With winter still in full swing, February brings with it a promise of light.
At the start of the month, we’ll see the Sun set after 5 p.m. in Montreal, a first since November 5. By month’s end, we’ll have gained an additional 1 hour and 20 minutes of daylight, split between the morning and evening.
Accompanying the return of increasingly later sunsets is flashy Venus, which makes a grand entrance and resumes its role as the Evening Star to the delight of all. Having recently overtaken Saturn in January, Venus continues to drift away from the Sun towards an encounter with Jupiter in early March. Midway along its journey, Venus crosses the distant and faint Neptune: This will be a good time to spot the faraway ice giant through a telescope. Try observing it right after it gets dark on the evening of February 14 and 15. At around 6:45 p.m. on February 14, point your instrument towards brilliant Venus and shift your gaze ½ a degree above to the “11 o’clock” position: The small bluish dot you see shining at magnitude +8 is Neptune. The next evening, the two planets will have switched positions.
Venus sidles up to Jupiter
Jupiter majestically sits on the border of the constellations Pisces and Cetus, in line with and below the right side of the Great Square of Pegasus, but quickly loses altitude this month. Despite shining a mighty 39 degrees high at the end of civil twilight on February 1, the giant planet hangs a mere 22 degrees above the horizon, very close to Venus, on the last evening of the month.
The gradual convergence of the two dazzling planets will capture our attention as of February 21, when a whisker-thin crescent Moon also peeks out above the western horizon after sunset. To help you locate the lunar crescent in the twilight glow, note that Venus sits roughly halfway along a beautiful alignment between Jupiter (above) and the Moon (below).
The next day, February 22, the Moon will have glided to only 1 degree from Jupiter and its own natural satellites. A magnificent sight through binoculars.
One day later, on February 23, we’ll be treated to a lovely alignment of three celestial bodies, only this time around with a more assertive crescent Moon looming over Jupiter and Venus, now hanging a mere 6 degrees from each other. The Moon then heads eastward over the next few days, leaving the stage wide open for the two brilliant planets that continue to draw closer to one another: On the evening of March 1, Venus and Jupiter will be in conjunction, separated by only ½ a degree.
Even though it’s receding from Earth and its brightness has waned significantly since last December, Mars remains well positioned at nightfall, very high in the south among the bright stars of the winter constellations. If you don’t recognize the Taurus and Orion constellations, keep in mind that the Red Planet’s brightness will closely resemble the two bright reddish stars in this same region of sky: Aldebaran and Betelgeuse. If in doubt, remember that our atmosphere causes stars to twinkle more than planets, and that Mars is the highest of the three red celestial bodies due south in the evening.
On the evening of February 27, and until they set around 1:30 a.m., the waxing gibbous Moon and the Red Planet move within ⅓ a degree of each other. But skywatchers will likely be more focused on the encounter between Mars and a much rarer visitor this month.
A hairy visitor
Discovered last year from the Palomar Observatory while still as far from the Sun as Jupiter, the long-period comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will be sailing through our skies this February. After coming to within 1.1 astronomical units (~165 million km) of the Sun on January 12, 2023, the comet will pass between the Earth and Mars on February 10 and 11. This means it will be in our line of sight to Mars, less than 1½ degrees from the Red Planet. We hope the comet doesn’t fade too quickly in magnitude and that the rate of sublimation of its ice remains high enough to allow observers to catch a glimpse of the scene. The brightness of comets is difficult to predict, but we believe it may just break the naked-eye visibility threshold (in a sky free of light pollution) around February 1, when it will be at its closest to Earth (0.28 AU or ~42 million km). You can be sure avid sky gazers will keep a close eye on it!
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