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Hare and Dove at Orion’s feet. Plus see Mercury

Lepus the Hare and Columba the Dove are two small, faint constellations near the easy-to-find constellation Orion the Hunter.

Tonight for February 2, 2014

One of the easiest to find constellations in the sky at this time of year is recognizable for a short, straight row of three medium-bright stars. These stars represent the Belt of Orion the Hunter. As seen from latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, you’ll find Orion in the south around 7 to 8 p.m. As seen from the Southern Hemisphere, Orion is more overhead. Also, notice the star Sirius nearby.

See Mercury in the sunset direction on the evening of February 2.

You’ll have no trouble spotting the constellation Orion the Hunter and the bright star Sirius tonight – or even on bright moonlit nights. But to see the Lepus the Hare and Columba the Dove, you need a moderately dark sky with little to no moonlight.

On old sky maps, the mighty Hunter of the ancient myths is seen poised with an upraised club and shield, as though fending off the raging Bull, Taurus. Lepus and Columba seem to cower at the Hunter’s feet.

Lepus the Hare was described by Roman stargazers as being “swift,” “light-footed,” and “eared.” Columba the Dove can be found to the south of the Hare. This little constellation is sometimes ignored in Northern Hemisphere books about the sky, probably because it is so far south as seen from the U.S. Richard Hinckley Allen, in his classic book Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, wrote that Columba was first seen in constellation drawings in 1603. But, he said, there are hints in early writings that stargazers knew the name Columba, and identified a Dove here, as long as 17 centuries ago.

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You'll have to catch the planet Mercury beneath the moon at dusk and/or nightfall, but you'll have all evening to view the Hare and Dove below Orion.

In early February 2014, the bow of the waxing crescent moon is pointing toward Mercury after sunset. Look for Mercury in the sunset direction, as soon as the sky darkens.

See Mercury in the sunset direction on the evening of February 2. Tonight – Sunday, February 2 – the slender waxing crescent moon lights the early evening hours. Around 60 to 90 minutes after sundown, use the moon to find the planet Mercury.

On February 2, the bow of the moon points to Mercury’s place near the horizon at dusk and/or nightfall.

Bottom line: Lepus the Hare and Columba the Dove are two faint constellations near the easy-to-find constellation Orion. The waxing crescent moon is not far from the planet Mercury – in the sunset direction, shortly after the sun goes down – on the evening of February 2.