February Skies

February Skies

What’s happening in the February 2021 skies?

I love February as it is the start of the Milky Way season when the Southern Cross rises earlier each night which also means that the Milky Way becomes more and more visible! So, start to check it out on the New Moon evening of the 12th.           

The Moon this Month

(All times are in Australian Eastern Daylight Time)

  • Last quarter Moon:      04:38am February 5th
  • New Moon:                    06:06am February 12th
  • First Quarter:                 05:48am February 20th
  • Full Moon:                      07:18pm February 27th

On the 4th at 5am AEDT the Moon will be at perigee – the closest it comes to Earth – being a mere 370,116 km away from us. While on the 18th it will be at its furthest point or apogee when it will be 404,467km away.

On February 8, 9 and 10, 2021, look for the slender crescent moon in your eastern sky. Then – if you are up for a big challenge – use the moon to try finding the three morning planets: Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. Venus rises about 55 minutes before the Sun so you don’t have to get up too early – say around 5:15-5:30

On the 11th Venus will be close to Jupiter and the very thin Crescent Moon low in the morning twilight. Nice photo opportunity if you are up to the challenge.

On February 8 and 9, the illuminated side of the waning crescent moon points toward line-up of planets. Seek for Venus, the brightest planet, and then for Saturn above Venus and Jupiter below Venus. The trick is to know when Venus will be climbing above your horizon.

Venus is the most brilliant planet of these three planets being the 3rd-brightest celestial body in all the heavens, after the Sun and Moon, respectively. Venus shines some 6 times brighter than the largest planet Jupiter, and 65 times brighter than Saturn. That makes Jupiter nearly 11 times brighter than Saturn. Although the ringed planet is the faintest of the three, Saturn is still very bright being the same brightness as a 1st-magnitude star.

Planets in February

Mercury will return to the morning sky after its inferior conjunction on the 8th. It will be hard to see as it will be rising only 25 minutes before sunrise by the 14th when it will be north of Jupiter in the early morning. You can see Jupiter, Venus and Mercury forming  a triangle with Saturn above but you may well need binoculars to see Mercury. By the 20th it will be much easier to find between Jupiter and Saturn in the early morning sky. Mercury will continue to get higher and brighter so that on the 28th it is is two hand-spans above the eastern horizon an hour before sunrise and in a line with Jupiter and Saturn.

Venus is rising less than an hour prior to the Sun and is becoming more difficult to see this month. It will have a number of encounters with Jupiter and Saturn during the month but you will require a low clear eastern horizon to see them clearly. Binoculars make it a lot easier to see planets in the twilight. From mid-month it will be lost to view as it will be in the glare of the Sun until it returns to the evening sky in mid-May. Be very careful using binoculars when looking at the planets after twilight due to their close proximity to the Sun – do not try if the Sun has or is in the process of rising.

Mars is still moving further away from us and is getting smaller in the sky but that doesn’t mean it is not important this month – it is still easy to find in evening north western sky in Aries for most of the month. It will then move into Taurus. On the 15th you will find Mars is just under four hand-spans above the north-western horizon an hour and a half after sunset. Then on the evening of the 19th the first Quarter Moon will be near to Mars. A nice photo opportunity will be on the 28th when Mars is just over three hand-spans above the north-western horizon an hour and a half after sunset and is within a binocular field of the beautiful Pleiades cluster.

NASA-Perseverance-Rover-artist-impression

There will be excitement and breath holding at NASA on February 18th as the latest robotic rover named Perseverance to reach Mars will attempt to land. It is planned to land near the Jezero Crater, where an ancient river deposited a fan of sediment billions of years ago, when Mars had running water on its surface. This is a rough surface, and perhaps the most hazard landing site attempted yet.  There are also two other missions on their way to Mars – the Chinese have Tianwen-1 orbiter due to arrive at Mars between the 11th and 25th with a lander due to land in April; and United Arab Emirates Space Agency uncrewed Mars space exploration mission known as the Hope will enter orbit around the Red Planet this month as well.

