Whatever the temperature in your part of the world, when the weather allows, head outside with a telescope or pair of binoculars because February is always a great month for stargazing. The bright and rich constellations Orion, Canis Major, Taurus, and Auriga dominate the northern sky this month, while southern observers see these same groups along with Puppis, Carina, and Vela, constellations which harbor some of the best sights the night sky has to offer. There are also five bright planets to see this month, a major lunar-planetary occultation, and a chance to glimpse the glow of the zodiacal light. Here’s what to see in the night sky this month…
1-29 February 2020. Look westward as dusk arrives and you can’t miss the planet Venus. Well above the horizon, and getter higher each day, the planet is spectacular this month and next. During February, Venus brightens from magnitude -4.1 to -4.3 and grows in size from 15” to about 19”. In a telescope, the disk of the planet is in a gibbous phase all month. This beautiful world sets more than 3.5 hours after the Sun, so you have plenty of time to take it in.
2 Feb. First Quarter Moon, 1:42 UT
9 Feb. Full Moon, 7:33 UT
10 Feb. Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation at 18.2o from the Sun. Just a couple of fist-widths above the western horizon about a half-hour after sunset, it’s far lower than Venus but still respectably bright at magnitude 0.0. In a telescope, the disk of Mercury is tiny, just 7” wide, and exactly half lit on this day.
15 Feb. Last Quarter Moon, 22:17 UT
18 Feb. A highlight of the workings of the night sky this month is the occultation of Mars by the waning crescent Moon in the eastern sky in the early-morning hours today. This event will be visible from much of North and Central America. Observers in the east will see the occultation take place after sunrise, but with a telescope the planet (magnitude +1.2) will be easily visible before the sky gets too bright. Further west, the planet will disappear behind the Moon in the twilight or in the near darkness before dawn, although the occultation will begin before moonrise in the western part of the continent. The planet will first hide behind the lit side of the Moon before reappearing from behind the darkened limb. Detailed timing of this event for hundreds of towns and cities is available at this link: http://www.lunar-occultations.com/iota/planets/0218mars.htm.
19 Feb. The day after its encounter with Mars, the slender crescent Moon appears about three finger-widths (or less) from Jupiter near the Teapot of the constellation Sagittarius in the southeastern sky before dawn. The planet Jupiter rises about 1.5 hours before the Sun at the beginning of the month and 2.5 hours before the Sun at the end. The planet slowly brightens to an impressive magnitude -2.0 and grows to an apparent diameter of 34”.
20 Feb. Another day, another planet as the Moon passes very close to Saturn in the southeastern sky before dawn. At magnitude +0.6, Saturn is plenty bright enough to stand out in the pre-dawn sky. It’s probably too low and small to give up much detail in a telescope, though the view will improve as the year progresses.
21-29 Feb. Look for the zodiacal light in the west well after sunset. Very dark sky is a must. This tall, faint pyramid of white light, which slopes to the left towards the Pleiades and Hyades, is simply sunlight scattered off fine dust particles in the plane of the solar system. It’s sometimes called the ‘false dawn’ or the ‘false morning’. See image below.
23 Feb. New Moon, 15:32 UT
27 Feb. The Moon has reappeared in the evening sky. Today its slender crescent lies just 5o from Venus in the west at dusk. The two slowly sink together towards the horizon as the evening progresses and finally set a few hours after the Sun.
29 Feb. As if northern winter isn’t long enough, here is an extra day for you! This “Leap Day” was inserted into the calendar every four years to settle accounts to ensure our calendar stays in sync with the solar year. Legend has it that in the 5th century, St. Brigid of Ireland made a deal with St. Patrick to allow women to propose marriage to men on a Leap Day, a traditional that held until the middle ages. The odds of a person’s birth (or death) on this day is 1 in 1,461. Amazingly, at least one person was born and died on different Leap Days. Sir James Milne Wilson, the premier of Tasmania, was born on Feb. 29, 1812 and died on Feb. 29, 1880.