March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Celestial Highlights, February Through Early March 2016

Posted: Sunday, February 7th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. 

For much of February, early risers can enjoy all five bright planets before dawn. The waning Moon sweeps past all five bright planets Jan. 27-Feb. 6, and in its next time around, past four planets Feb. 24-Mar. 7. Jupiter begins rising in evening twilight. 

On our evening and morning mid-twilight charts, showing the five naked-eye planets and the 16 stars of first magnitude or brighter visible from southern California, stars always shift from east to west (left to right) in the course of the month, as a consequence of the Earth’s revolution around the Sun.

February’s evening mid-twilight occurs about 40 minutes after sunset from southern California. Sirius is the brightest object plotted on our evening chart until very late in month, when Jupiter appears above the horizon just north of due east.

Sirius and Capella are the southern and northern vertices and brightest members of the huge Winter Hexagon, with a seventh star, Betelgeuse, inside. Regulus and Jupiter follow the Hexagon across the sky. But you needn’t wait until nearly month’s end to see them; just look later in the evening. By Feb. 18 Regulus is at opposition and visible all night — note it is shown on both charts — while Jupiter rises just after the end of twilight some 1½ hours after sunset. Jupiter will be at opposition on the night of March 7-8, as Earth passes between that planet and the Sun.

After Sirius, the next brightest star is Canopus. At the end of February, both stars climb to their highest points, due south, very soon after the end of evening twilight, Canopus doing so just 21 minutes before Sirius does. From Palm Springs, Canopus at its best stands just 3° above the horizon.

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During January 27-February 6, the Moon passes all the naked-eye planets in the morning sky. These events were described in this column for January. Our February morning twilight chart depicts the complete 5-planet panorama almost all month. Its two brightest members are Venus in SE to ESE, and Jupiter in WSW to W. On a line connecting them are reddish Mars in S, and Saturn in SSE. In all but the closing days we find Mercury very low in ESE; it is within 7° lower left of Venus in all of February, and within 5° of it during Feb. 6-21, both planets appearing lower each morning. The two innermost planets display their least separation, 4.0° apart, on Feb. 12-14. Since Mercury remains east (lower left) of Venus throughout this apparition, neither planet passes the other, and they have a quasi-conjunction, defined as an approach within 5° without a conjunction.

Not far off this lineup of planets, find three bright zodiacal stars: Reddish twinkling Antares, heart of Scorpius, to lower right of Saturn; and blue-white Spica in Virgo, between Jupiter and Mars. Extend the line of planets westward beyond Jupiter to locate Regulus, heart of Leo, to Jupiter’s lower right. Other bright stars are high above the ecliptic (Earth’s orbit plane): Golden Arcturus, very high in southwestern sky; blue-white Vega, high in ENE. Completing the Summer Triangle with Vega are Altair to its lower right and Deneb to its lower left.

February’s thinnest old crescent Moons, on mornings of Feb. 6 and 7, were described in the January issue. New Moon, invisible near the Sun, occurs on Feb. 8 at 6:39 a.m. PST.

During Feb. 9-22, track the waxing Moon in the evening sky, within an hour after sunset. The first crescent, only 3 percent full, will be seen very low, 10°-15° south of west in evening twilight on Tues. Feb. 9, some 36 hours after New Moon for observers in California. The Moon reaches First Quarter, half full, on Sunday evening, Feb. 14. An occultation of Aldebaran, eye of Taurus, will take place on the next night. Find that bright star a few degrees east of the Moon at dusk on Mon. Feb. 15, and watch the Moon narrow the gap until the star disappears behind the Moon’s dark side a few minutes after 1:00 a.m. PST Feb. 16, not long before they set.

The waxing gibbous Moon will leapfrog over a line joining Pollux and Procyon a few nights later, between the evenings of Feb. 18 and 19. Passing Full, the Moon will skip past Regulus, heart of Leo, the Lion, in the eastern evening sky, from Feb. 21 to 22. The Moon rises some 40 minutes before sunset on the 21st, and just a quarter-hour after sunset on the 22nd. On the 23rd, the Moon still rises in twilight some 70 minutes after sunset, a few degrees to the lower right of bright Jupiter. Over the next week, the Moon rises 50-55 minutes later each night, and soon can no longer be viewed at a convenient early evening hour.

