M96 is an intermediate spiral galaxy 35 million light-years distant in the constellation of Leo. At magnitude +9.6, it's the brightest member of the Leo I or M96 group of galaxies that also contains M95, M105 and at least another 21 fainter galaxies. The grouping is one of many that lie within the Virgo Supercluster. The three galaxies are amongst the fainter objects in Messiers catalogue but all are visible with large 15x70 or 20x80 binoculars from a dark site, appearing as faint smudges of light.
M96 is an unusual galaxy in the sense that it has asymmetric arms and a displaced core that were probably caused by gravitational pulling from other nearby galaxies. It was discovered, along with M95, by Pierre Méchain on March 20, 1781. Charles Messier including both items in his catalogue four days later. M105 was not included in the original Messier catalogue but added much later by Helen Sawyer Hogg in 1947.
The galaxies are located in the southern middle section of the relatively large and bright constellation of Leo the Lion, which lies east of Cancer and to the west of Virgo. Leo contains one first magnitude star, Regulus (α Leo - mag. +1.4), which happens to be the brightest star in the surrounding region of sky. About 24 degrees east and two degrees north of Regulus is the third brightest star in Leo, Denebola (β Leo - mag. +2.1). Imagine a line connecting Regulus with Denebola with M95, M96 and M105 located just less than half way along this line. The northernmost member of the trio is M105 with M96 located 50 arc minutes south of M105 and M95 positioned 40 arc minutes west of M96.
The galaxies are best seen during the months of March, April and May.
M95 is a barred spiral galaxy about 36 million light-years away in the constellation of Leo. It was discovered by Pierre Méchain on March 20, 1781 - the same night he discovered M96 - and catalogued by Charles Messier four days later. With an apparent magnitude of +10.3 it's visible in small telescopes. Together with M96 and M105, M95 forms a trio of faint gravitationally bound galaxies grouped close together. Of these, M96 is the brightest and the largest. The group is known as the Leo I or M96 group of galaxies, which also contains at least 21 other fainter galaxies and is one of many groups that lie within the Virgo Supercluster.
Charles Messier included M95 and M96 in his catalogue on the March 24, 1781. M105 was not included in the original Messier catalogue but added much later by Helen B. Sawyer Hogg in 1947. The galaxies are best seen during the months of March, April and May.
M109 (NGC 3992) is a barred spiral galaxy located in the constellation of Ursa Major. It's estimated to be located 83.5 Million light-years from Earth, making it the furthest object in Messier's catalogue. Despite its large distance it's relatively bright; with an apparent magnitude of +10.3 the galaxy is within the range of small to medium sized amateur telescopes.
M109 has a complicated history. In March 1781, Pierre Méchain passed three nebulae he recently found to Charles Messier for confirmation. The first one was to become M97 while the others were recorded by Messier as objects 98 and 99 in a rough draft. However, Messier never assigned positions for these items in the main catalogue and hence they were never included in the final version. Many years later in 1953, American astronomer and historian Owen Gingerich added draft objects 98 and 99 to the "official" Messier catalogue and they became items M108 and M109. The story is further complicated by recent analysis that suggest Méchain may have not originally observed NGC 3992 but instead nearby galaxy NGC 3953. If so, this implies that Messier in fact discovered NGC 3992 and not Méchain. Despite this, it's generally accepted that M109 is identified as NGC 3992.
Finding M109 is easy; it's located only 0.75 degrees to the southeast of Phecda (γ UMa - mag. +2.4) one of the stars of the Plough asterism of Ursa Major. The galaxy is best seen from northern temperate latitudes during the months of March, April and May. From the Southern Hemisphere it never rises very high above the northern horizon.
M23 is a pretty open cluster that's located in the rich starfields of the Sagittarius Milky Way. With an apparent magnitude of +6.9 it's beyond naked eye visibility but is a superb binocular object and a glorious sight through small telescopes. This vast cloud of about 150 stars is located 2,150 light years from Earth and has an actual diameter of about 20 light years. With an estimated age of at least 220 million years old, it's one of the galaxy's older open clusters.
