2012 is a leap year which means an extra day’s stargazing in February! This ‘corrective’ day we observe every fourth year helps to keep our calendar in tune with the astronomical and seasonal year. This compensates for the fact that in the commonly used Gregorian calendar, a year of 365 days is about 6 hours shorter than a solar year (the time it takes for the Earth to complete one full orbit of the Sun). If we didn’t, our seasons would gradually drift as the years passed by.
But, it is of course a little more complicated than just making every fourth year a leap year! Years that are evenly divisible by 100 (e.g. 1700, 1800) are not leap years, unless they are also evenly divisible by 400 (e.g. that’s why 2000 was a leap year). Phew!
If you’ve ever tried looking at the stars from the city, you’ll probably know how frustrating it can be because of light pollution spilling up into the sky and drowning out the fainter light of those glittering celestial bodies. The GLOBE at Night campaign though is an international citizen science effort to count the stars overhead and use the information to lobby for less wasteful lighting of our communities.
There are four periods for observations for GLOBE at Night in 2012: 14th-23rd January; 12th-21st February; 13th-22nd March; and 11th-20th April. Why not get involved – you’ll find all the resources you need on the GLOBE at Night website.
GLOBE at Night Postcard 2012 (.pdf opens in new window)
The Moon Phases
Full Moon: 7th February, 21:54
Last Quarter: 14th February, 17:04
New Moon: 21st February, 22:35
(times above are in Universal Time, UT)
Mercury hides behind the Sun for most of February, only emerging just after sunset towards the very end of the month.
Venus on the other hand, is a dazzling sight as the Sun sets. You’ll find it to the South-West and it’ll remain in the sky for an increasingly long period of time such that by the end of the month it’s still visible till around 10pm.
Observe Mars throughout February and you’ll notice it get’s brighter as the days go by. It’s reaching opposition – with Earth directly between it and the Sun. The Red Planet rises in the East in the early evening, and you’ll easily be able to tell what it is from its orange hue which is visible through the night till just before dawn.
Up high in the South Western sky by the time it’s getting dark, Jupiter is bright (though not as bright as Venus). Dusk on 26th February 2012 will be quite a sight with a thin crescent Moon splitting Jupiter from Venus.
Saturn starts to rise just before midnight and can be seen through the night.
The outermost planets Uranus and Neptune aren’t visible to the naked eye. You’ll need a telescope to see them at the best of times, and this really isn’t, the best of times. Both are close to the Sun in our sky and therefore setting around the same time for most of the month. You definately don’t want to look towards the Sun as you risk permanent eye damage!
The Hunt for Exo-planets
Think you could spot the tell-tale signs of an exoplanet? Take part in a citizen science project called Planet Hunters and help find new worlds around other stars!
Find Your Way Around The Night Sky
Here are some images of what the sky will look like around Midnight on 14th February 2012… love is in the air (click to embiggen)!
Here’s a cool constellation to look for at this time of year in the northern hemisphere – Taurus.
Click on the image to watch the constellation of Taurus appear before you.
The brightest star in the constellation is Aldebaran; known as ‘the follower’ it is the prominent bloodshot eye of the bull and lies some 65 light years from Earth. This star is a red giant and visible even from the city on a clear night. It get’s its Arabic name as the follower of the open star cluster, Pleiades. Often called the Seven Sisters, this cluster of stars (M45) is one of the closest clusters to Earth and composed mostly of young hot blue stars.
Forming the v-shape of the bull’s face is a familiar asterism – The Hyades. The stars in this open cluster are much older and cooler than those found in the Pleiades – many of them are either red giants or white dwarfs. The Hyades is nearer to Earth than the Pleiades (150 light years compared with about 430 light years); and they’re estimated to be around 7 times as old (700 million years).
Winter in general is a great time to spot things in the night time sky – here are some of my favourite things to look for over these chilly months.
Whatever you do, just be sure to look up every now and again 🙂