May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Celestial Highlights for February 2015

Posted: Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

by Robert C. Victor and Robert D. Miller

Venus and Jupiter can now be viewed simultaneously each clear evening until about a month after their spectacular pairing on June 30. This month, consider an early evening sky watch for the gathering of Venus, Mars, and the crescent Moon on Friday, February 20. Hardy sky watchers may want to schedule a predawn session to view Saturn’s rings.

The two twilight charts plot locations of the five naked-eye planets and 16 stars of first magnitude or brighter in dusk and dawn skies.

February 2015 Evening Mid-Twilight

Two planets and a star far outshine all competitors at dusk.  They are: Venus of magnitude –4, low in WSW, shifting toward W and slowly gaining altitude as this month progresses; Jupiter of mag. –2.6, starting very low in ENE, moving into E and climbing about 1° higher each day if viewed at the same stage of twilight daily; and blue-white Sirius, the “Dog Star” and brightest of nighttime stars, twinkling at mag. –1.4 and ascending through SE toward SSE at dusk as February runs its course.

Follow these three bright objects at dusk in coming months. Sirius will disappear into the WSW twilight glow during May, while Venus and Jupiter remain in view until at least late in July. Over five months after these two brilliant planets first became visible simultaneously (just above opposite horizons, in late January), Venus and Jupiter will form a spectacular close pair on June 30, just 0.3° apart. A telescopic view of the planet pair that evening will be a memorable sight!

February’s other naked-eye evening planet is Mars, appearing as a red “star” of mag. +1.2 to +1.3, not far from Venus all this month. Look about 9° upper left of the brighter planet on Feb. 1, to 3° lower right on Feb. 28. Both planets move rapidly against background stars, and remain within 10° of each other for six weeks, Jan. 31-Mar. 14. They can be viewed together within a 5° binocular field for three weeks, Feb. 11 through Mar. 4.

Stars at dusk: Look for the huge Winter Hexagon of Sirius-Procyon-Pollux-Capella-Aldebaran-Rigel. The noticeably red star Betelgeuse is 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, Jupiter followed by the star Regulus, heart of Leo the Lion, pass opposition to the Sun on Feb. 6 and 18, respectively, pursuing the Winter Hexagon across the sky.

Moon at dusk in early February: On Feb. 1 at dusk, less than two days before Full, the Moon appears between Pollux, the brighter of the Gemini twins, and Procyon, the Lesser Dog star. (The Moon will return to the same place among the stars in just over 27 days, but at a lesser phase, on the final evening of this month.) On Feb. 3, the Moon, just past Full and rising a few minutes after sunset, appears 5°-6° south (right) of bright Jupiter. The Moon rises about an hour after sunset on Feb. 4, and nearly an hour later nightly for the next several evenings. Rather than staying up late to watch moonrise, shift your viewing time to morning, and follow the Moon in morning twilight, less than an hour before sunrise:

Moon in morning twilight:

Feb. 3: Nearly Full Moon, setting in W to WNW, 10° lower right of Jupiter.

Feb. 4: Moon just past Full, low, just N of W, 7° lower left of Jupiter.

Feb. 5: Moon low in W, 5°-6° lower left of Regulus.

Feb. 9: Waning gibbous Moon in SW, less than 4° upper right of Spica.

Feb. 12: Moon just past Last Quarter phase in south, a little less than half full, 5° upper right of Saturn.

Feb. 13: Waning crescent Moon in SSE, about 8° left of Saturn and 8°-9° upper left of Antares.

Feb. 16: Thin crescent Moon low in SE to ESE, 9° upper right of Mercury.

Feb. 17: Last old very thin crescent Moon very low in ESE, 6° lower left of Mercury.

[New Moon, invisible near the Sun, occurs on Feb. 18 at 3:47 p.m. PST.]

Moon returns to evening sky on Feb. 19. About 40 minutes after sunset, look for the young, thin crescent about 9° S of due west and 6° up, 13°-14° lower right of Venus. Moon’s age (time elapsed since New) will be just 26-27 hours.

Be sure to catch the spectacular gathering of the crescent Moon and two planets at dusk on Feb. 20, all within a 2° field. The 2-day-old Moon will be within 1.7° upper right of Venus, with Mars is between them, 0.7° upper right of Venus. Venus-Mars appear closest to each other the next evening, Feb. 21, as Venus passes 0.4° south of Mars. That same evening, the crescent Moon will appear 14°-15° above the pair; as darkness falls, binoculars will show another planet, 6th-magnitude Uranus, just 2° below and slightly right of the Moon.