M23 was discovered by Charles Messier on June 20, 1764. It can be easily found just northwest of the "teapot" asterism of Sagittarius. The three stars that form the top of the teapot are φ Sgr (mag. +3.2), Kaus Borealis (λ Sgr - mag. +2.8) and Kaus Media (δ Sgr - mag. +2.7). Positioned 6 degrees northwest of Kaus Borealis is mag +3.8 star μ Sgr. M23 can be found 4.5 degrees northwest of this star and approximately on a line connecting it with ξ Ser (mag. +3.5). Located 5 degrees east of M23 is M24, the very large Sagittarius Star Cloud.
M106, mag. +8.5, is a large spiral galaxy located in Canes Venatici that was discovered by Pierre Méchain in July 1781. He described the galaxy in little detail; referring to it only as a nebula close to star 3 CVn. William Herschel then rediscovered it on March 9, 1788. Since Herschel was using a better telescope than Méchain he was able to see much more detail and noted it as "very brilliant with a bright nucleus and faint milky branches north preceding and south following." Although not one of Messiers original catalogue entries, M106 was included, along with M105 and M107 in 1947 by Helen Sawyer Hogg. It seemed reasonable to assume that Méchain had already intended to add these objects to a future edition.
M106 is one of the brightest examples of a Seyfert type II galaxy and is therefore strong in X-rays and unusual emission lines, which are believed to result from sections of the galaxy falling into the supermassive black hole located at the centre. American astronomer Carl Seyfert first identified this class of object in 1943.
The galaxy is located towards the northwestern corner of Canes Venatici; a faint constellation with only one star Cor Caroli (α CVn - mag. +2.9) that's brighter than magnitude +4.0. However, locating M106 is not difficult as the Plough or Big Dipper asterism of Ursa Major is positioned just to the north and can be used as a starting point. Once found, focus on Megrez (δ UMa - mag. +3.2) the faintest star of the Plough. Positioned 5.5 degrees south and slightly east of Megrez is 5 CVn (mag. +4.8). M106 is located just over 4 degrees south of 5 CVn with star 3 CVn (mag. +5.3) positioned along the line connecting the two.
M106 is best seen from the Northern Hemisphere during the months of March, April and May. From southern temperate latitudes it's a difficult object as it never rises very high above the northern horizon.
Mercury reaches greatest elongation west on March 14th (28 degrees) and as a result is well placed as an early morning object throughout March for observers located in the Southern Hemisphere and tropics. This also happens to be the most favourable morning apparition of the year from the Southern Hemisphere.
Mercury's period of visibility during this particular apparition is considerable; it extends from the end of February until the middle of April. At the end of last month Mercury appeared as a faint tricky object low down above the eastern horizon just before sunrise. The situation quickly improves during March with the planet increasing from magnitude +0.8 on March 1st to magnitude +0.1 by March 14th (the date of greatest elongation west) when Mercury appears highest in the morning sky. For example, from latitude 35S (approx. equal to Sydney, Cape Town and Santiago), Mercury will appear 17 degrees above the eastern horizon 45 minutes before sunrise. It should also be noted that once past greatest elongation west, Mercury continues to brighten as it begins to draw into the Sun. The planet doesn't reach maximum brightness (mag -1.0) until the very end of the visibility period, more than 4 weeks after greatest elongation west!
As March progresses, Mercury brightens from magnitude +0.8 to -0.2 with the phase of the planet increasing from 28 to 76 degrees. Dichotomy or half-phase occurs on March 11th, when the planet is 50 percent illuminated. On March 19th, Mercury reaches aphelion and is located 0.467 AU (approx. 69.9 million km or 43.4 million miles) from the Sun.
Unfortunately, from northern temperate latitudes the angle of the ecliptic is not favourable and the planet remains low down and unsuitably placed for observation during March.
Venus reaches greatest elongation west (47 degrees) on March 22nd and remains a brilliant object in the early morning skies during March. From the Southern Hemisphere the planet can be seen towards the east for approx. 3 hours before sunrise. Despite fading from magnitude -4.6 to -4.3 during March, unmistakable Venus shines like a dazzling beacon. This brightest of all planets can even be followed with the naked eye for a short time after the Sun has risen above the eastern horizon.
From northern temperate latitudes Venus is visible for less than two hours before sunrise, appearing low down above the east-southeast horizon. The illuminated phase of Venus increases from 37 to 54 percent during March with dichotomy or half-phase occurring on March 23rd.
