February 2024 Stargazing Guide
Greetings junior scientists, scientists and citizens of this great big weird, wild and wonderful world in which we live. As always I'm your humble science communicator, the great Orbax, coming to you from the Department of Physics at the University of Guelph and I'd like to welcome you to our February 2024 Star Gazing Guide.
Well junior scientists I'll be the first to admit that so far 2024 has been pretty rough for star gazing. Between the snow, the rain, the fog and the clouds it seems like the atmosphere is doing everything it can to block our view of the cosmos and to keep our eyes planted firmly down. But every once in a while, when those clouds part and the weather cooperates, we can examine the spectacle the universe presents and gaze into that sky.
This month we catch four of the visible planets dancing with our Moon, check out a few lesser known constellations and finally figure out why we have Leap Years.
All this and more if we just take some time, to look up.
Last month we took a deep dive into Orion, one of the most famous constellations in the world. This month we examine some that might be a little less well known. Look to the southeast early evening and spot the Winter Triangle that we talked about last month. Traveling upwards from Procyon in Ursa Minor you'll be able to spot one of the zodiacal constellations, Gemini. The two brightest stars in Gemini are Castor and Pollux, twins in Greek and Roman mythology and patrons of sailors. These two are credited with a phenomenon known as St Elmo's Fire, a unique display of plasma generated from an intense atmospheric electric field and in some cases, a portent of lightning. This would radiate from pointed or rod-like objects on ships like masts or spars and look similar to something that you would see generated by a Tesla coil.
Moving upwards you'll spot Capella, the sixth brightest star in the sky and the brightest star in the constellation Auriga, the Charioteer. Auriga was one of the original 48 constellations catalogued by Ptolemy in the second century.
Continuing upwards at this point almost directly above you is one of the funnest constellations to try and pronounce. Camelopardalis, the Giraffe. Or in the original Greek, the Camel Leopard!
Hopefully the clouds will stop long enough for you to spot all three of these constellations. Good luck junior scientists!
This month the planets are enchanted with our moon. On the morning of February 7th, just before dawn, you should be able to spot a bright Venus beside the waning crescent Moon. And on the 8th, just as the Sun starts to rise, Venus swaps out with a dim Mercury. Both of these pairings take place low along the Southeastern Horizon. Look towards the West as the Sun sets on the 10th and you'll see a tiny sliver of the waxing Moon paired up with our good friend Saturn, and on the 14th Jupiter takes its turn to dance with our lunar companion just before Sunset and into the evening.
Now Mars is pretty difficult to spot this month and Venus will continue to dim as the month goes on but on the morning of the 22nd, just before dawn in the Southeast, Mars and Venus will be side by side low in the Horizon.
Both dim but worth trying to spot.
Our full moon this month is on February 24th and is actually a micro-Moon! Remember last summer when Super Moons were super popular? Well this was because the Moon was slightly closer to Earth in its elliptical orbit and therefore appeared just that much larger. Well if the Moon gets closer then it only makes sense that there's going to be times when the Moon is slightly further away. This means that our micro-moon appears 14% smaller than our Super Moon and 7% smaller than just a regular full Moon.
The Mi'kmaw of the East coast refer to the February moon as Apuknajit, the Snow-Blinding Moon, referring to the difficult weather that often marks this time of the year - and settlers also used this name - the Snow Moon. As winter reserves grow low the Settlers would sometimes use the name "Hunger Moon" for this, the last full Moon before the vernal equinox.
The Cree of North America refer to the February Moon as Kisipisim, “the Great Moon”, also acknowledging the lack of hunting as animals remain hidden away from the tough weather.
This year February has 29 days instead of 28, something we refer to as a leap year. Seems like a dumb way to make a calendar right? Just add extra days here and there? Well here’s why.
We define a day as the time it takes for the Earth to complete one full rotation on its axis and we define a year as the time it takes for the Earth to complete one full orbit around the Sun. Now we say that this takes 365 days to happen but in reality it actually takes 365 days and
6 hours to get back to where we started in that orbit.
But who wants to start our year 6 hours later in the day?
No one! That's who!
So after 4 years we've saved up enough time to add an extra day and we pop it on to the end of February and we call that a leap year.
But wait, it's actually not quite that simple.
When I said it took 365 days and 6 hours to complete our circumnavigation around the Sun I was rounding off to make things easy. It actually takes 365 days 5 hours 48 minutes and 46 seconds! So that means every 4 years we're actually about 45 minutes short of that extra day we popped on to the end of February and over the course of a 100 years we end up one entire day shorter! So every hundred years, when we would otherwise have a leap year, we get rid of it.
But hey, why stop there!
It turns out that rounding off actually hurts us again and actually overcorrects the situation and so every 400 years we toss that leap day back in again and have a leap year. So this means that back in the year 2000 we had a leap year and everybody just thought that was normal. Sure! Another four years had passed...
But it was actually incredibly rare since we didn't have a leap year in the year 1900 or 1800 or 1700... or going the other way... we won't have one in 2100 or 2200 or 2300! Not until the year 2400!
So why do we even bother?
Well if if we didn't, then the seasons would actually shift throughout the calendar year. As a matter of fact in just the span of 700 years, if we didn't do this correction, the summer that we experience now in June would actually have shifted all the way to December!
Yup, calendars are pretty dumb.
So there we have it junior scientists. Lots to look for in February, our last full month of winter before the Vernal Equinox takes place in March. And while it may be cold right now, let’s take advantage of those extra hours of darkness and take some time… to look up!
See you next month junior scientists and don’t forget to have a science-tastic day!
Special thanks to Royal City Science's own planetary geochemist Dr Glynis Perrett for her help preparing our star gazing guide. And the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada