January 28, 2012

What's Up in February? The shortest month, but still so much to see

By BERNIE REIM

February used to be the last month of the year and the word is related to rites of purification, which are februa. We are in the middle of winter but it hasn't been consistently winter-like yet.

click image to enlarge

This chart represents the sky as it appears over Maine during February. The stars are shown as they appear at 9:30 p.m. early in the month, at 8:30 p.m. at midmonth and at 7:30 p.m. at month’s end. Mars, Jupiter and Venus are shown in their midmonth positions. To use the map, hold it vertically and turn it so that the direction you are facing is at the bottom.

Sky Chart Prepared by George Ayers

There will be several interesting highlights in February, and it may not even be as cold as usual. All five of the brightest planets will be visible in the evening sky at some point, a large near-earth asteroid makes its closest approach in 37 years, and Comet Garradd should reach its brightest in Hercules.

Notice that Venus and Jupiter will keep getting closer together at the rate of almost one degree per day all month long. They will start the month 40 degrees apart, and end up just 12 degrees apart. One fist at arm's length measures 10 degrees of the sky. They will keep getting closer in March. Brilliant Venus continues to get brighter in February and sets a little later after sunset each evening. Even though it is getting less illuminated, similar to a waning gibbous moon, it is getting closer to Earth and larger in the sky. Venus is about six times brighter than Jupiter now.

The king of the planets continues to fade a little as it gets farther away, but it is still fairly bright and it will already set by 10:30 p.m. by the end of the month. You should be able to see at least two of its four large Galilean moons with just a pair of binoculars. Astronomers recently found evidence of subsurface lakes just below the crust of Europa, Jupiter's third-largest moon. One of them has the volume of all of North America's Great Lakes. They are caused by tidally warm spots in Europa's crust, which hide a deep ocean with more water than all of the oceans on Earth combined.

Mars is starting to make a real impression in the eastern evening sky. It is already rising by 8:30 p.m. in Leo starting the month, and by the end of February it will be rising by 6 p.m., right after sunset. The red planet dramatically doubled in brightness last month and will double in brightness again in February. Look for it just to the left of a nearly full moon in Leo around 8 p.m. on Feb. 9. It will reach opposition in early March, but it will not be nearly as close as it was on Aug. 27, 2003, when it reached its closest to Earth in nearly 60,000 years. You should be able to start seeing some detail in average telescopes, like dark markings and possibly an ice cap on its surface in February.

Saturn now rises by 11:30 p.m. and by the end of February will rise two hours earlier. It continues to brighten and rise earlier each evening until its opposition in mid-April. Its rings are now open at 15 degrees, which is the best angle it's had for many years.

The fifth and smallest of the brightest planets, Mercury, makes a brief appearance in the evening sky toward the end of the month. Look for our first planet low in the western sky half an hour after sunset on Feb. 22, when it will be just a few degrees to the left of a slender waxing crescent moon. Then keep looking for the crescent moon during the next four evenings as it passes right by Venus on Feb. 25 and Jupiter on the evening of the 26th. As a bonus, the moon will even pass between the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters in Taurus again on the 28th, just before it becomes a first-quarter moon the next evening.

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