This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image presents the Arches Cluster, the densest known star cluster in the Milky Way. (NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.)

EYES TO THE SKY: Glorious starry nights

I am reminded of astronaut Chris Hatfield’s statements about his spacewalk experience from the International Space Station: “I was attacked by raw beauty. It was stupefying. It stops your thoughts … The power of the presence of the world as told to me by my ability to see it.”

Following a wearily long interlude of cloud cover, a recent succession of starry nights and mornings reinvigorated irresistible prompts to rendezvous with nighttime’s winter constellations, warm to spring’s Leo the Lion rising, and spot the steady light of planet Jupiter (-2.25m), the Evening Star.

Join me when, after sleep, being urged to quickly rise before dawn to greet the morning sky. As if roused from a dream, be startled by summer’s Scorpius the Scorpion looking at us from above a south-southeast ridge. Its red heart star, Antares, elicits smiles of delight, of recognition. A short walk to a more easterly dip in the hills reveals brilliant planet Venus (-3.93m), the Morning Star, visible even in dawn’s brightening sky.

But it is the vision of infinite stars, a blizzard of stars all over the sky between and beyond the bright constellations, that captures me, spellbound with wonder, when skies are clear, away from the haze of human-made artificial light. Linger over the Hubble Space Telescope image of the Arches Cluster at the top of this page.

I am reminded of astronaut Chris Hatfield’s statements about his spacewalk experience from the International Space Station: “I was attacked by raw beauty. It was stupefying. It stops your thoughts … The power of the presence of the world as told to me by my ability to see it.” He may also have given us this: “The sheer, awesome power of the sky.”

Turn light up on your screen. Sky view, southeast to west-northwest, February 17, 2024, 7:00 p.m. The white dot in the middle of the diagram is planet Jupiter. By the 23rd, Pegasus, in the west-northwest, begins to set. H. A. Rey constellation drawings as seen on StarryNight 7 software. See text. Composition: Judy Isacoff.

In this skyview diagram, winter star patterns are identified from southeast to west-northwest at nightfall. Far left, find Canis Major, the greater dog, its shoulder marked by the brightest star in the sky, Sirius the Dog Star (-1.47m). By 7 p.m., Orion the Hunter is mid-sky, the three stars of his belt pointing to Aldebaran (0.84m), the orange eye of Taurus the Bull, under the waxing gibbous moon all night.

See January’s “Eyes to the Sky” for more about this part of the sky, including a skyview diagram with Leo the Lion, harbinger of spring, rising in the east-northeast. Note that the celestial events occurred an hour later last month.

Be sure to seek out Pegasus the Flying Horse, most easily located by the Great Square asterism as it sets in the west-northwest soon after nightfall.

Pegasus constellation in the west in early evening sky. This Vintage Mobil pegasus (flying horse) gas station insignia along a road in East Texas Credit: The Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Carol M. Highsmith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

On the 17th, sunrise is at 6:48 a.m.; sunset at 5:27 p.m.; and nightfall at 7:01 p.m. Moonrise is at 10:51 a.m. and moonset at 2:02 a.m. Day length is 10 hours and 39 minutes.

On Leap Day, the 29th, sunrise is at 6:30 a.m.; sunset 5:42 p.m., nightfall 7:15 p.m.; and moonset 8:31 a.m. Day length is 11 hours and 12 minutes.

The Full Snow or Hunger Moon occurs on the 24th at 6:30 a.m. Catch moonrise at 5:52 p.m.

In the middle of February, Mars is close to brilliant Venus. They will be an interesting contrast in brightness, with Venus shining at magnitude -3.9 and Mars shining at +1.3. So Venus is roughly 100 times brighter than Mars. They will be at their closest on February 21 and 22, 2024. Then Venus will continue to descend closer to the sunrise each day, while Mars climbs out of the morning twilight. Chart via John Jardine Goss/EarthSky. Courtesy of EarthSky.org, Published with permission.