SKY GUIDE: This chart represents the sky as it appears over Maine during February.  The stars are shown as they appear at  9:30 p.m. early in the month, at 8:30 p.m. at midmonth and at 7:30  p.m. at month’s end.  Mars is shown in its midmonth position.To use the map, hold it vertically and turn it so that the direction that you are facing is at the bottom.  Sky chart prepared by George Ayers

The month of February is named after the Roman festival Februa, which are rites of purification. The second, Groundhog Day, marks the halfway point of our winter season. The Christian festival of Candlemas also occurs on this day.

The days are getting longer again at the rate of 3 extra minutes per day, which means that the days will be over 1 hour and 20 minutes longer by the end of this month than when it started. This happens because our northern hemisphere is slowly tilting back toward the sun again. By the end of this month, which will probably be much colder than our unusually warm January was, we will be just three weeks away from the vernal equinox.

This month a trio of planets – Jupiter, Saturn, and Mercury – that formed some nice triangles in the bright evening twilight last month will once again hang out near each other this month. However, they have now switched their stage to the morning sky to continue to exhibit their ongoing celestial dance. We will lose Venus in the morning sky and Mars will be close to the moon on the Feb. 18, and two asteroids will be at their best, 18 Melpomene and 29 Amphitrite.

See how early you can spot the recurring planetary trio in the morning sky in Capricorn this month. They should be visible by Feb. 14, as a nice celestial gift for Valentine’s Day. They will appear low in the east southeast about 20 minutes before sunrise.

Jupiter is still 10 times brighter than Saturn, and Mercury will be just a little brighter than Saturn. Then keep watching the trio as Mercury drops below the horizon again because it always has to stay close to the sun, even as Jupiter and Saturn continue to climb higher. Notice that they have traded places since that extremely rare and close conjunction we enjoyed on the winter solstice late last year.

This is a good month to take another tour of the winter hexagon since it is now at its best for the year. We will start with Capella in Auriga, located at the top of this hexagon. Think of it as the “cap” on the sky. Located about 43 light years away, Capella is actually a binary star. Then continue clockwise to Aldebaran in Taurus, located 65 light years away. Its name means “the follower”, since it seems to be following the Pleiades around the sky.

Keep traveling to Rigel, the blue supergiant star marking the left knee of the mighty hunter, Orion, as he perpetually faces us in the sky. Located about 900 light years away, the light from this star left there at about the time that the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when William the Conqueror defeated the English. Halley’s Comet was sighted during that epic battle that changed the course of history, as depicted on the Bayeux tapestry. If you simply take the distance to each of these stars and relate them to historical events on Earth, you will review a good slice of recent history along with obtaining a more three-dimensional view of this seemingly flat hexagon in nearby space.

Then you will encounter Sirius in Canis Major, the brightest star in the whole sky visible from anywhere on Earth. At only 8.8 light years away, you don’t have to go very far back into history to see where you were when the light that you now perceive from this star actually left its source. Known as the Dog Star, Sirius has a white dwarf companion which completes one orbit around it every 50 years.

Then continue to the dimmest of these eight stars, which is Procyon in Canis Minor, only a little farther away than Sirius at 11 light years. Procyon also has a white dwarf star orbiting around it every 40 years. It is two full magnitudes or over six times fainter than Sirius.

We complete our circle or hexagon with Castor and Pollux in Gemini, the twins. Each is about 50 light years away, but Castor is a system of six stars and Pollux is also a multiple star system. We landed two humans on the moon for the first time ever 51 years ago, which is about the time the light left from that star system that you are seeing now. The moon will be very close to Pollux on Feb, 23, so that will be a great connection to make as you look at both of them in the evening sky, knowing that we first set foot on the moon just when the light left the star right next to it. That will give you a much better sense of vast amount of space between these two celestial objects, even though they seem very close together in the sky from our line of sight.

Then we will land on Betelgeuse right in the center of this hexagon or winter circle. Notice its striking orange gold color. As you discovered, each star and star system is unique and very different in this circle, but Betelgeuse is by far the most intriguing and mysterious of these eight. It may not even exist anymore since it has already run out of hydrogen and is now fusing helium into carbon and may have already gone through its remaining stages as it rapidly runs out of fuel and explodes as a supernova, becoming about as bright as our entire galaxy of 300 billion stars for a brief moment before it fades out again about a month later.

Betelgeuse is about 700 times larger than our sun and located about 500 light years away. That is very similar to another red supergiant star, Antares, in Scorpius. If we could place Betelgeuse where our sun is in the sky, the earth and all the planets right up to Jupiter would be orbiting inside this star.

As if that is not enough mystery for this star, Betelgeuse was acting very strange this time last year. It had faded all the way to 1.8 magnitude, which was its faintest in recorded history. It usually varies from about zero magnitude to 1.2, which is a difference of nearly three times in brightness. It varies on an irregular basis. It is also a double star, with a companion that is 10.4 magnitude. It spins much faster than most other stars, which greatly distorts its shape.

Betelgeuse has now become much brighter again and has returned to its normal range. It fueled a lot of speculation last year when it got so dim that it was about to explode, especially since some gravitational waves were also detected from that area of the sky soon after it reached its faintest. Betelgeuse is not ready to go supernova yet, but that could happen soon or it may take another 100,000 years. We are way overdue for a supernova to explode in our galaxy, since we should average one every 100 years. The last one was in 1604, known as Kepler’s supernova in the constellation of Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer.

FEBRUARY HIGHLIGHTS

Feb. 1: Mercury is still an evening planet for a few more days.

Feb. 4: Clyde Tombaugh was born 1906. He would discover Pluto just 24 years later on Feb. 18 of 1930. Last quarter moon is at 12:38 p.m.

Feb. 6: Look for a waning crescent moon near Antares in the morning sky. They will climb higher in tandem as the twilight brightens and the morning unfolds.

Feb. 8: Jules Verne was born in 1828.

Feb. 11: New moon is at 2:07 p.m.

Feb. 14: In 1990 Voyager 1 took a portrait of all the planets in the inner solar system from deep space. Only two such additional family portraits were ever taken, the last one was taken with the Cassini mission orbiting Saturn nearly a billion miles away. It was taken on July 19 of 2013 and we were told to look up and wave.

Feb. 15: Galileo was born in 1564.

Feb. 19: First quarter moon is at 1:48 p.m.

Feb. 23: Pioneer 11 left the solar system on this day in 1990.

Feb. 24: The moon will be near the Beehive open star cluster in Cancer this evening.

Feb. 27: Full moon is at 3:18 a.m. This is also known as the Snow, Hunger, Storm, or Trapper’s moon.

Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England.

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