the existence of stellar black holes and white dwarfs.
The nebula’s luminescence is from accelerating atomic particles through magnetic fields, like those produced in particle accelerators in scientific laboratories.
Astronomer Geoffrey Burbidge noted the importance of the Crab Nebula by saying that there are two parts of astronomy – “the astronomy of the Crab Nebula and the astronomy of everything else.”
Tomorrow we’ll survey another winter constellation.
February 28, 2023: One night before their close conjunction, Venus approaches Jupiter in the west-southwest after sundown. The moon is near the horns of Taurus with Mars nearby.Keep reading
February 27, 2023: Brilliant Venus approaches Jupiter, two nights before their conjunction. The moon passes close to Mars near midnight.Keep reading
February 26, 2023: As the Venus-Jupiter conjunction nears, the two planets are close in the west-southwest after sundown. The moon is near the Pleiades star cluster during the evening.Keep reading