On March 27th, the waning crescent Moon will pass 4 degrees north of Venus.
Mars is now a beautiful late evening object that's located in Virgo. The fourth planet from the Sun is named after the Roman god of war and appears to the naked eye striking red-orange in colour. With not long to go before opposition (April 8th), Mars brightens rapidly as the month progresses. It starts March at magnitude -0.5 just to the northeast of Spica (α Virgo - mag. +1.0) before ending the month at magnitude -1.3 and five degrees directly north of the star.
On March 1st, Mars reaches its first stationary point after which it begins retrograde motion. The planet continues to move this direction until May 21st when it reaches its second stationary point and following that direct motion is once more resumed.
As well as rapidly brightening this month, the apparent size of Mars also increases from 11.6 to 14.6 arc minutes. When viewed through a small telescope Mars appears small but under good seeing conditions it's possible to spot major surface features such as the North Pole cap, Syrtis Major and other dusty markings. Don't be afraid to push up the magnification as high as possible to bring out those subtle details.
On March 19th, the waning gibbous Moon passes 3 degrees south of Mars.
Jupiter is now two months past opposition and although currently fading in brightness and apparent size it remains a brilliant object in Gemini. The planet is visible shortly after sunset and remains so until after midnight for northern-based observers, although the period of visibility is considerably less for those located further south.
At the start of the month, Jupiter continues its retrograde motion until March 6th when it reaches its second stationary point. After this, direct motion is again resumed. This also represents the end of this year's opposition period. On March 1st, Jupiter shines at magnitude -2.4 with an apparent diameter of 42 arc minutes. At the end of the month the brightness has decreased to magnitude -2.2 and the apparent diameter to 39 arc minutes.
On March 10th, the waxing gibbous Moon (68% illuminated) passes 5 degrees south of Jupiter.
Saturn, mag +0.6, is located in Libra and also reaches a stationary point this month. Like Mars, the beautiful ringed planet reaches its first stationary point (on March 3rd), which signals the change in motion from direct to retrograde. As a result, Saturn will appear to move little against the "fixed" background stars this month. By the end of March, Saturn is rising before midnight for observers in northern temperate latitudes and a couple of hours earlier for those further south.
Of course the rings of Saturn are its most famous feature and even a small telescope will show them. Through medium and large aperture amateur scopes they are a fantastic breathtaking sight. In addition to the rings a handful of Saturn's moons are also visible. The largest and brightest moon Titan shines at eight magnitude and is visible with binoculars. In addition, a medium size scope will also show Rhea, Tethys, Dione, and Iapetus.
On March 21st, the waning gibbous Moon passes 0.2 degrees south of Saturn and an occultation is visible from the South Atlantic at 3:18 UT.
M20 is the famous Trifid Nebula, a bright colourful emission and reflection nebula that's located in the constellation of Sagittarius. At magnitude +6.3, it's visible with binoculars. This remarkable object not only contains an emission and reflection nebula but also a dark nebula and an embedded open star cluster. When photographed or imaged, it looks spectacular with the emission nebula appearing red, the reflection nebula blue and mixed in between numerous dark lanes. The dark lanes appear to cut through the nebula splitting it into three prominent sections hence the popular name Trifid; meaning 'divided into three lobes'.
The much larger and brighter Lagoon Nebula (M8) is located two degrees south of M20 with tightly packed open cluster M21 positioned 0.75 degrees northeast of M20.
Charles Messier discovered both M20 and M21 on June 5, 1764. He referred to M20 as an envelope of nebulosity. The surrounding area of sky is the richest part of the Milky Way; here you are looking towards the direction of galactic centre hence the abundance of stars, open clusters, globular clusters and nebulae. This wonderful region is perfect to scan with binoculars or small telescopes, especially at low magnifications.
To locate the Trifid, first focus on the bright familiar teapot asterism of Sagittarius. The top three stars of the teapot are Kaus Borealis (λ Sgr - mag. +2.8), Kaus Media (δ Sgr - mag. +2.7) and φ Sgr (mag. +3.2). Imagine a line connecting φ Sgr to Kaus Borealis and then extending it for just over 6 degrees to arrive at M20. The Trifid is best seen from southern and equatorial regions during the months of June, July and August.