Jupiter returns to the morning sky this month becoming visible in the dawn twilight. On the 11th have a go if you have a good eastern horizon to find Jupiter, Venus, and the very thin crescent Moon. Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mercury all appear to be in the constellation of Capricornus from the 18th to 23rd. It will be much easier to see by mid-month. By the 15th Jupiter is just over a hand-span above the north-western horizon half an hour before sunrise. However, by the 28th is nearly two hand-spans above the eastern horizon an hour before sunrise and forms a line with Mercury and Saturn.

Saturn also returns to the morning sky this month. Like Jupiter it will become easier to see after mid-month. Saturn is above Jupiter in the sky. By February 15, you will find Saturn around two hand-spans above the eastern horizon half an hour before sunrise. By the 28th it will be about three hand-spans above the eastern horizon an hour before sunrise.

Uranus is in Aries and is visible very low in the early western evening sky this month. It remains in Aries now until 2024 when it will move into Taurus. Although a nearby bright moon does Uranus no favours, its monthly visits can help to show you where the distant planet is located. In the western sky on February 17th  the 33%-illuminated crescent moon will shine several finger widths to the West of the seventh planet. See the Sky View for the night of the 17th to be able to find in binoculars.

Neptune is lost in the evening twilight as it is nearing conjunction with the Sun early next month.

Meteor Showers

Alpha Centaurids one of the major Southern Hemisphere meteor showersis visible from January 31st to February 28th.

The meteor showers originates from dust grains ejected from an unknown comet. These small dust grains (meteoroids) are distributed along the parent comet’s orbit concentrated close to the comet nucleus with fewer grains farther away from the nucleus.

The peak occurs overnight 7/8 February and although this shower does produce a lot of meteors – it often has some nice bright fireballs. The predicted rate is about 6 an hour but can reach up to 25. This year the maximum period falls close to the new Moon, so is favourable for dark-sky coverage increasingly later in the night.

Sky Views for February

Looking south on February 8th (image created by Stellarium)
Night sky facing north on February 9th (image created in Stellarium)
Planets in early morning sky on February 14th looking east (image created in Stellarium)
Looking north west on the night of February 17th around 9pm AEDT – Moon, Uranus and Mars (image created in Stellarium)
The morning sky around 6am on February 20th when Mercury is at its highest (image created in Stellarium)

Object of the Month – Pleiades         

At about 8:30 pm AEDT on mid-February evenings, the Pleiades open star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters is positioned midway up in the Northern sky. The rest of its home constellation Taurus, the Bull sits to the East of the cluster.

How to find Pleiades (image credit: Wikihow)

Visually, the cluster is composed of medium-bright, hot blue stars named Asterope, Merope, Electra, Maia, Taygeta, Celaeno, and Alcyone. In Greek mythology, those characters were the daughters of Atlas, and half-sisters of the Hyades. They are indeed related — recently born of the same primordial gas cloud. To the naked eye, only six of the sister stars are usually apparent; their parents Atlas and Pleione are huddled together at the east end of the grouping. Through binoculars many more stars are visible and through a telescope over a hundred stars may be seen.

Many cultures, including the Australian Indigenous people have stories and interpretations of this lovely star cluster. It was significant that the ‘Dance of the Pleiades’ was performed by Pitjantjatjara Aboriginal women from the Central Desert at the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in September 2000. However, when you are out camping in the bush in Australia, you can know that the Pleiades women have visited your camp overnight when you wake up with an extremely cold nose and the canvas of your tent or swag covered in white icy crystals. The Pleiades women first appear in the southern hemisphere in the early hours of the morning and they flamboyantly sweep across the sky excreting frost.

In Japan, it is called Subaru, and forms the logo of that particular brand of car.

Due to its similar shape, the Pleiades are sometimes confused with the Little Dipper. 

Until next month
Donna (aka the Astronomer)

Donna the Astronomer

I am a keen astronomer lucky enough to live and work in Coonabarabran the Astronomy Capital of Australia! I am a ‘Drover’s Brat’ and discoverer of a couple of comets and asteroids. I operate Milroy Observatory and can show you how to best integrate dark sky experiences into your tourism, farm stay or AirBnB business.

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