All five naked-eye planets add a touch of warmth to February’s frigid nights, while the year’s brightest constellations help take the chill out of a mid-evening walk.
The planets at a glance
As February begins, Mercury sets in the west about an hour-and-a-half after the Sun, affording sky-watchers a good opportunity to spot the furtive planet. Novices, and seasoned observers alike, will want to benefit from this occasion: It’s always gratifying to find Mercury nestled in the dying glow of twilight. Binoculars are not essential, but they certainly facilitate the hunt. On February 1, a thin lunar sliver, scarcely two days old, will appear 10 degrees above Mercury. Better not wait though! After the 5th, Mercury plunges rapidly toward the Sun (inferior conjunction is on the 15th) and heads toward a less favourable apparition in the dawn sky at month’s end.
Venus gleams among the stars of Sagittarius, above the eastern horizon at dawn. The dazzling planet climbs higher in the sky as it gains distance from the Sun: At the start of the month it appears two hours before sunrise, but toward month’s end that gap increases to almost two-and-a-half hours. Named after the Roman god of love and beauty, Venus is suitably present throughout the Saint Valentine’s Day period, and early risers are sure to admire this celestial gem on their way to work. On the mornings of February 25 and 26, a thin lunar crescent will rest next to Venus, creating a dramatic vista in the dawn sky.
Mars rises before midnight and becomes a noteworthy fixture in the night sky this month. The Red Planet shines near Spica, the bright blue star in Virgo, creating a colourful contrast. In fact, Mars’ brightness increases substantially throughout the month, as it heads toward opposition early in April. A waning gibbous Moon will appear just below Mars and Spica on the evening of February 19.
Jupiter is well up in the east at sunset and dominates the night sky. The giant planet shines at the heart of Gemini, moving in retrograde (east to west) among the stars until March 6. Early evening is prime time for observing Jupiter’s cloud bands and Galilean satellites — if you dare to brave the cold, that is. A waxing gibbous Moon will appear below the giant planet on the evenings of February 10 and 11.
Last but not least, Saturn rises well after midnight and occupies the latter half of the night. The ringed planet shines with a creamy white colour and is situated roughly midway between Mars (upper right) and the red giant star Antares (lower left), both of which have a ruddy orange hue. The north face of Saturn’s rings is currently tilted toward Earth at a 23 degree angle, providing a dramatic sight in small telescopes. A waning gibbous Moon appears to the right of Saturn on February 21, and to the planet’s left on the 22nd.
And now, for the constellations…
This month Orion, the hunter, takes centre stage. The constellation’s seven bright stars form the shape of an hourglass that is easy to find: Look for them early in the evening, halfway between the southern horizon and zenith. Three evenly spaced hot, young blue stars at the centre of the hourglass form Orion’s belt.
In contrast, the star in Orion’s left shoulder is visibly orange. It’s the famous red supergiant, Betelgeuse. Betelgeuse is near the end of its life and has a relatively cool surface temperature, which accounts for its colour.
Orion’s belt points to some other interesting winter stars. Following the slant of the belt to the lower left, you’ll spot Sirius, the Dog Star in Canis Major. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky: In fact, only Jupiter, Venus, the Moon and the Sun shine brighter.
If you follow the slant of Orion’s belt to the upper right, you’ll find a V-shaped cluster of relatively young stars, known as the Hyades (the head of Taurus the bull). However, the brightest star in the “V”, the red giant Aldebaran, is not really part of the Hyades cluster: It’s located roughly midway between Earth and the other stars of the “V”.
Following Orion’s belt past the Hyades, will lead to a tiny, dipper-shaped, cluster of hot young blue stars, called the Pleiades. Five or six stars are visible to the naked eye, but binoculars reveal close to thirty: In fact the cluster contains hundreds. In Japan, the Pleiades is known as “Subaru,” which accounts for the logo on the popular cars of the same name.
Learning to identify the brighter stars and constellations is a rewarding experience for the entire family, and is certainly worth the few minutes it takes. It’s a way of connecting with the night sky and making it your own. Have fun observing, and remember to keep warm…