Wyoming Skies for February
January 28, 2009 — A monthly look at the night skies of Wyoming, written by Ron Canterna, professor in the University of Wyoming Department of Physics and Astronomy.
This month is a glorious time to watch the winter constellations and a few special solar system events.
For your orientation, the Big Dipper will lie on the northeast horizon after sunset, and Cassiopeia (our stretched-out "W") will be slightly to the west of the zenith (directly overhead).
The prominent constellations of Orion (the Hunter) and Canis Major (the Big Dog) are located toward the southern horizon and the sword of Orion, seen as a group of three stars just south of Orion's three bright belt stars, is a good target for even modest binoculars. This middle "star" is the Orion Nebula, a colorful, active region of dust and gas and newly created stars.
To the northwest of Orion is Taurus the Bull, our V-shaped constellation with its bright orange star Aldebaran.
On Feb. 9, early morning risers will see a penumbral lunar eclipse in the west. The near full moon will appear a little orangish in color while it passes through the light-red outer shadow of the Earth.
Next up, on Feb. 22 on the eastern horizon right before sunrise, Mars, Jupiter and the elusive Mercury will be within 5 degrees of each other. Get those binoculars out and see all three magnificent planets. Jupiter will be bright and will lead you to the other planets. Venus is the bright evening star on the western horizon this month.
February 2009 Interest: JDEM, NASA's Joint Dark Energy Mission
During the recent months we discussed dark energy and dark matter, new concepts and discoveries that may be this century's major breakthrough in physics and natural science. NASA plans a major mission with the Department of Energy's Office of High Energy Physics, called the Joint Dark Energy Mission, or JDEM for short, scheduled to launch around 2015.
The main objective of JDEM will be to characterize the expansion rate of the cosmos as time passed since the Big Bang until the present, a period of at least 15 billion years. JDEM will look back in time using precise spectral measurements and multi-colored, deep images from the visual to the infrared parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.
JDEM most likely will have a 1.5 meter telescope to assist in its mission and will require much observational support from the ground. NASA and DOE scientists believe all the precise information about dark energy will revolutionize our fundamental understanding of the nature of matter and energy in the universe.
If history repeats itself, practical applications to human life on Earth will eventually reap the benefits from this exciting knowledge and discoveries.
Posted on Wednesday, January 28, 2009