The planet Venus is still very prominent in the western sky for a few hours after sunset, and is the brightest object in the night sky after the Moon. It will continue to move slowly further away from the setting Sun during the month of February. On February 25, it will be very close to the crescent Moon, and will be a glorious sight.
Through a telescope, Venus shows phases, just like the phases of the Moon that we can see without a telescope. The first person ever to see these phases was the 17th century astronomer Galileo, who was one of the first people ever to use a telescope to view the night sky. He realised that he could deduce from these phases that Venus must orbit round the Sun. He also became convinced that (contrary to the beliefs of the time) the Earth must also orbit round the Sun – which got him into terrible trouble with the Roman Catholic Church!
The planet Jupiter will continue to be prominent in the southern and western sky throughout February. It is only a little less bright than Venus, and Venus will move steadily closer and closer to Jupiter as the month progresses. Good binoculars or a small telescope will show the four largest of Jupiter’s moons, first discovered by Galileo in 1609. A larger telescope will show the belts of Jupiter, gigantic weather systems that encircle the planet. (The photograph of Jupiter shown here was taken by the Torbay astrophotographer Simon Harding, using a remote telescope in the Canary Islands.)
By the end of the month, Mars will be rising in the western sky, just below the constellation of Leo the Lion. Mars remains a fascinating object, not least because it is possible that primitive bacterial life exists just below the planet’s surface. It may be that within the next decade or two we shall know whether or not this is the case.
The Torbay Astronomical Society will be meeting twice this month, at Torquay Boys’ Grammar School in Shiphay Manor Drive, starting at 7.30pm. The first meeting, on Thursday 9 February, will be an observational evening that will make use of the large telescope at the school. Then on Thursday, February 23 we shall be welcoming Chris Lee (from SciSys UK Ltd), who will be talking about The UK’s role in Mars Exploration.
Visitors and new members are always welcome. There is a £3 charge for visitors to the lecture evenings, and a £2 charge for the observational evenings. Annual membership is a mere £15.
I shall be giving my lecture on The Origin of the Universe at the Torquay Museum Society in Babbacombe Road on Monday, February 20 at 2.30pm. Visitors are always welcome to Museum lectures, but a donation of £3 is requested for entry.