2022, February 20: Morning Planetary Footrace, Evening Hunter

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February 20, 2022:  Morning Star Venus, Mars, and the gibbous moon are in the morning sky.  Orion shines from the southern sky during the early evening hours.

Chart Caption – 2022, February 20: Venus and Mars are in an eastward footrace in the southeast before sunrise.

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by Jeffrey L. Hunt

Chicago, Illinois:  Sunrise, 6:39 a.m. CST; Sunset, 5:30 p.m. CST.  Check local sources for sunrise and sunset times for your location.

Morning Sky

Brilliant Venus  and Mars are in an eastward footrace during the predawn hours.  The pair is in the southeast before sunrise. 

At forty-five minutes before sunrise, the Morning Star is over 15° above the southeast horizon.  Dimmer Mars is 5.9° to the lower right of Venus.

Mars is 3.8° to the lower left of Albaldah – “the city.”

Mars passed Venus on February 16.  The Red Planet marches eastward, while Venus is slowly picking up eastward speed, after it ended retrograding on January 30. Usually, Venus moves eastward at about twice the speed of Mars, but the ending of Venus’ retrograde slowed its apparent eastward rate.

Additionally, Venus is moving closer to the ecliptic.  Each morning the two planets are closer than when Mars passed by.

Venus catches Mars on March 6 for the last meeting of a triple conjunction.

This morning, Saturn rises 30 minutes before sunrise, about the time of Civil Twilight, when the sun is 6° below the horizon.  The Ringed Wonder is low in the sky at sunup.  It joins the morning planets next month.

Chart Caption – 2022, February 20: The moon is near Spica before sunrise.

This morning farther westward, the bright moon – 85% illuminated – is about a third of the way up in the sky, 7.8° to the upper right of Spica – “the ear of corn.”

Evening Sky

Chart Caption – 2022, February 20: Orion is in the southern sky during the early evening hours.

The winter stars shine brightly from the southern sky during early evening hours.  Orion is about halfway up in the southern sky.

The famous Hunter is the winter flagship constellation.  It is easy to locate.  Three brighter stars line up in a short line, making his belt.  His shoulders are noted by Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, while his knees are marked by Rigel and Saiph.  Dimmer stars make his arms.  One has a shield and the other has a club.  The stars of his head are dim as well.

When we look at the constellation, we are looking into the thickness of the galaxy’s plane.  We are looking nearly in the opposite direction from the galactic center toward the piece of a nearby spiral arm.  The plane of the galaxy has bright and dim stars, gaseous clouds, mixed with dust. 

When bright stars shine on the normally clear gasses, they glow like a neon tube, but in the galaxy, the glow is from hydrogen.

Inert gasses can be seen with infrared telescopes and detected by radio waves, because they are cold and release “light” in “colors” that we cannot see.

Notice the contrasting star colors.  Betelgeuse is distinctly red-orange, while Rigel is blue-white.  Betelgeuse is not as hot as the sun – an average star – and Rigel’s color indicates a temperature hotter than average.

For Betelgeuse to rank as the 7th brightest star visible from the northern hemisphere, it must be quite large.  Hot stars radiate considerable energy through each square inch of their surface gases.  In order for a red star, that emits less energy through each square inch, to be this bright, it has to be quite large – a red supergiant.  It is perhaps larger than the inner solar system.  If placed here it would cover the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, extending nearly to Jupiter.

Alnitak is ranked as one of the hottest bright stars in the sky.  Its temperature is over 50,000°F compared to the sun’s temperature of about 10,000° F.

Alnilam, in Orion’s belt, is one of the brightest stars in the sky. At a distance of 2,000 light years, the star shines with a brightness of over 63,000 suns! Next brightest are Rigel, Betelgeuse, and Alnitak.  Their distances range from 500 light years to 900 light years.

The stars names have interesting meanings, from George Davis’ Pronunciations, Derivations, and Meanings of a Selected List of Star Names:

  • Betelgeuse – “the arm-pit of the white-belted sheep”
  • Rigel – “Orion’s left foot”
  • Bellatrix – “the female warrior”
  • Mintaka – “Orion’s belt or girdle”
  • Alnilam – “the string of pearls”
  • Alnitak – “the belt”
  • Saiph – “the sword of the powerful one.”
Photo Caption – Orion Nebula (NASA Photo)

Point your binocular at the three belt stars and move them to the top of the field of view. The Great Orion Nebula, cataloged as Messier 42 (M42 on the chart), appears as a greenish cloud.  It is distinctly irregular in shape. The nebula’s beautiful colors appear in a time exposures.

This obvious cloud is the indicator of an extremely large, star-forming region, what we would expect to find in the galaxy’s spiral arm.

Step outside on the next clear evening to see the wonderful collection of stars in the winter sky.

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