The stars at night The sky as it will appear appear in mid-February at 10pm

There is a hint of a new season in the night sky this month, with the appearance of Leo, the most prominent constellation of spring, in the east. It will move to centre-stage high in the south during March and April.

Another return graces the skies this February. Until May, we'll be hearing in greater detail about Comet Hale-Bopp, an unexpected celestial apparition which may be the most spectacular comet for almost a century.

This ball of ice and rock is brightening as it closes in on the Sun, boiling off its ices ever more fiercely. Look to the east in the pre- dawn skies for a first sighting, but don't worry too much if you're not an early riser - the best is yet to come. The comet will be brightest in late March and early April.

This month, early-evening skies are dominated by the brilliant stars of winter. Look south for mighty Orion, with seven bright stars framing his shoulders and belt. To the upper right is his ancient adversary, Taurus the bull.

The evening sky is also sporting two planets. Saturn is glowing in the south west after sunset. It sets at 8.30pm; simultaneously, orange-red Mars is rising in the east. Two American probes - Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Pathfinder - are on their way to the red planet for a rendezvous in the summer and early autumn. Designed long before last summer's Martian life controversy, they will be seeking out water on the planet.

Saturn, meantime, is the target of a much more drawn-out space mission. The US probe Cassini will be launched in October on a journey to the vast ring world which will take seven years. The main Cassini craft will release the European Space Agency's Huygens craft, which will land on Titan, the planet's biggest moon. This mysterious world is wreathed in a thick orange atmosphere, under which may lurk molecules that could form life in warmer conditions.

February diary

7 3.06pm new moon

14 8.57am Moon at first quarter

22 10.27am full moon

Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest

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