February 26, 2022: The crescent moon joins Morning Star Venus and Mars. In the evening, Polaris – the North Star – reliably shines from the north.
by Jeffrey L. Hunt
Chicago, Illinois: Sunrise, 6:30 a.m. CST; Sunset, 5:38 p.m. CST. Check local sources for sunrise and sunset times for your location.
Brilliant Venus shines from the southeast before sunrise. Look for it about 15° above the horizon at forty-five minutes before sunrise. Through a spotting scope or small telescope, Venus displays a morning crescent phase that is 36% illuminated.
Dimmer Mars is 5.3° to the lower right of the Morning Star. Use a binocular to initially locate Mars. Both planets fit into the same field of view.
The crescent moon, 22% illuminated, joins the planetary duo this morning. It is 14.7° to the lower right of Venus.
Jupiter, Saturn, and Mercury are in bright twilight. The Jovian Giant and Ringed Wonder are transitioning to the morning sky. Saturn rises 43 minutes before sunup, while Jupiter sets 22 minutes after the sun. Mercury is retreating back into the sun’s glare as it moves toward its superior conjunction and entry into the evening sky. This morning it rises 56 minutes before the sun.
With the Orion region of the galaxy prominently placed in the southern sky, let’s turn our attention to the northward.
After the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper is likely the second most famous group of stars for children in the northern hemisphere. From most locations, the seven stars of the larger dipper are easy to locate. The Little Dipper is not so easy to see. Four of its stars are dim and not visible from urban or suburban backyards.
After the sun, Polaris is likely the most famous star in the northern hemisphere. Because of its notoriety, it is thought to be the brightest star visible in the night sky. It is number forty-eight on the bright stars list. (Yes, there are such lists – brightest, nearest, variable, and the like.)
Polaris is the star closest to the north celestial pole (NCP on the chart). This spot is directly above Earth’s north pole. From that latitude, the celestial pole is overhead, straight up. Far away, Polaris happens to be the star that is there. During the night as Earth rotates, Polaris, seemingly does not move. It is always north, and during this era is known as the “North Star.”
From everywhere in the northern hemisphere, Polaris is always north, and it its above the horizon at an angle equal to the latitude. From the mid-northern latitudes, Polaris is about halfway up in the north. From more southerly latitudes, it is lower and higher at more northern locations.
Polaris is not always the North Star. Our planet slightly wobbles or precesses, like a toy gyroscope. The earth’s north pole completes one wobble in about 26,000 years. During this period, the spot of the north celestial pole changes. Now it points in the vicinity of Polaris. At the time of the construction of the Egyptian pyramids, the celestial pole pointed toward Thuban, the brightest star in Draco. In about 13,000 years, the pole points in the vicinity of Vega. In between the pole does not have a bright star near it. The southern hemisphere has no bright star near the south celestial pole that is known as the “south star.”
As a star, Polaris is over 4,000 times brighter than the sun, shining from 450 light years away.
Two stars, Kochab and Perkad, at the end of the dippers bowl, are sometimes called the “Guardian Stars” or “Guardians of the Pole.” During the night, they move in a circular motion around Polaris, as if they are on patrol to protect something of value.
It is interesting that Kochab’s name means “north star.” From precession, it was near the celestial pole from 1500 BC to 300 AD. Perkad’s name means “the calf.”
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