Beautiful Venus is the first to appear, as soon as the sky begins to darken after sunset. At twilight, the Evening Star dominates the southwest horizon, and its dazzling brilliance immediately captures our attention. On February 1, thirty minutes after sunset, Venus is 28 degrees above the horizon. But the planet continues to separate from the Sun and climbs increasingly higher in the sky: On February 29, thirty minutes after sunset, the planet is 35 degrees up. As a result, Venus also sets progressively later: three-and-a-half hours after sunset at the beginning of the month, and nearly four hours after at month’s end. The crescent Moon will be just 3 degrees to the right of Venus on February 25: The sight of a thin lunar sliver and its bordering glow of earthshine, with diamond-like Venus nearby, set against the deepening blue sky, will be simply magical! It’s an event you shouldn’t miss, best viewed with the naked eye or binoculars…
Somewhat higher and to the left of Venus, there’s another planet that’s slightly less brilliant: Jupiter! Contrary to Venus, Jupiter is currently approaching the Sun and sets progressively earlier. At the beginning of February, the two planets are forty degrees apart, but over the course of the month, they approach one another and the gap between them closes. By month’s end they are 12 degrees apart. Will they collide? By March 13, Venus and Jupiter are scarcely 3 degrees from each other — quite a spectacular conjunction! In any case, rest assured that this apparent proximity is an illusion: Jupiter is way in the background — seven times farther than Venus. The lunar crescent will be just 4 degrees to the right of Jupiter on February 26.
Around mid-evening, as Venus, the resplendent Evening Star, approaches the western horizon, turn your back to it and look toward the east. You will notice a third, particularly bright, orange-coloured object above the horizon: It’s Mars, the famous Red Planet! Mars is just a few days from its opposition on March 3, which explains its current brightness: During opposition, a planet’s distance from Earth is reduced to a minimum. On the night of February 9 to 10, the waning gibbous Moon will be about ten degrees south of Mars.
If you stand with Mars to your left and Venus to your right, you’ll be facing south. A number of bright stars present themselves, but one of them will capture your attention because it outshines all the rest. Sirius, the brightest star in Canis Major, the Great Dog, blazes with an intense blue-white colour, but if the atmosphere is somewhat unsteady, it will appear to twinkle like a kaleidoscope.
The Winter Hexagon
Sirius occupies the bottommost angle of the Winter Hexagon, which culminates at 8 P.M. around this time of year. This immense geometric figure occupies the entire sky facing south, from horizon to zenith. In fact, the constellation of Canis Major, where Sirius boldly shines, practically rests on the horizon, while at the hexagon’s summit, the bright star Capella, in Auriga the Charioteer, passes directly overhead.
In the eastern part of the hexagon (to the left), and quite high in the sky, we find the two brightest stars in Gemini — the twins, Pollux and Castor. Somewhat lower, the brilliant star, Procyon, shines in the constellation of Canis Minor.
Aldebaran and Rigel are the two stars that form the western side of the hexagon. Aldebaran, with its remarkable orange tint, represents the fiery eye of Taurus. The head of this celestial bovine is outlined by a V-shaped group of stars, the Hyades, that includes Aldebaran. In the classical depiction of the constellations, Taurus charges toward Orion, the Hunter, where Rigel represents one of his knees.
Orion assumes the shape of a tall, vertical rectangle that evokes the hunter’s shoulders and knees. At the centre of the rectangle, three stars of similar brightness form a short, slanted line: This is the famous belt of Orion. Betelgeuse, another remarkable orange star, occupies Orion’s upper left corner and is nearly at the centre of the Winter Hexagon.
Two more planets
Saturn is visible above the eastern horizon after midnight and culminates in the south around 4:00 in the morning. The ringed plant currently forms a notable duo with Spica, the brightest star in Virgo. Both are about the same brightness, but Spica’s bluish tint (to the right) contrasts nicely with Saturn’s creamy yellow colour. The Moon will pass near Saturn and Spica during the night of February 11 to 12.
In closing, one should also note Mercury’s presence in the evening sky during the second half of February. You’ll find the tiny planet near the western horizon, half-an-hour after sunset. On the evening of February 22, a very thin lunar crescent will appear 5 degrees to the right of Mercury: Use binoculars to spot the two objects in the glow of twilight.