February will be a good month for binocular viewing. Get out your 7 x 50s, 7 x 35s, or 20 x 80s, but just remember, the higher the magnification, the smaller the field. At 20 power, you have only about half the view of the 7 power binoculars.
Clean them up, but only if they need it! Many of us tend to clean optical surfaces way too often, so go to www.astro-tom.com/tips_and_advice/cleaning_optics.htm for a good tutorial — you don’t want to ruin the fine coatings on your optics.
Jupiter is high in the southwest by 10 p.m. on Friday and does not set until 3:15 a.m. the following day. On Feb. 18, Jupiter and the waxing gibbous moon are about 7 degrees apart. If you place Jupiter at the 5 o’clock position in your 7 x 50s, Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, will be at 7 o’clock, and the bright moon will be at 10 o’clock.
Near the center of the field is Vesta, a 326-mile-wide asteroid. While it shines at magnitude 6.96, visible to the unaided eye, the moon in your binoculars may overwhelm the dimmer asteroid so move your binoculars to exclude the moon. Vesta is the most massive asteroid, as Ceres is now an ex-asteroid, considered a dwarf planet.
On Feb. 3, the morning sky shows Saturn and the last quarter moon, again well within the field of a pair of 7 x 50s. On Friday, you can still view Uranus right before it sets at 10 p.m. above the western horizon at magnitude 5.9. Venus rises at 7 a.m. in Libra, and disappears into the dawn twilight by the end of the month.
Over the first two weeks of February, Mercury and Mars perform a pas de deux on the western horizon at dusk. On Feb. 8, the two planets are separated by less than half a degree. Neptune joins the pair Feb. 4-10, but at magnitude 8 is not nearly as conspicuous, and may be difficult to spot, especially so close to the horizon.
In addition to Comet ISON possibly becoming a bright comet later this year, astronomers have determined that comet C/2011 L4, known as PANSTARRS, is expected to be visible to the naked eye in March. Stay tuned.
Q: I enjoy using binoculars to view the night sky because so many more stars are visible. I find that holding them steady over a period of time is difficult. Any suggestions? — R.J., Canton
A: You can use a regular tripod with many models of binoculars, but it is a lot more comfortable to sit in a lawn chair while scanning the skies.
You can find a counterweighted/parallelogram mount for this purpose to sit behind or next to your chair, but the cost is from $200 to $300. I’d rather spend that on a good eyepiece. Instead, I designed and built a very simple wood clamp and aluminum strut that attaches to the top of my “anti-gravity” lawn chair for about $20 — and it works!
For a couple of pictures of the mount and a few words on construction, go to www.mckinleymuseum.org/hoover_price_planetarium. They are pretty simple and self-explanatory. If you need more information on how to put this mount together, email me or call me at 330-455-7043 on Mondays or Wednesdays.
The Hoover-Price Planetarium begins a new presentation, Dave & Dr. Jimmy Visit Greenbank, on March 2. This is the fourth D&D show with Dr. James Rudick and the planetarium director wandering and wondering at technology around the country. This program features the enormous and beautiful radio telescopes in Greenbank, W.Va.
Shows are at 1 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. The planetarium is included with admission to the McKinley Presidential Library & Museum. Call 330-455-7043 for more information.
David L. Richards is director of the Hoover-Price Planetarium at the McKinley Presidential Library and Museum, 800 McKinley Monument Drive NW, Canton, 44708, www.mckinleymuseum.org. He can be reached at 330-455-7043 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.