September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

California Skies for February and March 2012

Posted: Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

by Robert Victor

These are great months for viewing bright planets in the early evening! Students will enjoy following brilliant Venus and Jupiter through their closest pairing on March 13, and viewing four planets simultaneously in late February and early March. During Feb. 22-Mar. 7, the moon forms attractive early evening groupings with four of the five bright planets and three of the five bright zodiacal stars. After returning to the early evening sky on Mar. 23, the moon sweeps past four bright planets during Mar. 25-Apr. 6.

Evening planets: At dusk in February-March, Venus, the brilliant “evening star”, is well up in WSW to W, higher and farther north as weeks pass. Moving east 1.2° to 1.0° per day against background stars, Venus aligns with the east side of Great Square of Pegasus on Feb. 12, and will pass very close to the Pleiades cluster on April 2-3.    

Venus brightens from mag. –4.1 to –4.5 during February-March, enough to spot in daylight.  Daytime sightings are easiest just before sunset, when Venus is to upper left or above the setting sun, by 40° on Feb. 1, widening slowly to 46° at greatest elongation on Mar. 26. Telescopes show Venus’ phases, nearly 3/4 full and 1/4 arcminute across at the start of February, to just half full and 0.4 arcminute across near the end of March. Watch for striking changes in this planet’s telescopic appearance during April and May, as it swings closer to Earth and grows to nearly one arcminute (1/60 of a degree) across. The thinning crescent can be resolved even with binoculars, if observed in daylight or soon after sunset. In Palm Springs Unified School District, we are planning to have students observe Venus through a telescope repeatedly during the ten weeks leading up to its transit across the sun’s disk on June 5.

Jupiter is next brightest “star” at dusk, to the upper left of Venus in Feb. and early March, and below Venus in late March. Near mag. –2.2 in late Feb., Jupiter is about one-sixth as bright as Venus, but presents a full disk 0.6 arcminute in diameter, twice as large as Venus appears then. At midtwilight, Jupiter is high in SSW on Feb. 1, and just a quarter of the way up to overhead in W at end of March.

 

Watch the waxing crescent moon climb past Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter Feb. 22-26. Follow links to the February 2012 Sky Calendar at www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/FebCalMap12.pdf, and to the PowerPoint slide show illustrating events through August 2012 at ww.pa.msu.edu/abrams/celest12.html, and to two sets of illustrations, a color set for February-March, and a black-and-white set for January through August. Also, watch Venus close in on Jupiter until their spectacular pairing just 3° apart on March 13: Venus-Jupiter are separated by 40° on Feb. 1, and one degree closer daily, to 12° apart on Feb. 29. Ve-Ju stay within 5° of each other during March 9-17.

Mars rises north of east just over 3 hours after sunset on Feb. 1, to just minutes after sunset on Feb. 29. The red planet nearly doubles in brightness that month, from mag. –0.5 to –1.2, outshining all stars except Sirius. On Feb. 1, Venus and Mars are less than 1° above opposite horizons about 3.2 hours after sunset (from lat. 40° N). With each passing day, Venus sets 2 minutes later, and Mars rises about 5 to 6 minutes earlier. By February’s second week it should be easy to spot Venus-Jupiter-Mars simultaneously.

Mercury during late Feb. and early Mar. appears 33° to 27° lower right of Venus. It is then possible to see four planets Me-Ve-Ju-Ma simultaneously. On Feb. 22 Mars rises just before Mercury sets, and after that date, spotting four planets at once becomes easier with each passing day.

Saturn in February rises in ESE 3 to 4 hours after Mars. For most of March and April, it will be possible to see another selection of four planets simultaneously, in order Ve-Ju- (or Ju-Ve- after Mar. 13) Ma-Sa. On March 2 Saturn will rise just before Venus sets, and as Saturn rises earlier and Venus sets later daily, it will become easier each day.

 

Around Feb. 19, “Spaceship Earth” is moving toward head of Scorpius in morning sky and away from the Pleiades star cluster in evening sky. Regulus appears at opposition, 180° from sun. As you observe planets in evening, visualize effects of differences in their orbital speeds in following weeks: Speedy Mercury on Feb. 19 has just emerged into visibility from far side of the sun, and will reach greatest elongation on March 4, and inferior conjunction (passing nearly between Earth and sun) on March 21. Venus, hidden on far side of sun in mid-August 2011, will reach greatest elongation 46° from sun on March 26, and inferior conjunction ten weeks later as it transits sun’s disk on June 5. Earth is leaving Jupiter behind, so the giant planet will sink into bright twilight in late April and reach conjunction on the far side of sun on May 13. In February 2012, Mars and Saturn rise after sunset. But Earth will overtake them, causing them to rise very near the time of sunset on their respective dates of opposition (and greatest brilliance), Mars on March 3, and Saturn on April 15.

In a series of beautiful conjunctions visible at dusk, the waxing crescent moon passes Mercury on Feb. 22, Venus on Feb. 25, Jupiter on Feb. 26, and the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster on Feb. 28. On Feb. 29, the first quarter moon, half full and 90° from the sun, passes the Hyades star cluster and Aldebaran, eye of Taurus the Bull. On March 3, the waxing gibbous moon passes widely south of Pollux and Castor, the Gemini Twins, and on March 6, the moon is a few degrees south of Regulus, heart of Leo the Lion. Finally on March 7, the full moon is widely south of Mars.

Four nights later, on March 11, those willing to stay up until four hours after sunset will see the waning gibbous moon in a gathering with Saturn and Spica.

The moon returns to the early evening sky as a thin crescent low in the west on March 23. Mercury will be gone, but you can catch the waxing crescent moon near Jupiter on March 25, and near Venus on March 26. The waxing gibbous moon will appear near Mars and Regulus on April 3. Three days later on April 6, the moon, just past Full and rising in twilight, will be closely accompanied by Spica and Saturn.

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs.

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.

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