Follow the Moon Feb. 22-Mar. 7 by shifting your viewing time back into morning twilight, about one hour before sunrise. On Feb. 22, catch Regulus just 3° north (upper right) of the Full Moon in the western sky an hour before sunrise.

On Feb. 24, look for bright Jupiter about 5° lower right of the waning gibbous Moon. On Feb. 26, catch Spica 6° to Moon’s lower left. On morning of Feb. 27, six solar system bodies span 150° across the sky. In order from W to ESE, locate Jupiter, Moon, Mars, Saturn, Venus, and possibly Mercury, just over 6° lower left of Venus. Binoculars can give you last views of the innermost planet before it slips into bright twilight on its way toward the far side of the Sun.

On morning of Feb. 29, Mars is just 4° lower left of the Moon. On morning of March 1, the Moon is approaching Last Quarter phase and appears just over half full. Look for Mars 9° to its lower right; Saturn 9° to Moon’s lower left; and Antares 9° below the Moon and nearly 9° lower right of Saturn.

On March 2, find Saturn within 5° lower right of a fat crescent Moon. On March 3, the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, appear 150° apart. Do you recall seeing them just over one degree apart in the eastern morning sky last Oct. 25 and 26? The next pairing of these bright planets will be very close, and very low in the western evening twilight on Aug. 27, 2016.

On the morning of March 6, look in ESE to find Venus 10°-11° to the lower left of the crescent Moon. Your last view of the old Moon during this cycle will come on Sunday, March 7. The very slender crescent, just 3 percent full and about 1½ days before New, will appear 4° to the left of Venus. New Moon, invisible, occurs on March 8th at 5:54 p.m. PST.

The next lunar cycle begins on the evening of March 9, when at mid-twilight the thin, young 1 percent crescent will be very low, just south of due west, at an age of 24-25 hours after New Moon.

Visualize the following events, using the modeling activity following this article.

On the morning of March 6, Spaceship Earth is carrying us toward the planet Saturn. Following our curved path around the Sun, our faster-moving home planet will overtake that ringed planet on the night of June 2-3. On that night, Saturn will appear at opposition to the Sun and be visible all night. But before then, on the morning of Feb. 19 (night of Feb. 18-19), our planet passes between Sun and Regulus, and that star will appear at opposition, 180° from Sun. On morning of March 8 (night of March 7-8) Jupiter takes its turn at opposition and all-night visibility. On morning of April 13 (night of April 12-13) Spica appears at opposition, and on night of May 21-22, Mars will do so. Oppositions of all three bright outer planets in 2016 will occur within a 3-month interval, early March to early June! Follow Regulus, Jupiter, Spica, Mars, Antares, and Saturn sinking in the western morning sky until their oppositions and a little beyond. After opposition, each object can be conveniently viewed in the evening sky.

Notice on the morning chart that the outer planets, like stars, drift toward the western horizon as weeks pass. We will overtake Jupiter on night of March 7-8, Mars on night of May 21-22, and Saturn on night of June 2-3, causing these planets to appear at opposition. But Mercury and Venus in Feb. 2016 are heading toward the far side of the Sun (reaching superior conjunction on Mar. 23 and Jun. 6, respectively), and sink closer to the eastern horizon each morning. On what date will you last spot Mercury? Venus? On what date (in March) can you last see Venus and Jupiter just above opposite horizons? After Mercury and Venus pass superior conjunction, when and in what part of the sky will each planet next be seen?

Resources:

Illustrations of events mentioned above appear in Sky Calendar. For a sample issue and how to subscribe, visit www.abramsplanetarium.org/skycalendar/

An activity, Modeling seasonal visibility of stars and visibility of the planets, to help students investigate visibility of bright planets and first magnitude stars, is available at the CSTA website. As stars and planets come and go in morning and evening skies and display beautiful pairings and groupings, students can model these changes and explain their observations with the aid of items provided: Two planet orbit charts, Mercury through Mars and Mercury through Saturn; a table of data for plotting planets on orbit charts (.docx file); and a sheet with questions on star and planet visibility in 2015-2016 (.docx).

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.

Robert D. Miller, who provided the twilight charts and the planet orbit charts, did graduate work in Planetarium Science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy.

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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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