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  • Graphic by GERRY DESCOTEAUX This is what the western sky will look like just after sunset on Feb. 25-26. On Feb. 25, Venus will be in close proximity to the sliver moon, while on Feb. 26, Jupiter will meet up with our closest celestial neighbor. Both evenings present excellent opportunities to snap that ultimate Lawnchair photograph.
  • Graphic by GERRY DESCOTEAUX This is what the western sky will look like just after sunset on Feb. 25-26. On Feb. 25, Venus will be in close proximity to the sliver moon, while on Feb. 26, Jupiter will meet up with our closest celestial neighbor. Both evenings present excellent opportunities to snap that ultimate Lawnchair photograph.
Sunday, January 29, 2012

Two nights, two brilliant sights

Gerry Descoteaux

OK! It’s cold. But I just may have something to brighten the mood.

By the end of February, we’ll arrive at the “In like a lion, out like a lamb” stage, and that can only mean Old Man Winter is soon to be replaced by spring’s sprouting buds and chirping birds.

Daylight will last longer, ice and snow will uniformly begin melting away and Lawnchairs everywhere will gloriously emerge from hibernation.

It may sound like a pipe dream as we dig out from the latest onslaught, but trust me on this, it’s going to change, and soon.

By the end of February, there will be wondrous sights to behold in the western post-sunset sky. Specifically, there’ll be some excellent astronomical photo ops on two successive evenings.

The bright evening star seen setting in the west after sunset throughout February is none other than the Goddess of Love, Venus. Followed by the nearly equally bright Jupiter just a tad higher in the southwestern sky, each will be visited by a sliver-thin new moon on the early evenings of Feb. 25-26.

From the Lawnchair perspective, this is also the best time to train an earth-based backyard instrument onto our closest neighbor during the early first (waxing) or late (waning) phases of the moon’s monthly cycle.

When the moon is full, there’s a tendency for an eyepiece image to get washed out. It’s just too bright to see any real detail.

But during the first- and last-quarter phases, the contrast is substantially increased and you can actually see features that just aren’t possible during a full moon.

Most interesting are the areas where you can see how the light shines through the crevices between craters and mountain ranges into the unlit areas of the lunar surface.

In small and large telescopes, as well as binoculars, the early and late-stage moon phases are a fascinating place to begin a Lawnchair adventure.

On Feb. 25-26, viewing the conjunctions between the moon and the very bright Venus and Jupiter provides opportunities to capture unique photographs of our solar system neighbors gathered for a family portrait. On either of those dates, catching all three in the same field of view should make for an interesting photograph.

Try a variety of exposure times and aperture sizes and you may end up with a true keeper.

For those of you who can combine your digital camera with a telescope, try a variety of wide-angle and close-ups for that ultimate portfolio image.

Besides these wonderful planetary sights above the western horizon just after sunset, the Great Square of Pegasus can be glimpsed descending slowly below the tree line, followed by Andromeda and, of course, its jewels, the Andromeda galaxies. All are spectacular in both large and small instruments.

M-31 is the larger, main component of the group. And just like the Magellanic Clouds that we can see from the southern hemisphere, M-32 and M-110 are Andromeda’s satellite galaxies orbiting the Milky Way’s slightly larger twin sister.

All reside a whopping 2.2 million light years away from us, and what you see today, fantastically, is how they looked more than 2 millions years ago.

We won’t know for some time, obviously, if there have been any dramatic changes to our largest neighbor.

So there are, indeed, some excellent reasons to brave the cold and brush any precipitation from the trusty Lawnchair this February. Perhaps risking being perceived as mentally unstable, go ahead anyway and invite some friends over for an evening of unforgettable sights.

I can guarantee that the freezing temperatures will simply aid in preserving what will turn out to be treasured lifelong memories!

Clear skies!

Gerry Descoteaux, author of “The Lawnchair Astronomer,” is a freelance writer and teacher who has taught astronomy at America Online’s Online Campus for more than 10 years. His course, “Astronomy, An Introduction,” is presented on the Internet. He can be reached at gerry@thelawnchairastronomer.com or www.thelawnchairastronomer.com. His column appears the last Sunday of each month.