January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Celestial Highlights for February 2014

Posted: Monday, February 3rd, 2014

by Robert Victor and Robert D. Miller

February Skies: Jupiter and the Dog Star dominate the dusk. Brightening Mars gleams from late evening until dawn, when Venus takes the reigns.

February 2014 at dusk:

The two brightest “stars” at dusk in February are steady yellowish Jupiter, high in east, and blue-white vigorously twinkling Sirius, the Dog Star, in the southeast. The only other evening planet is Mercury, very low south of west, but it fades to first magnitude by Feb. 7 and very sharply thereafter, on its way to conjunction with the Sun at mid-month. The waxing gibbous Moon, four days before Full, appears near Jupiter on the evening of Feb. 10.

Surrounding Jupiter is the huge Winter Hexagon of Sirius-Procyon-Pollux-Capella-Aldebaran-Rigel. The noticeably red star Betelgeuse is also within the Hexagon. Find the 3-star belt of Orion, the Hunter, midway between his shoulder, Betelgeuse, and his foot, bluish Rigel. The belt extended southeastward locates Sirius. Extend the belt in the opposite direction, bending north a bit, and you’ll find Aldebaran, eye of Taurus, the Bull. Go farther to find the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, a wonderful sight for binoculars! Rising in the eastern sky, Regulus, heart of Leo, is at opposition to the Sun on Feb. 18, and chases the Winter Hexagon across the sky.

February 2014 at dawn:

This month, Venus attains the peak brilliance of its current morning apparition, which began in mid-January and continues until September. Telescopes and even binoculars reveal Venus as a crescent, backlit by the Sun. Find Venus before sunrise, keep track of it, and you’ll have a daytime sighting! It’ll be especially easy on Feb. 25 and 26, when the crescent Moon appears nearby.

For most of February, in morning twilight, you can observe three planets: Venus in SE, Saturn in S, and Mars in SW. In the last days of Feb., there are four planets once Mercury emerges from its Feb. 15 solar conjunction on near side of Sun into the ESE twilight glow. Backlighted Mercury is faint at first, 2nd mag. on Feb. 23, brightening to first mag. by Feb. 27 and continuing to brighten in March. Look for these bright stars, also within the zodiacal belt: Antares, heart of Scorpius, to upper right of Venus and lower left of Saturn; Spica near Mars; and Regulus, heart of Leo, in W, far to lower right of Mars and Spica. In latter half of February, the waning Moon in the morning sky will pass all of them, in order, west to east: Regulus, Spica, Mars, Saturn, Antares, Venus, and Mercury. (See diagrams from Sky Calendar.)

Other bright stars at dawn are Arcturus, high above Mars and Spica in the SW sky; and the Summer Triangle of Vega-Altair-Deneb climbing in the eastern sky. Brightest objects visible at morning mid-twilight at start of Feb., in order of brilliance, are Venus, Arcturus, Vega, and Mars. The red planet nearly doubles in brightness from mag. +0.2 to –0.5 and clearly outshines the zero-mag. stars Arcturus and Vega after mid-Feb.

On Feb. 11 the revolution of Spaceship Earth around the Sun is carrying us toward Saturn. A week later on Feb. 18, Earth passes between Sun and Regulus, and that star appears at opposition, 180° from the Sun. On Feb. 28, Earth is heading toward a point near Antares in the predawn sky (and away from a point near Aldebaran in the evening sky). On April 8, Mars will take its turn at opposition as our planet passes between that planet and the Sun. On May 10, Saturn will appear at opposition, and within three weeks later, on May 30-31, Antares will be at opposition and be above the horizon nearly all night.

Sky events in February and early March 2014 and beyond

Don’t miss the chance to provide your students with impressive telescopic views of Venus, while it still appears in crescent phase. Venus will appear half full, but smaller in size, when it is near greatest elongation, 47° from Sun, in late March. Venus switched from the evening into the morning sky during the second week of January, as it passed inferior conjunction, nearly between Earth and Sun. Venus is bright enough to observe in daytime morning hours while you’re at school. The planet appears brightest in mid-February, when telescopes and even binoculars reveal it as a crescent, about one-fourth illuminated.

The three bright outer planets all glide from dawn to dusk visibility during the early months of 2014, as the Earth overtakes them. During the transition, the planet appears at opposition, about 180° from the Sun, and is visible all night: Low in eastern sky at dusk, high in the southern sky in the middle of the night, and low in the western sky at dawn. This year, the dates of opposition of the bright outer planets are: Jupiter on Jan. 5, Mars on Apr. 8, and Saturn on May 10.

Don’t miss the total lunar eclipse on the night of Monday-Tuesday, April 14-15.

Mercury will have its best evening apparition of this year during May.

Following is a sample of the visually most striking sky events during February and early March 2014. Diagrams of these events appear on the Sky Calendar, published by Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. For more information about the calendar, point your web browser to www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/skycalendar/

Before the end of April, a complete Sky Calendar for May 2014, along with a star map of the evening sky, will be available at the same website. May 2014 will be a great month for sky watchers, because the three bright outer planets as well as the innermost planet, Mercury, will all be visible at dusk. There is a good chance of a very strong meteor shower, possibly even a meteor storm, in the predawn hours of Saturday, May 24, during the Memorial holiday weekend.

For free, simplified monthly sky maps following the first-magnitude stars and the naked-eye planets at morning and evening twilight accompanied by descriptive notes, and for many other charts and activities for students, go to www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/msta/

Check that site now and then for additional postings.

For illustrations of the following events, refer to diagrams in this article, and to the February and March 2014 issues of Sky Calendar.

Feb. 6-8, one hour after sunset: Watch Moon pass Aldebaran, Hyades, Pleiades.

Feb. 10 & 11, one hour after sunset: Watch Moon pass Jupiter, Pollux, Castor.

Feb. 19 & 20, one hour before sunrise: Watch Moon pass Mars, Spica.

Feb. 21-23, one hour before sunrise: Watch Moon pass Saturn and Antares.

Feb. 25-27, 45 min. before sunrise: Watch Moon pass Venus and approach Mercury.

Feb. 28, 30 min. before sunrise: Watch for very thin Moon rising to lower left of Mercury. Binoculars help. If you spot the Moon, note the time and calculate how much time remains until New Moon at the start of March 1 at 12:00 a.m. PST.

Mar. 1, one hour before sunrise: Find Mars and Spica in SW. Mars passed near Spica on Feb. 3. Watch Mars retrograde past Spica in coming weeks, and pass it a third time in July. The event is an example of a triple conjunction.

Mar. 1, about 25 min. after sunset: Using binoculars, try to see a very thin, young crescent Moon, very low, just south of due west. If you spot it, note the time, and calculate the Moon’s age, or time elapsed since New Moon, which occurred at 12:00 a.m. PST earlier today.

Mar. 3, one hour before sunrise: Saturn begins retrograde to upper right of Antares and to east (left) of Alpha in Libra. Watch Saturn move 7° west (closer to Alpha Librae) from now until mid-July, when Saturn ends retrograde.

Mar. 4, about 45 min. before sunrise: Mercury 20° lower left of Venus.

Wishing you and your students clear skies!

Robert D. Miller, who provided the twilight 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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