The Moon provides a good guide to finding objects in the night sky. Here we’ll use the Moon as a ‘landmark’ to help you identify stars and planets in January 2012. Look for the red planet Mars rising over the eastern horizon, next to the Moon on the evening of February 9 (Feb. 10 for those of you in Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan…). That evening both Mars and the Moon will be in the Name A Star Live constellation Leo.
On the mornings of Feb. 12 and 13 (Feb. 13 and 14 for those of you in Australia, etc.), look for the planet Saturn near the Moon shortly before sunrise. Both of these celestial objects will be in the Name A Star Live constellation Virgo that morning.
Right after sunset on Feb. 22 (Feb. 23 for those of you in Australia etc.), look for a very thin crescent Moon near the planet Mercury. Both objects will be very low on the western horizon. The Moon will be in the Name A Star Live constellation Pisces, and Mercury will be in the adjacent Name A Star Live constellation Aquarius. Venus will be the very bright object above the Moon. Like the Moon, Venus will be in Pisces that evening.
On the evening of Feb. 25 (Feb. 26 for those of you in Australia etc.), the thin, crescent Moon will appear next to the planet Venus. Both objects will be in the Name A Star Live constellation Pisces that night.
The following evening, the Moon will appear next to the solar system’s giant planet Jupiter. Both will be in the Name A Star Live constellation Aries that night. You should be able to see Jupiter and up to four of its large moons through any telescope — even through a pair of binoculars. These four large moons move so quickly that if you observe Jupiter’s moons every few hours you’ll see that they change their position in relation to the planet. For example, if you observe Jupiter shortly after sunset you might see one or two of its large moons, but if you observe Jupiter a few hours later you might see all four of its large moons — or vice versa!
On the evening of Feb. 28 (Feb. 29 for those of you in Australia, etc.) look for the Moon next to the Pleiades (a.k.a. “the Seven Sisters“), a beautiful collection of stars in the Name A Star Live constellation Taurus. People often mistake the Pleiades for “The Little Dipper.” But the Little Dipper is in another constellation. Take a look at the Pleiades through a pair of binoculars: They are quite beautiful!
Finally, the following night the Moon appears in the Hyades, a V-shaped group of stars that form the head of the bull in the Name A Star Live constellation Taurus. The bright red star in the Hyades is called “Aldebaran,” a binary star only 65 light-years from Earth, which is pretty close in astronomical terms. You should be able to see the two stars in Aldebaran through a good amateur telescope (minimum mirror diameter of 6 inches).
When to go stargazing this month
Moonlight ‘drowns out’ the faint light of many stars and other celestial objects, so the best time to view the stars is when the Moon is not visible. If you’re going to stargaze between sunset and midnight, then the best time to do that in February would be during the February 16-25 time period.
Finding your star in the night sky
Stars are located within constellations, which are just areas of the night sky. Scorpius, Aries and Taurus are examples of constellations. Your Name A Star Live Star Certificate displays the name of your constellation. You can use our online World Constellation Guide to determine if you can see your constellation during the evening hours (between sunset and midnight). Of course, you’ll need a telescope to see your star. (That’s why we include the SLOOH online telescope experience in our Deluxe, Framed and Ultimate Gift Sets!) But you can see your constellation without the use of a telescope. You can also find your constellation by using our Virtual Planetarium™ astronomy software. A planisphere is another useful device.