M54 is a globular cluster located in Sagittarius that’s a staggering 87,400 light years from Earth. It was discovered by Charles Messier on July 24, 1778 and was for many years thought to be part of the Milky Way but is now believed to belong to the nearby Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy. It owns the distinction of being the first extragalactic globular cluster ever discovered, even though it wasn't recognized as such for over 200 years. Despite its vast distance, M54 is visible in binoculars albeit faintly (mag. +7.9). The fact that it can be seen in binoculars at all from such a distance is incredible and is due to its large intrinsic size and high absolute brightness. With a diameter of over 300 light-years diameter, this globular is enormous and one of the largest known.
Finding M54 is easy as it lies within the teapot asterism of Sagittarius. The starting point is to focus on the base of the teapot and image a line connecting Ascella (ζ Sgr - mag. +2.6) with Kaus Australis (ε Sgr - mag. +1.8). Positioned about 1.75 degrees along this line and slightly north is M54. With a declination of -30 degrees, the globular is best seen from the Southern Hemisphere during the months of June, July and August. From northern temperate latitudes, it’s a much more difficult target as it never rises very high above the southern horizon.
M66 is a superb bright intermediate spiral galaxy located in the constellation of Leo. It's the brightest of a trio of galaxies that form - along with M65 and NGC 3628 - the well known and popular "Leo Triplet" or "M66 group". All three objects can be observed with small telescopes in the same low power field of view. With the exception of the M81/M82 pair in Ursa Major, the Leo Triplet is arguably the most sought after galaxy grouping for amateur astronomers.
Charles Messier discovered both M66 (mag. +8.9) and M65 (mag. +9.6) on March 1, 1780. The third member of the triplet, NGC 3628, has a debatable apparent magnitude. Some texts record it as the brightest member of the three while others the faintest! For our purposes we estimate NGC 3628 to be brighter than M65 and almost as bright as M66. However, what is clear is that NGC 3628 suffers from low surface brightness and therefore is the most difficult member of the trio to spot. Messier missed it completely and it was not until April 8, 1784 when it was finally discovered by William Herschel.
To find the triplet, look to the eastern part of Leo. This zodiac constellation is relatively large and bright and somewhat looks like the Lion it represents. The brightest star in Leo and its only first magnitude star is Regulus (α Leo – mag +1.4). Positioned approximately 16 degrees northeast of Regulus is Chertan (θ Leo - mag. +3.3). Along with the Zosma (δ Leo - mag. +2.6) to the north and Denebola (β Leo - mag. +2.1) to the east, Chertan forms a prominent right-angled triangle. Located 2 degrees south of Chertan is 73 Leo (mag. +5.3). M65 lies 0.75 degrees east of this star with M66 a further 0.33 degrees southeast of M65. Located 0.5 degrees north of the Messier pair is NGC 3628.
The galaxies are best seen during the months of March, April and May.
Pallas, the second asteroid to be discovered reaches opposition on February 22, 2014. Peaking at magnitude +7.0, the asteroid will be readily visible in popular 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars for a number of weeks after opposition, slowly weaving its way through the constellations of Hydra and Sextans.
Pallas was discovered by German physician and astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers on March 28, 1802. It has a diameter of 544 kilometres (338 miles) making it the second largest body in the main asteroid belt. Along with Ceres the only other asteroid discovered at that time, Pallas was initially classified as a planet in its own right and subsequently given its own planetary symbol. Later, after more similar small objects - all in the region between Mars and Jupiter - had been discovered the general term asteroids was coined to describe them.
In 1807, Olbers also discovered Vesta the brightest of all asteroids.
Location and Star Chart
Against the background stars, Pallas is currently moving slowing in a northwestern direction. During February and March it spends most of the time in the constellation of Hydra, except from February 23rd to March 4th when it cuts through the corner of Sextans. During this time the brightness of the asteroid does not change significantly. At the start of February, Pallas shone at magnitude +7.3, increases to +7.0 for a few days either side of opposition on February 22nd before decreasing again to magnitude +7.6 at the end of March. With binoculars and a small telescopes the asteroid should be easy to spot and it's movement noticeable over the course of a few nights.
