These free, printable Sky Maps (star charts) by astrononer Jeff DeTray will help find your way around the night sky!
Each month, Jeff’s Sky Maps highlight a wonderful event in the evening sky—including beautiful stars, constellations, planets, conjuntions with the Moon, meteor showers, and other amazing celestial objects.
Sky Map February 2015
By Jeff DeTray, Almanac astronomer writer
Follow Jeff DeTray’s sky adventures at AstronomyBoy.com
This Month: Orion Takes Center Stage
Just click, print, and bring outside!
There is no brighter constellation in the night sky than Orion, the Hunter. And there is no better time to view Orion than an early evening in February, so bundle up!
When you look to the south in February, Orion dominates the view, standing tall and proud. Let’s examine the Hunter in detail. This month’s Sky Map includes a close-up view of Orion on the right side of the map.
The main figure of Orion consists of seven bright stars. The brightest of these are Betelgeuse on his left shoulder and Rigel on his right knee. Both are among the sky’s 10 brightest stars, and they have distinctly different colors. At a glance, it is easy to see that Betelgeuse is a yellowish orange star, while Rigel is a dazzling blue-white. In general, the colors of stars are very subtle, but the colors of these two bright stars are easy to see.
Betelgeuse and Rigel are both classified as “supergiant” stars, having about 8 and 21 times the mass, respectively, of our Sun. Where Betelgeuse really excels, however, is in its sheer size: It is as much as 1,000 times larger than our Sun!
On Orion’s right shoulder lies the very blue star Bellatrix, whose name means “female warrior.” It’s no coincidence that the Bellatrix Lestrange character in the Harry Potter books is extremely warlike (and not in a good way!). Bellatrix (the star) is even bluer than Rigel, but because Bellatrix is dimmer, its color is less apparent except on especially clear, dark nights.
Completing the main outline of Orion is Saiph, marking the Hunter’s left knee. This is another supergiant star, 22 times the mass of our Sun.
The three stars of the Belt are a prominent feature of Orion. These stars span the midsection of the Hunter, forming a straight bright line. Although we call it the Belt, this asterism (unofficial star pattern) has many names in various cultures and religions, including the “yardstick,” the “wand,” and the “Three Kings.”
If you are viewing Orion from a dark location, you’ll be able to see his arm rising upward from Betelgeuse. The arm is often depicted as holding a weapon of some sort, often a club. Orion’s other arm extends to the right of Bellatrix and holds a shield to fend off the Hunter’s enemies.
Finally, you may notice a group of three stars hanging downward below the Belt. These are said to represent Orion’s sword. The middle “star” in the sword isn’t a star at all, but is instead a giant cloud of glowing gas and dust known as the Orion Nebula or the Great Nebula in Orion.
The nebula is a stellar nursery, where new stars are being born at this very minute. The cloud glows because many young stars are still embedded within it. With binoculars, the Great Nebula looks like a small, glowing cloud. It is the closest star-forming region to Earth, a mere 1,300 light-years away!
Sky map produced using Chris Marriott’s Skymap Pro
See our Sky Watch page for more highlights of the monthly sky, courtesy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac.