February's Night Sky Sights
Richard J. Bartlett
There are five planets visible to the naked eye, but one of those, Saturn, is too close to the Sun to be visible this month. Of the others, three are currently visible in the evening sky.
The first, Venus, is an unmistakable sight in the twilight after sunset, and you’ll find it shining with a brilliant white light over the western horizon shortly after the Sun goes down. It starts the month in Aquarius at mag -3.9, but will brighten slightly to magnitude -4.0 around mid-month. It then moves into Pisces on the 16th. Telescopically, it will appear nearly full on the 1st, but should start to appear as a waning gibbous by the end of the month.
Keep your eye on Venus, as it’s quickly catching up to Jupiter, but not before it passes within two degrees of faint Neptune around the 14th. Unfortunately, the sky will most likely be too bright to see the solar system’s most distant planet, but that won’t be the case with Jupiter. Venus and Jupiter should appear within the same 10×50 binocular view around the 24th; the gap will then noticeably close each night until the pair are at their closest on March 2nd.
Look out for a slender crescent Moon directly below Venus on the 21st and then to the left of Jupiter the following night. Jupiter itself is always impressive through a telescope, but you’ll need to quickly observe it near the beginning of the month, while it’s still some 50 degrees from the Sun. By month’s end, it will only be about 30 degrees from the Sun, making it too low in the sky for serious telescopic observation.
Uranus can be found in Aries, but is far from the constellation’s brightest stars. If you have dark skies, you’ll be able to spot the planet just under six degrees from Mu Ceti, a magnitude 4 star that marks part of the whale’s tail. This should put the two within the same 10×50 binocular field of view for the entire month. Alternatively, it’ll be about the same distance from the slightly fainter Epsilon Arietis, with the planet appearing roughly midway between that star and Mu Ceti.
Having reached opposition early last December, Mars is now some way past its best. However, it’s still shining at a brilliant magnitude -0.3 at the start of the month, but will fade to magnitude 0.4 by the end. It’s still moving among the stars of Taurus the Bull, and starts the month a little to the northeast of the Hyades.
This is a good opportunity to compare its brightness and color to Aldebaran, the star that marks the red eye of the Bull. At magnitude 1.0, Aldebaran will be noticeably fainter than Mars on February 1st, but the two will be much closer in brightness one month later.
The waxing gibbous Moon will pass very close to the red planet on the 27th, but unfortunately, no occultation occurs this month.
Lastly, we come to Mercury. The closest planet to the Sun will be visible in the morning sky, shortly before sunrise, for the first half of the month. It reached greatest elongation from the Sun on January 30th, and is still in a good position to be seen in the predawn twilight. You should be able to spot it low in the southeast from about 30 minutes before sunrise at the start of the month, but it’ll become difficult by mid-month. If you want a challenge, look for a very thin crescent Moon at about 15 minutes before sunrise on the 18th; Mercury will be visible just a little to its east.
The Moon itself starts the month as a waxing gibbous in Taurus. It’ll pass Castor and Pollux in Gemini on the 3rd, before turning full in Cancer on the 5th. It will then cross into Leo and pass Regulus the next day. Last quarter occurs on the 13th in Libra and then the Moon turns new in Aquarius on the 20th. The Moon then returns to Taurus where it will reach first quarter on the 27th.
There are no eclipses this month, and no major meteor showers to speak of.
In terms of the stars, you’ll find the constellations of winter setting in the evening sky, but still well placed for observation. Take time to enjoy the two prominent star clusters in Taurus – the Pleiades and the Hyades – especially if you have binoculars. Messier 42, the Great Orion Nebula, is also a fine target just below the three stars of Orion’s belt.
If you have a telescope and you’re looking for a great double star, check out Castor, in the constellation of Gemini, the Twins. Almost any telescope and a magnification of around 100x will split this star into two brilliant white components.
Gemini is also home to Messier 35, a fine open star cluster that’s visible with binoculars close to the border with Taurus. You’ll find it just north of a curved line of three stars that mark the feet of the twin Pollux. This cluster appears large and somewhat sparse through 10×50 binoculars, and is an excellent target for almost any telescope at low power. Look out for a pale gold star with a blue companion beside it on the cluster’s northern edge.
A little further east we have Cancer, the Crab, and the wonderful Beehive Cluster. Cancer is the faintest constellation in the zodiac and difficult to see from suburban skies, but the Beehive can be seen with binoculars roughly midway between Castor in Gemini and Regulus in Leo, the Lion.
Leo itself is now rising in the east and has a fine double star of its own. Algieba is one of the stars in the backwards question-mark that forms the lion’s head. Through binoculars you’ll see two distinct stars, but a telescope at a magnification of around 100x or more will split the brighter star into two golden components.