For those who have never seen the solar system’s inner most planet, Mercury, this is a good month to do so.
Though Mercury starts the month low above the WSW horizon, it climbs higher in the twilight sky during the first two weeks of February, reaching its highest point in the evening sky on Feb. 11. Start looking about a half hour after sunset. It will be the brightest object in this part of the sky, shining at -1.0 magnitude. Mercury will be lost from sight by month’s end.
Bright Mercury serves as a guide to locating Mars this month. Mars is making its final evening appearance of 2013 this month. It, too, sits low above the WSW horizon during twilight, about a half hour after sunset. On Feb. 11, look for Mars sitting below Mercury, with a thin, crescent moon sitting to the upper right of the planets. You may need binoculars to spot Mars, as Mercury will outshine its celestial cousin by a factor of 8X. Mars will become a morning twilight object later this spring.
Jupiter is the dominant planet in the night sky this month. It shines at -2.5 magnitude about two thirds of the way up above the south horizon as darkness falls. On the evening of Feb. 17, the last quarter moon sits to the west (right) of Jupiter. The next evening, Feb. 18, the moon will have slipped to the east (left) of Jupiter. The Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster lies to the upper right. Though Jupiter fades slightly, to magnitude -2.3, this month, it is still a spectacular object to view with binoculars or a scope.
Saturn rises in the east about two hours before Jupiter sets in the west. By the middle of the month, Saturn rises just before midnight. This beautiful ringed planet reaches its highest elevation (best viewing) in the south sky just as morning twilight begins. It shines at 0.5 magnitude, the brightest object in that part of the sky. Saturn’s magnificent ring system is tilted favourably (more than 19 degrees, its maximum for the year) towards Earth this month.
Comet PanSTARRS is en route for its anticipated brilliant sweep across the evening sky during March and April. It is currently shining at 8.0 magnitude but is expected to brighten considerably (as much as 3.0 magnitude) when it makes its closest approach to the sun and Earth around March 10. Since PanSTARRS is making its first visit to our solar system, it is hard to predict exactly what it will do and just how bright it will get. However, all indications at present hold for a naked-eye comet with a long, bright tail to grace the skies throughout March and April. Let’s hope the predictions come true. I’ll have more about PanSTARRS in my March column. Google Comet PanSTARRS for the latest updates.
February’s full moon was referred to by the native peoples of the north and east as the snow moon, due to the heavy snows that often come during this month. It was sometimes also known as the hunger moon, since the heavy snows often made hunting for food very difficult.
Kudos to Stan Sandler, who caught an error in my January column. I mistakenly wrote that Sirius was in the constellation of Orion, when I had meant to write that it was in the constellation of Canis Major — the Big Dog to the left of Orion. My apologies. It’s good to know that people are actually reading my column. Thanks Stan!
Until next month, clear skies and good hunting.
- Feb. 7 - Moon at perigee (closest to Earth); 363,197 kms.; 8:14 a.m.;
- Feb. 10 - New moon; 3:20 a.m.;
- Feb. 17 - First quarter moon; 4:31 p.m.;
- Feb. 19 - Moon at apogee (farthest from Earth); 402,123 kms.; 2:29 a.m.;
- Feb. 25 - Full moon; 4:26 p.m.
Glenn K. Roberts is a member of the Charlottetown Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC). His column appears in The Guardian once a month. He welcomes comments from readers. Anyone who would like to comment on his column is encouraged to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.