Fabulous February skies
February stargazing is fantastic for many reasons. Sure, it’s not as comfortable for stargazers living with the winter cold, but the extra special celestial jewels make it so worth it! If you’re not already in the darker countryside, try to get out there. But even with light-polluted skies, I know you’ll still like what you see. Also, because 2020 is a leap year we get a bonus night of February stargazing on the 29th!
Early in the evening, look at the Marshall southern sky. I know you’ll be wowed. You’ll see an eyeful of bright stars and constellations, what I call “Orion and his gang.” The majestic constellation Orion the Hunter is standing more or less upright. Its visual calling card is his belt, made up of three bright stars lined up perfectly. Below his belt are three fainter stars in a row that make up the hunter’s sword. You can’t help but notice that the star in the middle seems fuzzy. That’s because it’s not a star, but a massive cloud of hydrogen gas that’s being lit up like a fluorescent light because of the energy of new stars forming within it. Click on the Orion nebula in the Sky Guide app to find out more. It’s a great telescope target!
Several bright constellations surround Orion. There’s Taurus the Bull with the bright Pleiades cluster. There’s also Gemini the Twins, Auriga the Charioteer, Lepus the Rabbit, and Orion’s hunting dogs Canis Major and Minor. Canis Major is the home of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.
In the northeastern sky, the Big Dipper is standing on its handle. The Big Dipper makes up the rear end and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear. There’s also Cassiopeia the Queen hanging high in the northwest heavens in the early evening. Both of these constellations and others are close to Polaris, the North Star, shining directly above the Earth’s north pole.
In the eastern sky, there’s a sign of spring. Look for a backward question mark leaning to the left that outlines the chest and head of the constellation Leo the Lion. The great celestial lion will eventually chase off Orion and the rest of his gang and lead in the springtime stars.
In the low southwestern evening sky is Venus, shining much brighter than any of the stars. It’s so bright it can cast a shadow in a dark location on moonless evenings. Venus is so brilliant because it’s close to Earth this month, within 100 million miles, and also because of its very reflective cloud cover, bouncing a lot of sunlight our way.
In early February Venus gets some company. Look for a moderately bright “star” in the very low southwestern sky close to the horizon during evening twilight. That’s Mercury, the closest planet to the sun. Since it’s so close to the sun it never gets all that far away from the sun in the sky, making it elusive for stargazers. On Feb. 10, Mercury will reach a position called greatest eastern elongation. On that night, it’ll be at its highest point above the horizon after sunset, a little to the lower right of Venus.
Neither Venus nor Mercury are good telescope targets because of Venus’s total cloud cover and Mercury’s proximity to the horizon. One thing you can see with both planets is that they go through phases just like our moon. That’s because their orbits around the sun are within Earth’s orbit. This month both worlds appear more or less as half-moons.
Speaking of moons, Earth’s moon starts February in the first quarter phase. On Feb. 9 it’ll be a full moon, which is lovely in many ways but it does rough up stargazing, out all but the moderate to bright stars. So, for all practical purposes, evening stargazing will be better in the latter half of February with bright moonlight out of the evening sky.
The full moon this month is considered a “Supermoon.” Honestly, though, it’s not all that super in my opinion. Since the moon’s orbit around the Earth is elliptical, the moon has its closest and farthest distances to Earth every month. During a Supermoon the full moon is closer than average to Earth and will appear a little larger and brighter in the sky. At the most the moon will only be about 7 percent larger than an average full moon, and about 15 percent brighter. Supermoons indeed have some bragging rights, but I think they’re overplayed a bit.
What is going to be genuinely super is the conjunction of the new crescent moon and the bright planet Venus in the southwest evening sky on Feb. 27. In case it’s cloudy that night, check them out on the 26th or 28th. The moon won’t be quite as close to Venus, but it will still be well worth a look.
There’s so much to see at both ends of the night in February! Enjoy the tremendous celestial theater!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is also the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and at adventurepublications.