We are still in the depths of winter and the winter constellations are splendidly on display. However, there is a hint of spring in the sky if we use the Ursa Major or the Plough to help us.
The Plough is now higher in the north east, with its handle pointing in the general direction of the horizon. If you follow the curve of the handle you will come to a bright orange star low in the sky. This is Arcturus in the constellation of Bootes. Arcturus is the brightest star in the spring sky. The ‘W’ of Cassiopeia is high in the north west.
As for the winter constellations, Orion still dominates the southern part of the sky. However, as Orion is a little to the west of south, now is the best time to see Sirius the Dog Star. This is the brightest star in the sky. By drawing a line down and to the left of the three stars that form Orion’s belt you will reach Sirius.
Of the other winter stars, Aldebaran and the Seven Sisters in Taurus are now starting to get lower in the west, while Castor and Pollux together with Procyon are now at their highest points. Capella is still high, being just past the overhead position. However, while Capella is very high, Vega, which occupied the overhead point in summer, is now at its lowest, close to the northern horizon. In six months’ time the positions will be reversed.
This month, glorious Venus sets four hours after the Sun, and reaches its maximum brightness of magnitude –4.5 later in the month. A small telescope shows Venus Shrinking to a narrow crescent as it speeds towards the earth.
The star to the upper left of Venus is Mars. But it’s no match for Venus. At magnitude +1.2. It sets at 9.30pm.
Uranus can be found in Pisces, and sets around 10pm. Use Mars to locate this distant world. On the 26th of the month, when faint Uranus at magnitude +5.9 lies just half a degree to the left of the red planet.
Over in the eastern sky, Jupiter is rising about 10.30pm. Shining at a brilliant magnitude of –2.1, in Virgo. The star to its lower right is Spica.
Finally Saturn at magnitude +0.6 rises around 4am, in Ophiuchus. Mercury and Neptune are too close to the Sun to be visible this month.
Phases of the Moon
First Quarter 4th, Full Moon 11th, Last Quarter 18th, New Moon 26th,
During the second half of the month, use binoculars to check out Comet Encke. At its closest approach in several years. You will faint the faint fuzz ball about 10 degrees to the lower right of Venus. At magnitude +7.