On Feb. 24, the fat crescent Moon passes 8° S of the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters star cluster. By the next evening, the Moon will have passed First Quarter phase and appear just over half full, within 2° E of Aldebaran, eye of Taurus the Bull. As we look out the rear window of Spaceship Earth on Feb. 24-28, we are speeding away from the Hyades star cluster with Aldebaran in the foreground. On the night of Feb. 28, the waxing gibbous Moon will lie about midway between Pollux and Procyon. At dusk on March 2, the Moon will lie 5°-6° S of Jupiter, and on the next evening, some 6° upper right of Regulus. On March 4, the nearly Full Moon will appear 8°-9° below that star. On March 5, the Moon, just past Full, will rise just 3° north of east about a quarter-hour after sunset. Rising 4° farther south nightly, the waning gibbous Moon rises in twilight just over an hour after sunset of March 6, and about two hours after sunset on March 7.

February 2015 Morning Mid-Twilight

For most of February, in morning twilight, you can observe as many as three planets: Jupiter before it drops below horizon in WNW near end of third week, Saturn in S all month, and Mercury after it brightens to first magnitude early in second week. Look for these bright stars, also within the zodiacal belt, within a few degrees of the plane of Earth’s orbit: Antares, heart of Scorpius, to lower left of Saturn; Spica to right of Saturn; and Regulus, heart of Leo, in W, far to lower right Spica and upper left of Jupiter. During February 3-17, as listed above, the waning Moon in the morning sky will pass these three planets and three stars, in order from west to east: Jupiter, Regulus, Spica, Saturn, Antares, and Mercury.

Other bright stars at dawn are Arcturus, high above Spica in the SW sky; and the Summer Triangle of Vega-Altair-Deneb climbing in the eastern sky. Brightest objects at morning mid-twilight for most of Feb., in order of brilliance, are: Jupiter (until it drops below WNW horizon), Arcturus, and Vega. In the last week of February, Jupiter sets before middle of morning twilight, but Mercury becomes a close match in brightness to these two stars.

A View out the Front Window of Spaceship Earth!

Step outside on February mornings about an hour before sunrise and visualize the motion of our planet in orbit around the Sun. In what direction are we heading? The Sun is below the eastern horizon, below the brightest twilight glow. If you could go to a place high “above” the solar system, high in the northern sky toward the constellation Draco, and look “down”, you would observe that the revolutions of the eight planets around the Sun and the revolution of the Moon around the Earth would all be counterclockwise. On Feb. 6, Earth passes between Sun and Jupiter, and that planet appears at opposition, 180° from the Sun. Note the star Regulus 12° upper left of Jupiter that morning. Twelve days later, on Feb. 18, Earth passes between Sun and Regulus, and that star takes its turn at opposition. If you look each morning at the same stage of twilight, Jupiter and Regulus appear lower daily, as we overtake and then look back at them. On Feb. 23, the revolution of Spaceship Earth around the Sun is carrying us toward Saturn. By Feb. 28, Earth is heading toward a point 5° N of Antares in the predawn sky (and away from a point 5° N of Aldebaran in the evening sky). As we travel around our curving orbit and overtake Saturn on May 22, that planet will appear at opposition and be above the horizon all night, and on May 31, Antares will be at opposition.

Mercury, an inner planet moving faster than Earth, passed nearly between Earth and Sun, inferior conjunction, on Jan. 30, and then moved ahead of us to emerge into the morning sky in February (faint at first, while displaying a backlighted crescent). Mercury reaches greatest elongation on Feb. 24. Next heading toward the far side of the Sun, Mercury will drop below the horizon at morning mid-twilight by mid-March, and finally pass beyond the Sun at superior conjunction on April 9.

Wishing you and your students frequent clear skies to enjoy the ride!

For more information on sky events in 2015, see these articles and activities.

http://www.classroomscience.org/celestial-highlights-for-2015

(A selection of twilight sky charts for use during months of the best planet gatherings.)

http://www.classroomscience.org/getting-started-in-skywatching-for-school-year-2014-2015

(Scroll down to “Modeling seasonal visibility of stars and visibility of the planets.” Includes planet orbit charts, a data table for plotting planets, and an activity sheet with 15 questions on visibility of stars and planets in 2015-2016.)

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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