Driftless Dark Skies

John Heasley

I love how each season of stargazing has its own vibe. In August, I was lying out with friends waiting for Perseids to streak across the sky. Maybe I wore a hoodie to deter the mosquitoes and brought a fleece blanket in case it got a little chilly toward midnight. Sunset was after 8 p.m. and twilight did not end until 10 p.m. February is a very different world. You can start much earlier with sunset around 5:30 p.m. and the sky fully dark by 7 p.m. It takes longer to gear up with boots and layers and hand warmers and to brew some tea. But there is much to see in the late winter sky even when you’re out just a short time.

Planets are scarce this month. You can have a last look at Jupiter in the evening sky low in the southwest where the sun sets. A thin crescent moon pairs up with Jupiter on Feb. 2 to begin the month. The other visible planets are gathered together low in the southeast at dawn. A thin crescent moon passes by Venus, Mars, Mercury and Saturn on Feb. 27 and 28 to end the month. Be sure to notice that constellations such as Scorpius and Sagittarius that you see on a frigid February morning are the same ones you see on a mild August evening.

But February has so many brilliant stars. Check in on Orion, one of the more recognizable constellations with two bright stars for shoulders, two for knees, and three in a row for a belt. Orion will be high in the south if you venture out around 7 p.m. and is about as big as your gloved hand. Be sure to admire reddish Betelgeuse (his left shoulder) and bluish Rigel (his right knee). Binoculars really bring out the colors especially if you defocus them a little. Then make a line up from Orion’s Belt to where the Pleiades (The Seven Sisters) star cluster is high overhead. A line down from Orion’s belt brings you to Sirius, the “Dog Star” and the brightest in the sky. It’s usually twinkling like crazy as its starlight passes through so many thermal layers close to the horizon.

If the chill has not gotten to you yet, trace out the Winter Circle of bright stars surrounding Orion.  These six stars are the first to appear after sunset and are roughly 25 degrees apart. That’s the distance between your pinkie and thumb when your fingers are fully extended and your hand is held out before you. Start clockwise with Sirius and make your way up to Procyon, Pollux (with its twin Castor nearby), Capella (at zenith), Aldebaran (between Orion and Pleiades), Rigel (Orion’s right knee) and back to Sirius before heading for home and warmth.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador, with the IAU as a Dark Skies Ambassador, and with International Dark-Sky Association as an Advocate. For more information about stargazing in southwestern Wisconsin, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.