A pre-dawn planetary watch

Glenn K.
Glenn K. Roberts
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The line-up of planets should help you to locate Mercury. The four morning planets from east to west: Mercury, Venus, Saturn and Mars. The fifth morning planet, Jupiter, lies outside the sky chart, in the southwest sky.

Get out early in the cold February mornings to check out Mercury and Venus

As they were throughout the latter part of January, the five naked-eye planets - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter - can still be found just before dawn, stretching in a diagonal line from the eastern horizon to the western horizon (to the right).

In a clear pre-dawn sky, these five planets can be easily spotted.

Though you won’t be able to gather all five into a single astrophoto, there is an opportunity to capture Mercury and Venus, along with the crescent moon, into a single photo.

On the morning of Feb. 6, weather permitting, the waning, crescent moon slides past the planets Mercury and Venus shortly before dawn. Look low on the eastern horizon for the crescent moon, with Mercury a small “star” just below it, and Venus (very bright and much larger than Mercury) to the upper right of Mercury. The three objects form a triangle shape that will fit readily into a camera’s viewfinder.

Mercury will have reached its greatest elongation of 26 degrees west of the sun (remember, east and west are reversed when looking at celestial objects relative to these directions on Earth). Venus (mag. -3.9) rises two hours before the sun, followed by Mercury (mag. 0.0) approximately 20 minutes later. Their closest visual approach to one another will be on the mornings of Feb. 12 and 13, when they will be only 4 degrees apart. By month’s end, Mercury will be hard to see in the glow of the rising sun, though Venus will still be visible in the twilight preceding sunrise.

Respecting the other three naked-eye plants, Jupiter (mag. -2.4) will be the furthest of the five to the right (east in space, west on Earth). Having risen in the east around 9 p.m. the previous evening (on Feb.1, and a half hour earlier each subsequent week), Jupiter sits high in the western sky at dawn.

Mars (mag. 0.8) rises around 1 a.m. as February begins. The red planet actually brightens this month from mag. 0.8 to 0.3, and grows in apparent diameter. By dawn, Mars sits about 30 degrees high in the southern sky.

Saturn (mag. 0.5) rises about 3:30 a.m. as the month opens, and about two hours earlier by month’s end. Its magnificent rings are tilted 26 degrees to our line of sight.

Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) passes near the North Celestial Pole in early February and is visible all night long. Catalina begins February only a few degrees from Polaris (our current north star), but, as the month progresses, moves southward (upwards) through the little-known constellation of Camelopardalis - the Camel. Shining at mag. 6, the comet should be readily visible in scopes and in binoculars under a dark sky away from city lights.

This month’s full moon on Feb. 22 was often referred to by early settlers as the snow moon due to the heavy snows that often arrive in this month and sometimes as the hunger moon, due to the fact that it was often at this time of the year that last autumn’s provisions began to run dangerously low.

Until next month, clear skies.

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. Please note that beginning this month, he will be moving to the first Wednesday of the month. He welcomes comments from readers. Anyone who would like to comment on his column is encouraged to email him at glennkroberts@gmail.com.

Events (AST):

Feb. 6 - Venus, Mercury and Moon form triangle in pre-dawn sky.

Feb. 8 - New moon; 10:39 a.m.

Feb. 10 - Moon at perigee (closest to Earth); 10:41 p.m.

Feb. 15 - First quarter moon; 3:46 a.m.

Feb. 22 - Full moon; 2:20 p.m.

Feb. 26 - Moon at apogee (furthest from Earth); 11:28 a.m.

Organizations: Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Charlottetown Centre

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