Taste Of May On A Bitter Cold Day

Looking south at dawn in early February, you'll a sneak preview of warmer times to come. This map shows the sky about 50 minutes before sunrise. Maps created with Stellarium

Seven below zero and 20 mile per hour winds this morning made me wonder whether it would be wise to set up the scope at dawn to look at Saturn. I was up anyway, preparing to cover the finish of the annual John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, so why not?

The winds made for very unsteady seeing conditions. Saturn was either bloated and fuzzy or jumped around like a cricket. But there was one fine thing about the morning. Venus in the southeast, the Summer Triangle ascending in the north and Scorpius crawling toward the southern meridian were all signs of spring. Standing there, nose frozen, it dawned on me these were the stars of a May evening.

Adding other elements of that fair month was an act of imagination, but the recollection was enough to create a warm feeling inside.

Jupiter first shows moderately high in the western sky about a half hour after sunset. It's all by itself with no equals in brightness.

You better catch Jupiter in the evening sky before it gets too low for easy viewing. By 7 o’clock in early February, it’s already dodging the treetops. If you’re out early, Jupiter’s still the biggest, brightest, easiest thing to see in the western sky.

The planet comes into view about a half hour after sunset. Four of its moons will be splayed out on either side of Jove tonight as seen in steadily-held binoculars. Three will lie to the west or below Jupiter (Io, Ganymede and Callisto) and one to the east or above (Europa).

Jupiter photographed on January 30. The North Equatorial Belt is a single, thick belt; the South Equatorial Belt consists of two parallel belts called the SEBn (north) and SEBs. South is up. Credit: Damian Peach

Telescope users can check out the fresh-faced South Equatorial Belt, which you’ll recall nearly disappeared around this time last year. In the months since, it’s evolved into two parallel belts. Even smaller telescopes should show them. Be sure to use a magnification of around 60x and higher.

The Great Red Spot, seen in the photo at left, interrupts the SEBs. It’s still pale pink and requires careful observation to discern using a 4-inch and larger telescopes. The Spot’s windy wake causes the belt to dip northward for about 24,000 miles before resuming its linear flow.