Orion Nebula (Chris Vaughan, Starry Night Education)

This Week’s Sky: February 1 to 7, 2021

Orion is in excellent position this week to take a look at its nebula, while Venus passes Saturn over the weekend.

Monday, February 1 – Orion Nebula (overnight)

Orion Nebula (Chris Vaughan, Starry Night Education)

The sword of Orion, which covers an area of 1.5 by 1 degrees (about the end of your thumb held up at arm’s length), descends from Orion’s three-starred belt. The patch of light in the middle of the sword is the spectacular and bright nebula known as the Orion Nebula or Messier 42. While simple binoculars (red circle) will reveal the fuzzy nature of this object, medium-to-large aperture telescopes will show a complex pattern of veil-like gas and dark dust lanes. Adding an Oxygen-III or broadband nebula filter will reveal even more details. The nebula and the stars forming within it are approximately 1,350 light-years from the Sun, in the Orion arm of our Milky Way Galaxy.

Thursday, February 4 – Third quarter Moon (at 17:37 GMT)

Third quarter Moon (Chris Vaughan, Starry Night Education)

When the Moon reaches its third quarter phase at 17:37 GMT (or 12:37 p.m. EST) on Thursday, February 4, it will rise in the middle of the night, and then remain visible in the southern sky all morning. At this phase the Moon is illuminated on its western side, towards the pre-dawn Sun. Third quarter moons are positioned ahead of the Earth in our trip around the Sun. About 3½ hours later, Earth will occupy that same location in space. The week of moonless evening skies that follow third quarter will be ideal for observing deep sky targets.

Saturday, February 6 – Bright Venus passes Saturn (before sunrise)

Bright Venus passes Saturn (Chris Vaughan, Starry Night Education)

Over the upcoming week, Venus’ motion sunward will carry it past Jupiter and Saturn, which are still embedded in the pre-dawn twilight following their solar conjunctions. On Saturday, February 6, look just above the east-southeastern horizon before sunrise for the bright planet Venus positioned a short distance below (or 0.5 degrees to the celestial south of) much dimmer Saturn. Both planets will fit together in the field of view of binoculars or a backyard telescope (red circle) – but take care to put your optics away before the Sun rises at about 7:30 a.m. local time. Observers living at southerly latitudes will see the planets much more easily, in a darker sky. Venus will be about twice as far from Saturn on the previous and following mornings.

Chris Vaughan is a science writer, geophysicist, astronomer, planetary scientist and an “outreach RASCal.” He writes Astronomy Skylights, and you can follow him on Twitter at @astrogeoguy. He can also bring his Digital Starlab portable inflatable planetarium to your school or other daytime or evening event. Contact him through AstroGeo.ca to tour the universe together.