Welcome to your self-guided February Night Sky Tour!
You can download your February Night Sky map.
Tips for Successful Stargazing from Night Sky Tour Guide Michael Payne
- Dress warmly. It’s no fun to look at the stars when you are shivering and shaking. February on Cape Cod can be cold. When you are standing still trying to focus on the night sky, you burn less energy and so generate less body heat. Warm socks and boots, coat, hat, gloves, and thermal underwear are necessary. If you think: “Maybe I don’t really need this article of clothing,” you are wrong. Better too much than not enough.
- Have a good view of the southern horizon and overhead. I recommend Red River Beach. The breeze may be chilly off the water, but the view is fantastic, and the sky is as dark as you will find in Harwich.
- Use a dim red-light source so you can look at the map without your eyes being dazzled by bright white light. This destroys your night-vision and prevents you from seeing fainter stars. Use the dimmest flashlight you have and cover it with red cellophane.
- Best viewing for this tour is between 7 – 8 p.m.
Orient Yourself and the Sky Map to the Night Sky
- Usually, we begin the sky tour by finding the North Star. But this month all of the constellations we are interested in are in the south and overhead, so we will skip this step.
- Finding south from Harwich is easy. Simply face the direction of Nantucket Sound and you are facing south. You might end up being more southwest or southeast, but it doesn’t matter.
- Now turn the map so you are holding it such that “South” is at the bottom of the map. This is the map position with which we will start your self-guided Night Sky Tour. Whenever you turn to look at a different part of the sky, you will need to turn the map to match the direction you are facing.
- Example: If you are facing south and turn 90 degrees to the east, then you need to turn the map so east is at the bottom of the map as you hold it. This way what you see in the sky will match what you see on the map. When you turn, the map has to turn, too.
We begin with Orion, the most recognizable and brightest constellation in the night sky, visible from all over the world. If you are facing south, this large bright constellation should “pop out” at you. Look for the four bright stars that form a canted rectangle with the three bright stars in a row.
In virtually all cultures, Orion is considered a hunter, a warrior, a god, or some other figure with a human shape. Its origins as a constellation are found in deep antiquity and probably before that in pre-history. In our tradition, Orion was a famous hunter that offended a god who sent a scorpion to sting him. After his death the rest of the gods placed his image in the sky.
Looking at the constellation, we can see the bright red star at Orion’s shoulder. This is Betelgeuse, a huge red giant star whose diameter exceeds that of the orbit of the planet Mars. In fact, it is so large that astronomers have been able to image its surface from earth. Its name means “Armpit of the Giant” and is derived from Arabic, like most star names.
Moving to the bright star to the right of Betelgeuse is the white star Bellatrix. This name means Amazon or female-warrior. It is one of the relatively few stars with a Latin name.
Between and slightly above Betelgeuse and Bellatrix is a triangle of three fainter stars which represent Orion’s head.
Moving down towards the horizon is a row of three bright stars that represent Orion’s belt. Beginning at the star on the right, their names are:
- Mintaka: “The Belt”
- Alnilam: “Belt of Pearls”
- Alnitak: “The Girdle”
Below the belt hangs a group of stars associated with Orion’s sword. The brightest star is called Na’ir al Saiph: “The Bright One of the Sword.” If you look closely you will notice that one of the stars has a fuzzy and misty appearance. This is the Great Orion Nebula, an enormous cloud of dust and gas where many stars are being formed and born. The gas glows from the reflected light and radiation of these young stars.
Moving down to the right from the sword is the brilliant blue-white star of Rigel: “Left Leg of the Giant.” And across Orion’s body to the left from Rigel is the star Saiph: “Sword.”
Because Orion is a hunter, many of the constellations near it are associated with his activities as a hunter.
Lepus the Rabbit
Lepus is faint constellation that lies directly below Orion. This poor, cute little bunny is what the mighty hunter seems to be pursuing. It’s very hard to make out an image of a rabbit in this group of stars, but if you consult the map you can make out, perhaps, the tips of its ears and its hunched body.
Canis Major the Big Dog
Sirius the brilliant blue-white star marks the location of the constellation of Canis Major, one of Orion’s hunting dogs. The image of the constellation suggests the dog is standing on its hind legs with its front legs out to the right with Sirius representing the dog’s head.
Sirius, whose name means “The Sparkling One” and is commonly referred to as “The Dog Star,” is the brightest star visible in the sky. Although it is not an intrinsically bright star, it appears luminous to us because it is located in our neighborhood so to speak. Sirius is “only” about 8 light-years distant from the earth. A light-year is a unit of distance that it takes a beam of light to travel in one year. It’s head-spinning to think that one light-year equals 5.88 trillion miles.
Because of its brightness, Sirius has a prominent place in the mythology of the sky and human history. The Greek poet Homer who wrote the Odyssey compares Achilles chasing Hector around the walls of Troy to the “Dog Star sparkling in the autumn.” The rising of the Nile in ancient Egypt was equated to Sirius rising with the sun. Finally, the hot days of August are referred to as “Dog Days” because it was thought that the heat was caused by the additional warmth contributed by Sirius during the day.
The bright star just to the right of Sirius towards Lepus is called Mirzam: “The Announcer.” It is so-called because it rises shortly before Sirius and so “announces” Sirius’ imminent appearance.
Canis Minor the Little Dog
Canis Minor is not much of a constellation. It only has two stars that are easily and obviously visible to the naked eye. The brightest, though, is a nice bright star called Procyon: “Before the Dog.” Procyon gets its name because it rises before Sirius does and so, like Mirzam, announces the arrival of Sirius.
Procyon can be found easily by drawing a line between Betelgeuse in Orion and Sirius. Consider this the base of an equilateral triangle with Procyon at its apex to the left of Sirius and Betelgeuse. The triangle of stars is called “The Winter Triangle” and is an easy way to assist yourself navigating the night sky this time of year.
Taurus the Bull
The last constellation we will locate tonight is Taurus. To identify Taurus return to Orion and draw a line from Betelgeuse through the three stars in his head and extend it about four times that length. This brings you to the bright red star of Aldebaran: “The Follower.”
Aldebaran is embedded in a V-shaped group of stars that represent the face and head of the bull as it charges Orion. This group of stars, a star cluster, is called The Hyades: “The Rainy Ones.” The cluster received this name because its appearance in the evening autumn sky was associated with the onset of rainy weather.
Follow the two lines of stars that form the Hyades off to the upper left and you will see the two stars that form the tips of the bull’s horns. Your map will help you see this.
The other well-known star cluster in Taurus is The Pleiades: “The Many.” This brilliant compact group of stars to the right of the Hyades has had a profound association with humanity from the beginnings of our history. The stars have represented many things to different cultures throughout history, Seven Sisters, a Sieve, and a Hen and its Chicks. The Pleiades is one of the best sights of the evening sky.
The Planet Mars
Mars has been in the news recently due to the space probe Perseverance successfully landing on the surface. Mars is currently visible in Taurus below and to the right of The Pleiades as a bright reddish “star.” Compare how it looks with the other two bright red stars we have seen tonight: Betelgeuse in Orion and Aldebaran in Taurus.
We hope you enjoyed your self-guided February Night Sky Tour. When circumstances allow, we look forward to gathering in person for these celestial events.