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Caithness Night Sky Index    

Caithness Night Sky
February - March 2006

Caithness Skies

What's Up There (Feb '06)

The start of the calendar year is a great time to brave the cold and check out “what’s up there” in the night sky. It has been especially good recently with the clear skies we’ve been getting in Caithness. Below is a selection of interesting items/events to look out for in the Caithness skies now (Feb 06) or in the near future. To compliment the brief info provided some relevant web links have been included that will provide, if nothing else, something to view when the skies inevitably cloud over.

Stargazing Guide - The Caithness View

View SSE in the Early Evening during February


The constellation of Orion currently dominates the early evening sky to the south. Its distinctive shape and bright stars tend to mean it is visible even when viewed from brightly street lit areas.  On the top left of the constellation can be found the red supergiant star Betelgeuse (a Orionis) and at the bottom right is the bluish white star Rigel (b Orionis). These two stars are the 10th and the 7th brightest stars in the sky. Betelgeuse is a truly massive star that is over 1000 times larger than our Sun (put another way, it has a diameter over 5 times the distance for the Earth to the Sun) and is about 60,000 times more luminous. Rigel is also a stellar searchlight being about as luminous, but is much smaller at only 70 times the size of our Sun.

Orion Over Thurso Bridge

Orion Over Thurso Bridge Orion and Sirius
 15th Feb 06

Related Web Links
http://www.astro.uiuc.edu/~kaler/sow/sowlist.html  A website all about stars
http://www.krysstal.com/brightest.html  A list of the brightest stars in the sky and explanation of star terminology
http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap980419.html  Betelgeuse photo and info

Also in Orion forming part of the sword to be found below the 3 stars of his belt, is the Orion Nebula (M42). This is a region where stars are being formed and is the easiest viewed example we can see from Caithness being visible to the naked eye as a small fuzzy patch in the sky. Binoculars or a small telescope will give a much clearer view of it, but unfortunately they won't afford a view anything as spectacular as those recently obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope. But at a cost of more than $2 billion I suppose you'd expect pretty good photos!

Orion's Belt, Rigel and M42

Related Web Links - M42
http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/newsdesk/archive/releases/2006/01/  - Hubble Panoramic View of Orion Nebula – Wow!!!!
Hubble Space Telescope info

Epsilon Eridani
To the right of the star chart above you'll see the star Epsilon Eridani labelled. The interesting thing about this star is not just that it is one of our nearest neighbours (it's just over 10 light years away) but that it is thought to have planets forming around it.

Related Web Links – Planetary formation
http://www.solstation.com/stars/eps-erid.htm Planetary systems in the Making spotted in the Orion Nebula
Animation of Protoplanetary Disks in the Orion Nebula
Animation showing the Birth of the Solar System

This is the brightest star in the sky and can be found by following an imaginary line downwards from the 3 stars of Orions belt. Sirius has a white dwarf companion star, but this is not visible without a very powerful telescope.

Related Web Links

This constellation can be found above and to the right of Orion. Following the line of Orions belt upwards will lead you to the bright star Aldebaran which nestles amongst an open cluster of stars known as the Hyades. Continuing upwards from this can be found a compact cluster of stars visible that to the naked eye known as the Pleiades (M45). The stars of the Pleiades are very young by stellar standards and make a fine sight in binoculars - to me they resemble the shape of a saucepan. During Feb '06 the planet Mars is to be found just below the Pleiades.

Taurus and Mars (bottom right) 12th Feb 06

Related Web Links

The two bright stars in Gemini are Castor and Pollux. Although Pollux is the brighter of the two it is Castor that is by far the more interesting. Through a small telescope it can be revealed to consist of two separate stars, but this is not the full story. Castor actually consists of a complex system of 6 stars!

Related Web Links – Castor multiple star system info

Beehive Cluster (M44)
To the left of Castor and Pollux is the inconspicuous constellation of Cancer. This constellation is home to the “Beehive” open star cluster that is just visible to the naked eye on clear dark nights. This cluster is well worth looking at through binoculars or a small telescope. One added bonus at present is that fact that Saturn is very close by (to the right of the cluster in the photo opposite).

Beehive Cluster & Saturn (15th Feb06)

Related Web Links


This planet being so close to the Sun is always a difficult one to see (I haven't yet!). There is a fairly good chance of seeing it though during the latter half of February low on the SW horizon. It should be just visible in the still bright dusk sky shortly after sunset.


Venus after Sunset Early Jan'06

Crescent shape just visible

Having been a brilliant object in the evening sky at the start of January it is currently (mid Feb'06) to be found in the morning sky. It is easy to distinguish as it remains visible past when all other stars have disappeared in the brightening sky.  With optical aid the planet will be seen to be a thick crescent shape in February increasing to half phase in March.

Venus still visible 45 minutes

before sunrise - mid Feb'06

Following its close approach to the Earth late last year it has now moved far enough away to mean that surface detail is difficult to see without using larger telescopes. It currently appears as a prominent orange/red object near the Pleiades.

Related Web Links – Mars Photos

Jupiter is currently visible as a bright object low in the sky to the south in the early hours of the morning. It is possible to see the four brightest moons of Jupiter with binoculars and a small telescope will show up the cloud bands on the planet itself.

Jupiter through a small telescope

Saturn is visible most of the night and although just past its brightest a small telescope will allow it magnificent rings to be seen. This is a sight that once seen will never be forgotten. Saturns rings are currently fairly open when viewed from Earth, but will steadily tilt until they become edge on in 2009, so this year will be the best chance to view them for some years. The fact that they are currently very close to the Beehive Cluster adds to the viewing appeal.

Saturn through a small telescope

Other Events/ Objects of Interest

Solar Eclipse – March 29th 2006
Occurs late morning, but only a small fraction (less than 20%) of the sun will be seen to be obscured from Caithness.

Solar Eclipse - August 1999

Important Safety Note:
Eye safety is very important if viewing the Sun, even if during an eclipse. See the following link for advice on this:

Lunar Eclipse - 14th March 2006
A penumbral lunar eclipse takes place starting before midnight on Tuesday 14th March 2006 and continuing past midnight into the 15th. This particular type of lunar eclipse is unusual in that the full moon will not disappear, but will darken.

Related Web Links
http://sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse/OH/OH2006.html  Eclipses in 2006
http://www.mreclipse.com/Special/SEprimer.html  Solar Eclipses for Beginners
http://www.mreclipse.com/Special/LEprimer.html  Lunar Eclipses for Beginners

Solar Eclipse

Lunar Eclipse
More detailed accounts on what to see each month can be found on many websites and in most astronomy magazines.
The ones I commonly use are:
http://www.skymaps.com/downloads.html  Monthly SkyMap for Download
http://www.krysstal.com/sky.html  KryssTal Monthly Sky Page
BBC Sky at Night Magazine

Usage of technical terms has been avoided where possible, but some readers may find the explanations of astronomical terms found at the following web sites of use:


G Mackie,
Feb 2006