Our Friendly Skies - February 2011

February 02, 2011|By ROD MARTIN and ANDY SMETZER
  • All-Sky chart for February 2011
All-Sky chart for February 2011

We’re over halfway through winter! Groundhog Day celebrates the “cross quarter” day which is halfway between the winter solstice and vernal equinox. Think spring!  

Start with Jupiter. It’s the brightest “star” in the southwest. Follow along with the star chart.  Along the horizon to Jupiter’s right is the Great Square of Pegasus. It is getting lower and nearly gone. Pointing upward from the highest corner is the skinny “V” of Andromeda with its bright galaxy.  

Turn left, toward the south. Here are the bright winter constellations Orion, Taurus, Canis Major, Gemini, and Auriga. This is probably their best month! Observe the area of Orion’s belt and see celestial delights like the great Orion Nebula.  Look high overhead and slightly north for the “W” of Cassiopeia.  

Turn around to the north to spot the Big Dipper standing on its handle about halfway up the sky. Follow the pointer stars toward the left for the North Star.

Follow the pointer stars to the right for the first spring constellation Leo the Lion.  

For more information about Jupiter and a tour of the nighttime sky, download the planetarium’s podcast “Skylights” at     

Observe the moon  

Join the TriState Astronomers in observing the moon. Telescopes will be set up at the Smithsburg Library, Friday, Feb. 11, from 6 to 8 p.m. Snow date will be Friday, Feb. 18. The library is at 66 W. Water St., Smithsburg.


The solar system

Visible Evening Planets

  • JUPITER is bright in the south-southwest.  

Visible Morning Planets

  • VENUS is very bright in the southeast.
  • SATURN is in the southwest before sunrise.  

Jupiter is still the brightest evening planet this month. As the month passes, our giant planet will drop lower and closer to the evening twilight glare. Jupiter starts the month less than halfway up the southwestern sky. Early in February, it sets around 9:30 p.m., but around 8:15 at the end.  

After Jupiter sets the sky is “planetless” until the second-largest planet rises. That of course is Saturn. In early February, it rises around 11 p.m. and rises before 9 p.m. late in the month.  

Don’t confuse Saturn with the similarly bright star Spica in Virgo. This pair of “stars” is striking, but Spica leads the way with Saturn following.  Look for Saturn about halfway up the southwestern sky before sunrise.  

Venus owns the morning sky. It is very bright at -4.2 magnitude. That is much brighter than any nighttime object except the moon. It is starting to leave our sky, too! Since its orbit is between Earth and the sun, it seems to go back and forth in the sky near the sun. It rises about three hours before the sun early in February and about two hours at the end of February.  

Mercury may be visible the first couple of days of February, but you need to look within 15 minutes of sunrise. It then passes behind the sun on Feb. 25 at superior conjunction.  Mars passes behind the sun on Feb. 4 ,when it reaches conjunction. Wait until May when it rises in the morning.   

Sun and moon

On Feb. 1, the sun rose at 7:18 a.m. and set at 5:30 p.m., for 10 hours and 12 minutes of daylight. On Feb. 28, the sun rises at 6:45 a.m. and sets at 6:01 p.m., for 11 hours and 16 minutes of daylight.  

The sun enters the astronomical boundaries of Aquarius from Capricorn on Feb. 16.  

The moon reaches new on Feb. 2, first quarter on Feb, 11, full on Feb. 18, and last quarter on Feb. 24.  

Brish Planetarium and events

The current public planetarium program is “Galileo: The Power of the Telescope.” More than 400 years ago, Galileo revolutionized astronomy and science by using a telescope to observe the sky. Witness the history and modern uses of this scientific instrument.  

Programs are Tuesdays at 7 p.m. Admission fees are $3 for adults, $2 for students, and senior citizens with a WCPS Gold Card are admitted free!  

SCHEDULE CHANGE: The March-April program “New Horizons” will be replaced by “Dark Matter.” This timely program will discuss new and current ideas about this elusive matter and energy.  

The planetarium is at the Central Offices of the Washington County Public Schools on Commonwealth Avenue off Frederick Street in Hagerstown. The planetarium’s website is

For more information about schedules and special events, go to

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