Although it's the largest constellation in the sky, Hydra contains only one notably bright star, Alphard (α Hya). At magnitude +2.0, Alphard is the same brightness as the North Pole star, Polaris (α UMi). On March 2nd, Pallas is positioned just over 3.5 degrees west of Alphard.
Pallas is visible just after sunset and remains so for the remainder of the evening. It's better placed from tropical regions where it appears high in the sky. During February and for most of March, Southern Hemisphere observers have it slightly better than their Northern counterparts. It's best to look for Pallas from a dark site away from light pollution when the Moon is absent from the sky.
The finder chart below show the positions of Pallas from February 3 to March 25, 2014.
M110 is a dwarf elliptical galaxy located in the constellation of Andromeda. It's one of many satellite galaxies orbiting M31, the famous and spectacular Andromeda galaxy. Of these, at least 14 are dwarf galaxies with M110 being the second brightest of them (after M32). The galaxy is classified as Hubble type E5 and designated as "peculiar" due to unusual dark structures that are probably due to dust clouds.
At magnitude +8.7, M110 is a very challenging binocular object. Although quite large - it covers 22 x 11 arc minutes of apparent sky - it suffers from a low surface brightness and hence even a small amount of light pollution can render it a difficult object to spot with small telescopes.
Surprisingly, Charles Messier never included M110 in his famous list. However he depicted it, together with M32 on a drawing of the Andromeda galaxy he made on the August 10, 1773. Caroline Herschel independently discovered the galaxy on August 27, 1783 and much later in 1967, Kenneth Glyn Jones suggested assigning the galaxy a Messier number. Although now commonly known as M110, it's still often referred to in many texts and charts by its New General Catalogue number, NGC 205.
To find M110, first locate the Andromeda Galaxy, which is positioned northeast of the famous "Great Square of Pegasus". Of the four stars of the square, only three of them actually belong to Pegasus. The northeast corner star and brightest of the four at magnitude 2.1, Alpheratz (α And) is part of neighbouring Andromeda. Located 7 degrees to the northeast of Alpheratz is δ And (mag. 3.3) and a further 8 degrees to the northeast of δ And is mag. 2.1, Mirach (β And). The Andromeda galaxy is a further 8 degrees to the northwest of Mirach at the end of a line connecting Mirach with μ And and ν And. M110 is located 36 arc minutes northwest of the centre of M31.
The galaxies are best seen from the Northern Hemisphere during the months of September, October and November.
M10 is a fine globular cluster that's located in the constellation of Ophiuchus. One of the largest constellations, Ophiuchus straddles the celestial equator and contains a host of globular clusters of which Messier catalogued seven of them. The brightest and best of them is M10 (mag. +6.6) which can be spotted with binoculars appearing like an out of focus fuzzy star.
Charles Messier discovered M10 on May 29, 1764, describing it as a "nebula without stars". Ten years later, German astronomer Johann Elert Bode noted it as a "very pale nebulous patch without stars". Both Messier and Bode used telescopes that suffered in quality and hence were unable to resolve the cluster. It was not until William Herschel using better and larger instruments was first able to spot individual member stars. He described it as a "beautiful cluster of extremely compressed stars". The best time of the year to observe M10 is during the months of May, June and July.
Locating M10 is not the easiest task as its near area of sky is devoid of bright stars. Start by locating Rasalhague (α Oph - mag +2.1) the brightest star in Ophiuchus. Join the stars of the constellation in a curve heading westwards and southwards until arriving at two close 3rd magnitude stars, Yed Prior (δ Oph - mag. +2.7) and Yed Posterior (ε Oph - mag. +3.2). M10 is located about 12 degrees east of Yed Prior with the star 30 Oph (mag. +4.8) one degree east of M10.
M7 is a large magnificent naked eye open cluster located in the constellation of Scorpius. It's one of the brightest open clusters and has been known since ancient times; Greek-Roman astronomer Ptolemy first recorded it in 130 AD. In recognition of this early observation, M7 is often referred to as "Ptolemy Cluster". Italian astronomer Giovanni Batista Hodierna observed 30 stars sometime before 1654 and Charles Messier adding it to his catalogue in 1764.
