CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. – Mercury, the solar system's inner most and smallest planet, is in superior conjunction (passes behind the sun as seen from Earth) this month, officially transitioning from the morning sky to the evening sky around Feb. 17. It will reappear in late February, but will still be too close to the setting sun to be readily visible. It will, however, be quite visible in March, when it makes its best evening apparition of the year for us here in the Northern Hemisphere.
Venus, though nominally our "evening star” this month, is too close to the glare of the setting suns in February and, as such, difficult to see. As with Mercury, Venus will be more readily visible in mid-March, when it will be visible in close proximity with its diminutive sibling in the west after sunset.
This year is anticipated to be a great year for viewing Mars. Look for this infamous planet to rise in the east several hours before the first tinge of morning twilight begins to colour the eastern horizon. Mars will shine at mag. +1.0 by mid-month, outshone only by Jupiter, with which it shares the eastern, pre-dawn sky this month.
Mars is heading towards its opposition (opposite in the night sky from Earth as seen from the sun) and its best apparition since 2003. By April, Mars will shine approximately 3 times brighter than it does this month.
On the morning of Feb. 8, look for Mars to the lower left of the waning, crescent moon, with Jupiter to the right of the moon. Just below Mars, see if you can spot another reddish celestial object - Antares, the brightest star in the constellation of Scorpius - the Scorpion. Antares means "rival of Mars", due to its reddish hue. If dust storms do not dull the brightness of Mars in the coming months, the Red Planet should greatly outshine its celestial rival.
As February opens, Mars sits near the border of the constellations of Libra - the Scales and Scorpius - the Scorpion, moving into Ophiuchus - the Serpent Bearer later in the month.
As Venus is lost in the glow of the setting sun this month, mighty Jupiter reigns as the brightest planet in the sky in February. Jupiter, having risen in the east around 1 a.m. in the early part of the month (around midnight by month’s end), shares the ESE sky with Mars and Saturn during the predawn dawn hours. Jupiter shines at a brilliant mag. -2.0 mag this month, some 16 times brighter than Mars.
Saturn rises around 5 a.m. in early February and closer to 3 a.m. by the end of the month. It sits low to the horizon for the better part of the month, so it is not easily viewed due to atmospheric distortion and the brightening twilight. Saturn sits in the constellation of Capricorn - the Sea Goat throughout February.
On the moonless nights of February (as well as March and April), look to the west, just after darkness has fallen, to view one of the most challenging celestial phenomena to see with the naked eye - the Zodiacal Light. The Zodiacal Light will appear as a hazy, pyramid-shaped glow of light extending upwards from where the sun set below the horizon. Unless you are under a dark sky, away from city lights, it can be difficult to spot. If you are having difficulty seeing the Zodiacal Light, try photographing it - a camera's light-gathering ability is much greater then the human eye, and what you may not be able to see with your naked eye may show up on your digital camera. The Zodiacal Light is sunlight reflecting off dust particles (from countless comets passing around the sun) in the inner part of the solar system that move in the same plane as Earth and the other planets. It is more readily viewed at this time of the year (and again in the autumn) because the ecliptic (the apparent path of the sun, moon and planets across the sky) is tilted edgewise almost vertically to the horizon, affording us a good look at the Zodiacal Light.
There were two full moons in January, with the full moon (Jan. 31) being labelled a Blue Moon. As a consequence, there is no full moon this month. March 2018 will, however, have two full moons (March 2 and 31). In next month's article, I will explain more about full moon cycles and Blue Moon cycles.
Until next month, clear skies.
Glenn K. Roberts lives in Stratford, P.E.I., and has been an avid amateur astronomer since he was a small child. His column appears in The Guardian on the first Wednesday of each month. He welcomes comments from readers, and anyone who would like to do so is encouraged to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.