Sunday, February 1, 2015

The February Sky

With new month of February upon us, the lengthening of the days will be noticeable at the start and plainly obvious by month's end as we get closer and closer to the equinox, which will come on March 20. Besides the rapidly lengthening days (and thus, shortening nights), February marks the last full Month of Standard Time, with DST returning the first Sunday of next month. All in all, there should be a sense of urgency to get out and see the sky, especially if you live in a location dominated by clouds during the winter.

Cool Constellations
By nightfall in February the fall constellations are all extremely low in the Western sky by nightfall. Hint: don't dilly dally when it comes to viewing them, they'll be gone by month's end. In the Northwest, ‘W’-shaped Cassiopeia is still high up, house-like Cepheus is low, and the mythological hero Perseus Is still reasonably well-placed for early evening viewing. Moving away from the past and into the present celestial landmarks for this time of year, the Big Dipper is perpendicular to the horizon by the time the sky gets dark and things will only be getting better for Dipper fans as the next few months go along. Almost at zenith is the bright Capella, alpha Auriga. The cloudy patch that is the Pleiades is also very high come nightfall this time of year, as is the V-shaped Hyades cluster. Looking in the South, you'll see all the winter favorites like unmistakable Orion, which also serves as a winter signpost to the stars. From Orion, follow a line from his belt down to blazing blue Sirius, alpha Canis Major. Following that line up will bring one to Aldebaran, alpha Taurus the bull. Aldebaran is also right in the midst of the Hyades. Imagining a line starting at bright blue Rigel (Orion's left foot) through red Betelgeuse (Orion's right shoulder) will bring you to Castor and Pollux, alpha and beta Gemini. Other winter favorites to look for include Canis Minor, Cancer, and even Leo if you wait into the night a little longer. Early birds? Well, getting up just before the Sun will bring a spring preview in the form of Virgo, Bootes, Corona, Hercules, Corvus, and even the Summer Triangle along with the front half of Scorpius, highlighted by fiery red Antares, the rival of Mars.

Planetary Perceptions
Like January, February is looking to be another 5 for 5 planet month.. At dusk, Earth's two planetary neighbors, Mars and Venus, will be engaging in a cosmic meet-up come mid month,. Culminating in the February 21-22 conjunction, which will see both planets within a degree of each other. As for longer trends, Venus will continue to climb out of the dusk twilight while Mars stubbornly hangs low in the Southwest, setting roughly 2 ½ hours after the Sun all month long. Moving later into the night, Jupiter is up all night as it reaches opposition (directly opposite the Sun as seen from Earth) on the 6th. Additionally, Saturn continue to re-emerge from the Sun in the predawn sky. By month's end, the ringed wonder will be just about due South at dawn. Last but not least, speedy Mercury, which reached greatest elongation in mid January and quickly dropped out of the dusk sky shortly thereafter, will be back starting in early February and reaching greatest elongation in the predawn sky around the 22nd. Unfortunately, thanks to the flattening ecliptic, the little planet will be nowhere near as high as it was last month.

Tonight's Sky for February 1: Columbia Disaster (2003)
It was on this date in 2003 that the space shuttle Columbia, first of the shuttle fleet disintegrated upon reentry, killing the crew of 7 astronauts.

At the time of the Columbia's flight, there was a growing chorus of whispers suggesting that the space shuttles were ending their useful lives and needed to be retired. When development began in the early 1970s parallel with Skylab, the space shuttles were (and arguably still are) the most complex machines ever built. Shoved to the back burner to focus on Skylab, the shuttles became top priority in the late 1970s and early 80s. Finally, in 1981, Columbia made the first orbital flight. In the following years NASA would add 4 more shuttles. Aside from the Challenger disaster in 1986 (which could have been avoided if NASA management had listened to the engineers), the shuttles performed flawlessly, which is how Columbia's final mission went until the crucial re-entry phase, during which the shuttle disintegrated, killing the crew, and scattering thousands of pieces of debris across a stretch of the American South hundreds of miles long. After a months-long investigation, it was determined that a piece of insulating foam had broken away from the main fuel tank, impacted Columbia's wing, and dislodged some of the thermal tiles used to protect the shuttle from the extreme heat of reentry. The result: the heat caused by friction of the Earth's atmosphere at the high speed of atmospheric reentry caused the shuttle's hull to fail and the craft to disintegrate.

Following the Columbia disaster, the whispers about retiring the shuttle turned to shouts. The following year, President Bush called for the creation of the Constellation Program and a return to the Moon. The chosen craft for Constellation: rockets, which are nowhere near as complex as the shuttles. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that the shuttles would be retired. Finally, on July 26, 2005, Discovery made the first post-Columbia flight (Discovery also made the return flight after Challenger). For these final missions, post-launch inspections of the shuttles' underbellies and heat tiles were mandatory. Still, old as they were, the shuttle fleet continued to perform admirably, so much so that there was an intense lobbying effort to keep them flying until a replacement craft for manned spaceflight became operable.

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