With a combined magnitude of +3.3, M7 is brightest and most obvious deep sky object in Scorpius. It's a giant group of 80 stars that has an apparent diameter of 80 arc minutes, almost 3x that of the full Moon. To the naked eye M7 appears as a very large hazy patch with its brightest stars just about resolvable. It's so bright that it's even noticeable under suburban skies. With a declination of -34.8 degrees, the cluster is the southernmost Messier object and is best seen from the Southern Hemisphere during the months of June, July and August. From most northern temperate locations it appears low down, at best climbing just a few degrees above the southern horizon, whereas from northern locations above 56 degrees it never even rises.
M7 is located in eastern Scorpius, close to the Sagittarius border. It's positioned 4.75 degrees northeast of lambda Sco (λ Sco - mag. +1.6), the constellations second brightest star. Also known as Shaula, λ Sco is at the end of the Scorpions tail and part of the "stinger". The "Butterfly Cluster", M6 is located 4 degrees northwest of M7.
M6 is a superb bright naked eye open cluster in the constellation of Scorpius that's also known as the "Butterfly Cluster". This name was first coined by Robert Burnham who described it as a "charming group whose arrangement suggests the outline of a butterfly with open wings." At magnitude +4.2, it's one of the brightest open clusters in the Messier catalogue and a wonderful object for binocular and telescope owners. It covers 25 arc minutes of apparent sky and contains 80 stars. Located just a few degrees southeast of M6 - in this wonderfully rich area of the Milky Way - is an even brighter and larger open cluster, M7 "The Ptolemy Cluster".
Despite being visible to the naked eye, it's commonly believed that the first person to record the position of M6 was Giovanni Battista Hodierna in 1654. However, Robert Burnham proposed that Ptolemy might also have seen M6 with the naked eye while observing M7. Many years later, Charles Messier included both M6 and M7 in his catalogue on May 23, 1764.
M6 is located in eastern Scorpius. At the heart of the Scorpius is red supergiant star Antares (α Sco - mag. +1.0) the brightest star in the constellation and 16th brightest star in the nighttime sky. Follow the stars from Antares, curving in a southerly direction until arriving at lambda Sco (λ Sco - mag. +1.6) at the end of the tail. M6 is positioned 5 degrees north and 1.5 degrees east of this star.
M101 is a large face-on spiral galaxy located 22 million light-years away in the constellation of Ursa Major. At mag. +7.9, it can be glimpsed in binoculars or small telescopes from dark sites but suffers from low surface brightness and in bad seeing conditions or light polluted areas, the galaxy can be difficult to spot even with a 200mm (8-inch) scope. It's best seen from the Northern Hemisphere during the months of March, April and May.
M101 is also known as "The Pinwheel Galaxy" and was discovered by Pierre Méchain on March 27, 1781. He described it as "nebula without star, very obscure and pretty large, 6' to 7' in diameter, between the left hand of Bootes and the tail of the great Bear." He communicated this to Charles Messier who verified its position and then included it in his catalogue as one of the final entries.
Locating the part of sky where M101 is positioned is easy since it's close to the handle of the bowl that forms the "Plough" or "Big Dipper" asterism of Ursa Major. The Pinwheel galaxy is located at one corner of an equatorial triangle formed with second magnitude stars Mizar (ζ UMa - mag. +2.2) and Alkaid (η UMa - mag. +1.8). M101 is 5.5 degrees east of Mizar (the celebrated naked eye double star) and 5.5 degrees northeast of Alkaid.
Mercury reached greatest elongation east on January 31st. On this day it was at magnitude -0.7, positioned 18 degrees from the Sun and visible towards the west just after sunset. For Northern Hemisphere observers, this is the most favourable evening apparition of the year and the planet remains visible into the first week of February. After this, it's more difficult to detect as it's lower down and quickly fades in brightness. From the Southern Hemisphere, Mercury is not well placed but observers may still be able to spot the planet extremely low down just after sunset at the beginning of the month.
The nearest planet to the Sun reaches inferior conjunction on February 15th. Towards the end of the month observers may be able to catch Mercury again, this time before sunrise low above the eastern horizon, although at magnitude +1.6 it will be tricky.
