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Touring the Skies By Jim Bonser (jbonser@usa.net)

February 1, 2019
Reinbeck Courier
Ps. 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

What was I saying last month about longer days and dreams of spring? Boy! Winter has arrived and seems to be making up for lost time. But I know that spring is not that far away and I am hopeful that we might get at least a few clear nights in February. I hope you were able to get out and watch at least a little of the lunar eclipse we were treated to on January 20th. The forecast did not sound promising at all, but surprisingly, the eclipse was visible through fairly clear skies all around central Iowa, including my house. Before the eclipse began, I was outside getting a few things ready so I could photograph the event, and I was amazed at how bright it was outside. “This Supermoon is really living up to its name”, I thought. I decided to just use a sky tracker on a tripod and a camera with a 300mm f10 to take pictures. Just before totality, the Moon began to turn a dark orange. It looked so beautiful, I had to run inside and tell Deb to put on a coat and quick, come outside and see it. She wasn’t so sure it would be worth coming out into the sub-zero temperatures to take it in, but after she saw it, she agreed it was just breathtakingly beautiful and worth enduring the cold, at least for a few minutes. Well, unfortunately there aren’t any more eclipses to see in February. But there are a few interesting things that will be worth taking a look at this month, starting with everybody’s favorite constellation: The Great Hunter aka Orion. Orion is almost due south at about 8 o’clock in mid-February. If you stand facing south, look at a point half way between the point directly overhead (astronomers call that point, the Zenith) and the horizon. You will see three bright stars in a row tilted at a slight angle upwards from left to right. These are the three stars that mark Orion’s belt. They have really cool names: Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. Wonder why they didn’t all three begin with the letter ‘A’? I’ll have to look that up and get back to you next month! Anyway, if you are fortunate enough to be under clear dark skies, you should easily make out another line of three stars hanging down from Orion’s belt. If you look closely, you might notice that the lower end seems a little fuzzy - you might even say it glows! It does! That is the home of the famous Great Nebula in Orion or the Orion Nebula for short or M42 for even shorter. A little lower and to the right is bright blue Rigel - the brightest star in Orion and the 7th brightest star in the whole sky. This star marks the hunter’s left knee (he is facing us). The other knee is marked by the star Saiph. Straight up from Saiph is bright orange-red colored Betelgeuse. You may pronounce that any way you want; I’ve heard several pronunciations. I usually settle on Beetle-Juice. Some say Bet-el-jews some say Bate-el-geese -take your pick! Finally, to the right of Betelgeuse is the bright Bellatrix. If you look up and to the right of Bellatrix, you might be able to make out a curved line of stars that could be a shield and above Betelgeuse you might be able to make out Orion’s club raised high to defend against the charging bull: Taurus. Mars is the only bright planet out in the evening this month. Mars is in the west this month, setting around 11:15 at mid-month. The Moon can help you locate Mars on February 9 and 10. If you have a pair of binoculars, you might want to try to spot a planet we don’t talk about often in this column: Uranus. Uranus is magnitude 5.8 this month and reaches a close conjunction with Mars on February 12. They will be just under 2 arc minutes apart. Binoculars should show a nice contrast of the soft blue Uranus and ruddy Mars. On February 28, just before sunrise, a beautiful string of planets and the Moon will be visible just above the eastern horizon. Closest to the horizon (and the Sun) will be brilliant Venus shining at magnitude -4.1. To the right and a little higher will be golden Saturn (Pluto will be between Venus and Saturn, but you will just have to take my word for it unless you have a pretty good telescope.) Next in line after Saturn will be a waning crescent Moon followed by bright Jupiter. Also, although not a planet, bright red Antares completes this beautiful line of heavenly bodies (sorry, I just couldn’t resist!). To see all of them you will need to be looking around 5:25 a.m. Too soon and Venus will not be up yet. Too late, and Antares will be quite hard to spot in the brightening dawn skies. Stay warm but be sure to got out and admire God’s beautiful creation this month. Clear Skies!

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