For those of you who have enjoyed my monthly strolls through the night sky and have missed our walks together, I am happy to say that I am back, refreshed and ready to go again. I am fine, I just needed a break and especially as the holiday season approached I just had to let some things slide and writing this article was one. Things are calmer now, so I am happy to be back!
Unfortunately, February is generally a poor month for taking strolls under the stars. Nevertheless, if the skies clear and you dress appropriately, there are some beautiful things to see in the sky this month.
Let's start with the planets. February will be an exciting month for those who enjoy watching the elusive Mercury. Mercury will be visible in the early evening sky all month. It will be most challenging as the month begins, setting soon after the sun; about 6:20 pm. Mercury quickly gains altitude and stays in the sky much longer over the next week or so.
On Feb. 6, Mercury comes within about 24 arc minutes of Neptune. Neptune will shine at a very faint 8th magnitude and will not be visible without a telescope. If you try to view them with a telescope, be very careful to let the sun set completely so you will not accidentally catch the sun in your scope, instant blindness could be the result! Mars will also be in the vicinity, about 2 degrees above and to the left of Mercury and Neptune. Mars is a lot brighter than Neptune, shining at magnitude 1.2 which is faint in the sunset sky, but should stand out with a pair of binoculars (Remember, never point binoculars at the sun either!). If you can catch them with a camera, please e-mail me a copy, I would love to see it!
This does not happen for every greatest elongation of a planet, but this month it is an added bonus for us! On the 16th the Sun will set at 5:51 and Mercury will set at 7:24 so a few days before or after will be the best times to catch a glimpse of tiny Mercury be sure to mark your calendar so you won't miss it if the weather is clear on one of those nights!
Mercury, Neptune and Mars are not the only wanderers in the evening sky, Jupiter is also shining brightly in the constellation Taurus this month.
In fact if you are not sure what Jupiter looks like, or exactly where Taurus is, if you happen to be out looking at Mercury around the 17th or 18th, the Moon can help. On the 17th the moon will be just to the west of bright Jupiter which will be the brightest star in the area by a lot!
On the next day, the 18th, the Moon will be almost exactly the same distance from Jupiter, but on the East side! Jupiter is visible all evening and sets after midnight. Near the end of the month, Jupiter will be at east quadrature which is sort of like elongation, except quadrature is for planets farther out from the Sun than Earth. Quadrature means Jupiter is 90 degrees from the Sun from our point of view on Earth.
What is special about Jupiter being at quadrature is that it makes it easier to see its moons pass in front and behind the planet which is fun to watch and photograph if you can attach your camera to a telescope.
Finally, Saturn begins to be visible in the evening sky this month, rising a little before midnight. Worth taking a look if you happen to be out that late especially around the middle of the month because those beautiful rings will be tipped about 19 degrees from straight on which means they will look spectacular even in a small telescope!