Crete Sky in Winter in January and February

As I remember, our search for the constellation Sculptor was not an easy task. Finding our first constellation, Camelopardalis, the Giraffe, high in the north is also a difficult task. The constellation harbors only stars fainter than magnitude 4. There’s no real object of interest to study with the naked eye. Those with binoculars can try open cluster CR 464. The cluster has 50 members and its size is 4 times the diameter of the moon, 120’. The total magnitude of the group is 4.2. If you know that, you can spot stars of magnitude 7.5 with the naked eye in a very dark area. You would think this cluster is visible to the naked eye, but be aware that the larger the area of the object, the dimmer it seems!

Camelopardalis, the Giraffe constellation

The easy-to-find constellation Perseus is a welcome change for finding star patterns in a new area of sky. The hero Perseus harbors some nice deep sky objects. If you start your search from Alpha Persei or Mirphak, you will see a group of bright stars located in the southeast. The magnitude is 2.3, the size 184’ and with 50 members the group gives you a fantastic view. And if this is not enough, draw an imaginary line from Alpha Mirphak to the constellation Cassiopeia. Halfway along you will discover a huge misty patch the size of the moon. In fact, this cloudy-looking smudge is a group of two open clusters close to each other. They number up to 350 stars, but only a few are visible to the naked eye in a dark sky. Of course, those with binoculars will enjoy an unforgettable sight.

NGC 884 and 869 clusters in Perseus

For those who want to go further, there is the open cluster M34. You need binoculars to observe it, because the group of stars glows at magnitude 5.2 and at a size of 35’. You will see a triangle-shaped group in an incomplete ring of fainter suns. I count about a dozen stars.

M34 open cluster

The star Beta Persei or Algol is a special object. It’s an eclipsing binary star system. That means that, every two days and 20 hours 49’, the primary star is eclipsed by its dimmer companion. The system fades from magnitude 2.1 to 3.4. Not only is the eclipse frequent and widely visible; it lasts 10 hours. So there’s plenty of time to observe Algol while sitting in your chair.

Beta Persei or Algol star chart

Now you have your binoculars close to hand, we can hunt down three open clusters in the constellation Auriga, the Charioteer. You will find the constellation southeast of Perseus.

Auriga constellation chart

The M36, M37, and M38 are located in a rich area of stars, meaning that the view is beautiful. As the three clusters are close to each other, you can compare them and try to spot differences in brightness, size, members, and density. Features of the clusters: M36 mag. 6.0 size 12’ members 60; M37 mag. 5.6 size 23 mem. 150; M38 mag. 6.4 size 21 mem. 100.

M36, M37, and M38 open clusters

Even with the naked eye the rich star area shows some bright asterisms in different shapes, misty patches scattered in the path of the Milky Way. Look for them by drawing an imaginary line from Alpha Capella to Beta Tauri Alnath. Perhaps you will see the brightest group, M37, as a faint glow.

Auriga constellation with star clusters

Now that you know where Beta Tauri is, the Bull is

nearby. The eye of the bull is the brightest star in the constellation Taurus.

Taurus constellation chart

The name is Aldebaran, this magnitude 1 star is located in a bright group of diamonds, the Hyades. They are shaped like an arrow pointing southwest. They are 150 light years distant from us and cover 6° of the night sky. This group harbors a visible double star, Theta Tauri, 6’ apart, maybe you can spot them both. They are close to Aldebaran, pointing southeast. Look for colors, if necessary use binoculars to see the white and yellowish color of the two stars.

Hyades star cluster

After this treat, there’s an even better group for the naked eye to enjoy. M45, better known as the Pleiades, is one of the most spectacular clusters in the heavens. Go north-north-west from Aldebaran and you will see this group of bright stars hanging in a mysterious cloud. See how many stars you can count or draw on a piece of paper and compare them with the finder chart I have given you. This chart shows you stars up to magnitude 9. Here at the public observatory, we can count up to 18 stars with the naked eye! That’s over magnitude 7.

Pleiades star cluster

Photo Hyades and Pleiades

Hyades and Pleiades clusters

Yes, there are stunning views for the naked eye. But just as you think it can’t get any better than this, you will be surprised what lies ahead in the constellation Orion.

Orion constellation chart

Orion or the Hunter harbors a fantastic Nebula. It’s the most beautiful object to observe. When you search for the three bright stars in the middle of “Orion’s Belt”, you will see under this line of stars a bright, misty cloud.

Orion Nebula

This is the area of “Orion’s Sword”.

Orion's Sword area

Here you can see a nebula where stars are born. The M42 lies in an area flanked on both sides by an open cluster. Both are visible to the unaided eye. So take a good look and enjoy these three close objects by looking for details. For those with binoculars, it is a view that will burn forever in your memory. You will observe it again every time you get the chance. The lucky ones with a telescope will be amazed from their eyepiece. For those who want to see even more, we will show you the (M42) beautiful glittering nebula in 3D vision through the 20” telescope at Sasteria.

M42 Nebula

Alpha Orion or Betelgeuse is a red supergiant, look at the size on the chart. You will see what I mean by supergiant!! When you take a good look you will easily see a light orange color. Southwest of Beta Orionis or Rigel, you can search for a large and difficult pattern of stars. Eridanus, the River, curls between several different constellations. You have to be located as far south as possible in Europe to see the whole constellation.

Betelgeuse in Orion

Now we leave all these pretty things behind us and enter another constellation. Southwest of Beta Orionis or Rigel, you can search for a large and difficult pattern of stars. Eridanus, the River, curls between several different constellations. You have to be located as far south as possible in Europe to see the whole constellation.

Eridanus constellation chart

The brightest stars are Alpha Achernar and Beta Cursa. There are no objects bright enough for the naked eye.

Eridanus stars

The last in the row is the constellation Lepus or Hare. It’s much smaller and more visible than Eridanus and it harbors no features of interest to the naked eye. The brightest stars are Alpha Arneb and Beta Nihal.

Lepus constellation chart

There will be a full moon on 11 January and 9 February. Now that Jupiter is moving far to the west in the evening, it will disappear on 10 January. The planet will be visible again in the morning from 13 February onwards. Look for a bright star before sunrise.

Venus will be visible in both months and Mercury will be lost in the glare of the Sun on 16 January. Mercury will return in the morning from 25 January.

The beautiful Saturn with his rings is already spectacular to observe. From the beginning of January to mid-February, Saturn begins to move from a morning planet to an evening planet. The rings are now nearly closed but still bright and wide enough to observe. But they will disappear in September 2009 for about 3 months. Because we see the rings edge on, they will be invisible. This will give us a better chance to observe Saturn’s moons and planet features. This photo of Saturn was taken at the Sasteria public observatory.

A new planet is rising in the morning from 1 February. Yes, Mars is back, you can spot the planet as a medium-bright star with binoculars. Don’t expect to see details on Mars yet, the planetary disk is too small. You need a big telescope to see a disk-shaped picture, at least a 250mm telescope! But it will be better later, so more about this wonderful world in the next guide.

This month’s meteor shower, the Quadrantids on January 3 (constellation Bootes) can be spectacular. The hourly count can be from 60 to 200 meteorites. I wish you much pleasure in watching the winter night sky in 2009.

Saturn as seen from Sasteria observatory

See you back with the next guide in spring.

Filip Feys
Sasteria Observatory

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