On February 1st, the very thin waxing crescent Moon passes 4 degrees north of Mercury in the evening sky. In the morning sky on February 27th, the very thin waning crescent Moon passes 3 degrees north of Mercury.
During January, Venus swapped from the evening to the morning sky and remains throughout February a dazzling morning object. During this time it's best seen from southern latitudes. For example, on February 1st from latitudes of 35S (approx. equal to Sydney, Cape Town and Santiago) Venus is 12 degrees above the eastern horizon, one hour before sunrise. At the end of the month this increases to 28 degrees.
It's not quite so good from northern latitudes. For example, from London, England (51.5N) Venus hovers just 8 or 9 degrees above the southeastern horizon, one hour before sunrise during February. From such latitudes, the relative position of Venus above the horizon hardly changes during the month.
Venus reaches maximum brilliance (mag. -4.7) on February 15th and later on the 26th, the waning crescent Moon passes 0.4 degrees north of Venus with an occultation visible from central Africa.
Mars is now well established in the morning skies as it heads towards opposition in April. The planet spends the month in Virgo, starting 5 degrees north of Spica (α Vir - mag +1.0), the constellation brightest star. It then continues it's eastwards direct motion against the fixed stars, although now moving much slower than in previous months.
The "Red planet" rises before midnight and telescopically it's becoming easier to spot the best features such as the North Pole cap, Syrtis Major and other dusty markings. With good seeing conditions it's possible to push up the telescope magnification as high as allowed to tease out surface markings.
On February 1st, Mars shines at magnitude +0.2 with an apparent diameter of 9 arc seconds. By the end of the month its brightness has improved to magnitude -0.5 and the apparent size to 11.5 arc seconds. The waning gibbous Moon passes 3 degrees south of Mars on February 20th.
Jupiter is a stunning beacon of light moving retrograde in the constellation of Gemini. Although, the giant planet is now past opposition (reached on January 5th) it's visible towards the east as soon as it's dark enough and remains visible for the majority of the night. The planet is located about 15 degrees southwest of the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux and at magnitude -2.5, it's far brighter than any stars. Although it's apparent size is now decreasing, at the end of February it's still stands at a respectable 43 arc seconds.
The current declination of Jupiter favours Northern Hemisphere observers, but even from Southern Hemisphere latitudes where the planet appears much lower down, it's still unmistakable due to its brightness.
On February 11th, the waxing gibbous Moon passes 5 degrees south of Jupiter.
Saturn visibility period increases during February as it continues to move direct through Libra. The "Ringed planet" starts the month rising a couple of hours after midnight, improving to just after midnight by months end. During this time its brightness and apparent size increase from mag. +0.7 to +0.6 and 16.5 to 17.3 arc seconds respectively. With a declination of -16 degrees, the planet is much better placed for those at southern or tropical latitudes. From northern temperate locations, it remains low down and does not climb as high above the horizon.
Currently Saturn's rings are wide open and a fantastic telescope sight. Only a small refractor is required to see them with larger scopes showing the rings in supreme glory along with subtle details on the planet's surface and many of its brighter moons.
On February 21st, the waning gibbous Moon passes 0.3 degrees south of Saturn. An occultation is visible from most of Australia and New Zealand.
Uranus, mag. +5.9, remains an early evening object during February. The distant planet is located in Pisces, close to the Cetus border and southeast of the Great Square of Pegasus. At the start of the month, Uranus sets about 4 hours after the Sun but by months end this reduces to less than 3 hours. The planet is easily visible with binoculars once it's dark enough.
On February 3rd, the waxing crescent Moon passes 3 degrees north of Uranus.
M82 is a superb irregular galaxy of high surface brightness that's visible with binoculars and located in the constellation of Ursa Major. It has an apparent magnitude of +8.4 and is separated by only 38 arc minutes from M81, an even brighter and equally - if not more - stunning galaxy. However, these two fine galaxies are very different objects indeed. M81 (mag. +6.9) when viewed from Earth appears almost face-on and is of the grand spiral deign; a galaxy that exhibits prominent near perfect and well defined spiral arms. On the other hand, M82 (mag. +8.4) is edge on, appearing long and thin and as a result is often referred to as the "Cigar" galaxy. Unlike the perfectly formed spiral shape of M81, M82 is irregular and classified as the prototype starburst galaxy in which stars are forming at exceptionally high rates.
