Astronomers get excited any time a potential naked-eye comet arrives in the vicinity of Earth.
Right now, Comet Lulin is attracting attention and generating some excitement.
Having been at perihelion (closest to the sun) Jan. 14, it will make its closest approach to Earth on Feb. 24. It'll be about 38 million miles away, and isn't expected to stand out in the night sky; but it could achieve magnitude 5 and be visible from a dark-sky site as a faint, fuzzy object.
What's particularly interesting about Lulin is its movement is opposite that of planets, so its apparent velocity is quite high. During February, Lulin moves from Libra through Virgo and into Leo. Lulin will pass near Saturn on the evening of Feb. 23 and near the bright star Regulus on Feb. 27. If you get a chance to watch it though a telescope, you might actually be able to detect its motion against the background of stars in real time.
Check popular astronomy Web sites, such as skyandtelescope.com and astronomy.com, for sky charts and best viewing times.
Saturn rises about 8:30 p.m. in early February and two hours earlier by month's end. Its ring, now nearly edge-on as seen from Earth, is hard to spot. The planet's disk seems more prominent as a result. Shining at magnitude 0.6, Saturn is noticeably brighter than Regulus (magnitude 1.3), the brightest star in Leo.
Ceres, the largest of the "dwarf planets," is also hanging out in Leo. It makes its closest approach to Earth on Feb. 25. It'll be 147 million miles away, but that's as close as it's been since 1857. You'll need a telescope to view the asteroid. It's not very bright (magnitude 6.5).
Saturn is no match for Venus, the brightest object in the night sky (except for our moon). Now it's at its brightest, magnitude minus 4.6. In the constellation Pisces, Venus sets about four hours after the sun early in February. By month's end, it sets about an hour and a half after the sun.
The other naked-eye planets, Mercury, Mars and Jupiter, are rather elusive in morning's twilight. Look for the trio near the eastern horizon about a half hour before sunrise during the last week of February. Jupiter will be the brightest. You'll need binoculars or a scope to see Mars.
The neighborhood beyond the solar system is larger than we thought. Radio astronomers recently refined our knowledge of the Milky Way. The researchers reported that our galaxy is perhaps 50 percent more massive than previously believed. It is now thought to be practically a twin of the Andromeda galaxy. Unfortunately, because we are inside the Milky Way with no way to size it up from afar, we have only guesses of its actual size and shape.
As of this writing, the space shuttle Discovery is scheduled for launch at 5:32 MST on Feb. 12. The 14-day STS-119 mission will deliver and install the last set of solar panels for the International Space Station. The arrays will generate 66 kilowatts of electricity, according to NASA, enough to power 30 large homes. The additional electricity will support the plan to expand the station's crew from three to six and allow for elaborate scientific experiments.
The large arrays will make the station even more visible from the ground. While the shuttle is docked, visible passes can be very bright. Check the NASA Web site (www.nasa. gov) or www.heavens-above.com to find local viewing opportunities.
Lewis McCool gazes at stars through a 10-inch Dobsonian from his Dolores home.