For all those out there who fancy getting out into their gardens and taking a peek skywards at night, I've listed a few February highlights below.
You can see most of these sights with nothing but your eyes. However, some are best viewed with binoculars - you don't have to shell out huge amounts of money but you should choose the right type. For good tips on what to look for in binoculars, check out page two of this free magazine article from Kerry Astronomy Club.
If you really want to go the whole hog and get a telescope, I would recommend first joining a local club/society. The folks will give you good advice on what to buy, where to buy it and how to use it. If you go out on an observing session with them, they'll even let you use their own telescopes so you can get a feel for what you would like. For a list of clubs/societies near you, go to this site. For a good summary of buying your first telescope, have a look here. For a more in-depth tips, Galway Astronomy Club have a good page here.
Before I list out the highlights, just a few tips on observing the night sky:
- For safety and security, children should be supervised at all times by an adult
- Know the area where you intend to observe. You won't see potholes in the dark
- Wrap up warm. Wear a good coat, a woolly hat, gloves and a couple of pairs of socks
- A flask of soup is great if you're out for a few hours
- Your eyes take about twenty minutes to adapt to the darkness. A torch is recommended to avoid those potholes but cover it with red cellophane or plastic (red sweet wrappers are ideal) to avoid ruining your dark adaptation.
- Above all, enjoy yourself!
So, without further ado, here are February's highlights:
1. The Moon and Saturn
If you've never seen Saturn before, here's your best chance. Saturn will be just below the moon on Friday 2nd at about 8pm. For a star map showing you where to look, click here.
If you are in Dublin and fancy having a look through at Saturn through a telescope, the Dublin Sidewalk Asronomers will have some available in Sandymount on 10th Feb (near the Martello Tower). I guarantee you will be hooked. More details from the Irish Astronomical Society.
2. Venus and Mercury
Venus is the dazzling bright "star" in the West at sunset. It outshines everything else so you really can't miss it. If you hold your clenched fist out at arms length and place Venus to your left, Mercury is a little lower than Venus to the right. Very few people have seen Mercury - so join in a rather exclusive club by having a look. You may need binoculars but wait until the Sun has set - NEVER EVER look directly at the Sun.
3. The Constellation Orion
This constellation is the Astronomers' favourite - it is full of gas clouds, newborn stars and other goodies. Look to the South after dinner and hunt down the Hunter. This article from our prolific Kerry Astronomy Club friends gives you some great pointers to Orion and other nearby delights.
For directions, click here and look to the upper right of the star map.
Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky. It is also called 'The Dog Star' because it is in the constellation Canis Majoris (Big Dog). If the Earth revolved around Sirius, it would be 20 time brighter than our sun! In fact, its name comes from the Greek word for 'searing' or 'scorching'. For directions, click here and look to the lower right of the star map.
If you manage to get outside and see some of these wonders, do let me know here. If you get the astronomy bug, please feel free to contact me or join the IFAS bulletin boards (its free). The folks there will be more than happy to point you in the right direction.
Good luck and clear skies!