These two objects are the largest members of the Ursa Major or M81 group of galaxies, which at a distance of 11.7 million light years is one of the closest groups of galaxies beyond our own Local Group. In space M81 and M82 are physically close, separated by only about 150,000 light years and when seen through binoculars and telescopes at low magnifications they form a striking pair that appear in the same optical field of view.
Both M81 and M82 were discovered by Johann Elert Bode on December 31, 1774. Pierre Mechain then independently rediscovered both galaxies in August 1779. He reported his observations to Charles Messier who added them to his catalogue on February 9, 1781.
Finding M82 is not particularly difficult as the famous "Plough" asterism of Ursa Major can be used as the starting point. First focus on Dubhe (α UMa - mag. +1.8) the northwest corner star of the bowl of the Plough. The M81 / M82 pair is located 10 degrees northwest of this star with M82 positioned directly north of M81.
M81 or Bode's galaxy is a large bright spiral galaxy located 11.8 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Ursa Major. With an apparent magnitude of +6.9 it's easily visible with binoculars, a fine target for small telescope owners and a wonderful sight in larger scopes. The galaxy is a striking example of a grand design spiral; a galaxy that exhibits prominent near perfect and well defined spiral arms.
In the same binocular and low magnification telescope field of view as M81 is M82, another prominent galaxy. At mag. +8.4, M82 is fainter (and smaller) than M81 and a very different type of galaxy. It's a starburst galaxy in which stars are forming at exceptionally high rates. Also known as the "Cigar" galaxy, M82 is the prototype object of its type and provides a striking compliment to the near perfect spiral shape of M81. Together the pair forms a popular visual and imaging target for amateur astronomers.
Both M81 and M82 were discovered by Johann Elert Bode on December 31, 1774. Pierre Mechain then independently rediscovered both galaxies in August 1779. He reported his observations to Charles Messier who added them to his catalogue on February 9, 1781.
Finding M81 is not particularly difficult as the famous "Plough" asterism of Ursa Major can be used as the starting point. First focus on Dubhe (α UMa - mag. +1.8) the northwest corner star of the bowl of the Plough. The M81 / M82 pair is located 10 degrees northwest of this star with M82 positioned 38 arc minutes directly north of M81.
M97 or "the Owl Nebula" is a famous planetary nebula located in the constellation of Ursa Major. It was discovered by Pierre Mechain on February 16, 1781 and is one of only four planetary nebulae listed in the Messier catalogue. The name Owl Nebula was first coined by William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse who noticed owl-like "eyes" when observing the nebula in 1848. At magnitude +9.9, it's not particularly bright but is spectacular and regarded as one of the more complex examples of its type.
Locating M97 is easy; it's positioned only 2.5 degrees southeast of bright star Merak (β UMa - mag. +2.3), which forms the southwest corner of the bowl of the famous Plough or Big Dipper asterism of Ursa Major. In the same wide field telescope field of view, 50 arc minutes northwest of M97 is the barred spiral galaxy M108 (mag. +10.7).
The Owl Nebula is best seen from Northern Hemisphere latitudes during the months of March, April and May.
A bright new Type 1a supernova - which occurs when a white dwarf star explodes in a binary star system - has been discovered in the bright irregular starburst galaxy M82. It has been assigned the name SN 2014J and as of January 23, 2014 was shining at magnitude +11.5 and within the range of small to medium sized amateur telescopes.
Amazingly the supernova appears to have gone undiscovered for a week before first being recognised by students at the University College London (UCL) observatory on January 21st. The team lead by teaching fellow Stephen J. Fossey included Ben Cooke, Tom Wright, Matthew Wilde and Guy Pollack.
M82, the galaxy where SN 2014J is located is a much observed and a favourite of amateur astronomers. It's also known as the Cigar galaxy due to the resemblance and at magnitude +8.4 is visible in binoculars. It forms a striking compliment to the near perfect spiral shape of its neighbour galaxy M81 and both galaxies are visible in the same binocular or telescope field of view. The galaxy is located 11.5 million light-years from Earth.