Vanguard 1, a tiny grapefruit-size satellite weighing only 3.2 pounds and the first that was solar-powered, was launched into Earth’s orbit on March 17, 1958. The original purpose was to test the reliability of three-stage launch systems and today, at nearly 56-years-old, it has become the oldest manmade satellite still in orbit about the Earth.
Before radio contact was lost in May 1964, Vanguard 1 provided detailed information about the effect of the upper atmospheric environment on both the satellite and its instruments, which were essentially two radios and a temperature sensor. In an orbit that ranges from 406 to 2,466 miles above the Earth’s surface, Vanguard 1 is expected to orbit for nearly another two centuries. Vanguard 1 is now tracked optically as a derelict piece of space debris, however, the satellite has made news lately with talk about it being retrieved from orbit by modern robotic space vehicles and returned to Earth to be put on display in a museum.
Focus on the planets
Mercury lies in the west-southwest about 45 minutes after sunset on Feb. 1 with the thin crescent Moon directly above it. The lone star to the far lower left just above the horizon is Fomalhaut. It rapidly descends toward the horizon and will be lost to sight before midmonth until it reappears at dawn by month’s end.
Venus dominates the predawn southeastern horizon as the “morning star” but rises only a couple of hours before the sun. Check out the close pairing of the moon and Venus about a half hour before sunrise on Feb. 26.
Mars rises about an hour before midnight as February opens and around 9:30 p.m. by month’s end. The best time to view the Red Planet will be about an hour before dawn, when those with a good telescope may catch a glimpse of the northern polar ice cap due to a favorable tilt of Mars toward the Earth.
Jupiter is unmistakably situated better than halfway up the eastern horizon shortly after sunset. A reasonably powerful telescope will reveal the planet’s alternating bands of belts and zones while the continuous dance of its four major moons always provides an interesting sight.
Saturn rises in the south about an hour after midnight with the best viewing opportunities coming shortly before dawn. Saturn is situated low on the horizon, however, it is tilted sharply from edge-on to our line of sight, offering a spectacular view of the ring system. Its major moon Titan will appear as a bright dot to the south of the planet on Feb. 3 and north of it on Feb. 11.
Uranus is a blue-green disk just above the western horizon as darkness falls.
Neptune is lost to sight for the month of February.
1: 6:55 a.m.; sunset, 4:43 p.m. Mercury is low in the west-southwest with a thin crescent moon directly above about 45 minutes after sunset.
2: This is Candlemas or Groundhog Day, a cross-quarter day marking the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox.
6: Moon in first quarter, 2:21 p.m.
10: Brilliant Jupiter is to the upper left of the moon in the southeast an hour after sunset.
12: The moon is at apogee, or farthest distance from Earth, today.
14: Happy St. Valentine’s Day. Regulus, the brilliant star of Leo the Lion is to the left of the moon as darkness falls. Full Moon, 6:54 p.m. The full moon of February is known as the Snow Moon or Hunger Moon.
16: The sun enters Aquarius on the ecliptic.
18: The sun enters the astrological sign of Pisces, however, astronomically is still in Aquarius.
20: Look to the southwest an hour before sunrise to see the moon with ruddy Mars to its upper right and the bright star Spica of Virgo to the lower right.
21: Golden Saturn is located to the left of the moon at dawn.
22: Moon in last quarter, 12:16 p.m. Antares, the brightest star of Scorpio, is just to the lower left of the moon at dawn.
26: Venus is just to the upper right of the crescent moon looking to the southeast about a half hour before sunrise.
27: The moon is at perigee, or closest approach to Earth, today. Look for the thin crescent moon in the southeast about an hour before sunrise and note the presence of Mercury directly below as the innermost planet enters the morning sky.
28: Sunrise, 6:15 a.m.; sunset, 5:22 p.m.
Send astronomical queries to Clair Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.