Look for elusive Mercury during the last week of February. It will be found just above the western horizon during evening twilight.
Brilliant Venus appears dazzling in the western sky, both during and after evening twilight. It gradually becomes brighter and higher in the sky throughout the month. The crescent moon will be close to Venus on Feb. 25.
Mars rises in the east during the early evening hours. The Red Planet will appear brighter and higher each night as the month progresses.
The mighty planet Jupiter is visible in the winter sky this month. Look for it shining brightly in the southwest evening sky. Steadily held binoculars will enable you to see its four large moons.
Image courtesy of NASA, Cassini Team
The open cluster M35 in the constellation Gemini is easy to see with binoculars this month. It contains approximately 200 stars. At the lower right is the smaller open cluster NGC2158.
Image courtesy of 2Mass, NASA
The bright stars of the Pleiades, the most famous star cluster in the sky, can be seen without optical aid, even in moderate to heavy light pollution. Long exposures reveal the dust clouds that surround the bright stars.
Image courtesy of David Malin, AAO, ROE, UKS Telescope
The Orion Nebula is 1,500 light-years away, the nearest star-forming region to Earth. Our sun was probably born about 4.5 billion years ago in an enormous gas and dust cloud similar to this one.
Image courtesy of NASA, ESA, STScI
This image of the winter night sky shows the Pleiades star cluster (upper right) and the V-shaped Hyades star cluster (lower left). The bright giant star Aldebaran appears to be part of the Hyades group but is actually a foreground object that lies about halfway between the cluster and Earth.
Image courtesy of Lynn Laux
Huge Jupiter gleams very brightly this month, high in the west at dusk. Each night it will drop lower and closer to even brighter Venus. This is a perfect time to view the cloud bands on the Jovian disk and observe the nightly changes in the position of Jupiter's four largest moons. On Feb. 26, the crescent moon will be close to Jupiter.
Saturn rises in the east during the late evening. The best time during February to view this planet with a telescope will be just before dawn, when it's high in the sky.
OUR NIGHT SKY IN WINTER
''Orion shines like a gigantic piece of celestial jewelry through the frosty winter air.'' - Astronomer Robert Baker
Nearly everyone has noticed that the stars appear to be more brilliant in winter than at any other time of the year. This isn't just because of the clear, dry, cold air. In general, the stars in the winter evening sky are actually brighter than those appearing during the other seasons. Although our rare crystal clear winter nights, when the stars twinkle the most, are great for naked-eye stargazing, sometimes they are not the best for observing with telescopes. Atmospheric turbulence, the cause of the twinkling effect, produces very blurred images in telescopes.
Six magnificent constellations fill the center of the southern sky on clear winter evenings and each of these contains very bright stars. Let's take a look at these six sparkling winter constellations.
Orion, by far the most brilliant, is visible from every inhabited region on earth. It contains seven very bright stars, more than any of the others. The arrangement of the three belt stars in a line surrounded by the four other bright stars is so distinctive that once you have seen it, you never forget it. One of the two brightest stars in this group, Betelgeuse, is reddish orange, while the next brightest star, the supergiant Rigel, is bluish. Betelgeuse is one of the largest known stars. If it was located in the position of our sun, the Earth would be inside of it - vaporized - since it would extend way out past the orbit of Mars.
The Great Nebula in Orion appears to the naked eye as a misty star below the three belt stars. This vast cloud of glowing gas and dust, beautiful in steady binoculars or a small telescope, is a nursery for newborn stars.
Orion's three belt stars point down to the southeast, to our next constellation, Canis Major. This group of stars contains Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens as seen from Earth. The two reasons Sirius appears so bright are that it is quite close to Earth, just 8.7 light-years away, and it is 40 times more luminous than the sun.
If you follow a line through Orion's three belt stars upwards to the northwest, you arrive at the constellation Taurus. The very bright star aligned with this group, Aldebaran, appears reddish-orange and can be mistaken for Mars when that planet is in the vicinity. Use binoculars to view the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters in Taurus.
The constellation Auriga appears directly overhead this month. Its brightest star, yellow-colored Capella, is the fourth brightest star visible to observers near Jamestown.
Southeast from Auriga lies the constellation Gemini, with its two brightest stars, Castor and Pollux. Yellowish Pollux is slightly brighter while Castor, appearing bright white, is actually a multiple star system with six components.
South of Gemini is the last of our six bright winter star groups, the constellation Canis Minor. Its brightest star, creamy-yellow Procyon, is the sixth brightest star visible to Jamestown-area viewers.
The brilliant twinkling of the bright stars in these six constellations offers a fantastic display and it doesn't cost a penny to see it. Have your children dress warmly, take them outside and show them the splendors of our winter night sky.
Editor's note: This monthly guide to the stars is from the Marshall Martz Memorial Astronomical Association, the Southern Tier Astronomy Recreation Society, and The Post-Journal. For further information, contact the M.M.M.A.A. at www.martzobservatory.org or S.T.A.R.S. at www.UpStateAstro.org/stars/stars.html.