Mercury will spend the month of February observable in the southeastern sky before sunrise. That will be the best morning apparition of the year for Southern Hemisphere observers, but a mediocre one for northerly observers, where the planet will be positioned near a very tilted ecliptic. On the mornings surrounding February 16, magnitude 0.0 Mercury will reach its greatest angle of 26 degrees west of the Sun, and peak visibility. The optimal viewing time at mid-northern latitudes on that date will start around 6:30 a.m. local time. Much brighter Venus and somewhat fainter Mars will be positioned well to the upper right of the speedy planet all month long. Viewed in a telescope during February, Mercury’s illuminated phase will wax from 21-per-cent to 59-per-cent-illuminated, and its apparent disk diameter will almost halve from 9.3 to 5.9 arc-seconds. The old crescent Moon will pass seven degrees to the southwest of Mercury on February 28. Fainter Saturn will be approaching Mercury from the east during the closing days of the month.
After rising at around 4 a.m. local time, Venus will gleam in the southeastern pre-dawn sky throughout February, all the while travelling eastward through the stars of northern Sagittarius, with 300-times fainter Mars shining to its lower right (celestial south). Viewed in a telescope during February, Venus will exhibit an illuminated phase that swells from 16-per-cent to 38-per-cent, while its apparent disk diameter shrinks from 48.9 to 31.8 arcseconds. When Venus reaches its greatest illuminated extent on February 12, it will shine at a brilliant magnitude –4.9. After starting the month nine degrees apart, Venus and Mars will reach conjunction on February 12, separated by 6.5 degrees. After that, they’ll travel eastward together on parallel, gradually converging tracks. On February 27, the old crescent Moon will form a neat line with bright Venus at the top and Mars in the centre, making a terrific photo opportunity when composed with some interesting landscape.
During February, Mars will rise at around 5 a.m. local time. It will remain observable in the southeastern pre-dawn sky while it slowly increases its angle from the Sun on its year-long journey to opposition in late December. The Red Planet will be travelling eastward with 300-times brighter Venus positioned to its north. After starting the month nine degrees apart, Venus and Mars will reach conjunction on February 12, separated by 6.5 degrees. After that, they’ll travel eastward together through northern Sagittarius on parallel, gradually converging tracks. During February Mars will brighten slightly from an initial magnitude 1.4. In a telescope, its 95-per-cent-illuminated disk will grow in size by 10 per cent. Mars will spend early February in the eastern reaches of the Milky Way. For several mornings centred on February 1, the Red Planet will shine only a finger’s width above (or 1 degree to the celestial north of) the globular star cluster Messier 28. On February 5, Mars will skim the northern outskirts of the Great Sagittarius Cluster (Messier 22). On February 11, Mars will pass closely to the south of the small globular cluster designated NGC 6717. On February 27, the old crescent Moon will form a neat line with bright Venus at the top and Mars in the centre, making a terrific photo opportunity when composed with some interesting landscape.
As February begins, Jupiter will be visible as a bright magnitude -2.0 dot shining above the west-southwestern horizon after sunset. With each passing day, it will become harder to see as it sinks deeper into the twilight, until it becomes lost from view after mid-month. On February 2, the very thin crescent of the young Moon will shine several finger widths to the lower left (or 4.6 degrees to the celestial south-southwest) of Jupiter.
Saturn will reach conjunction with the Sun on February 4. It will appear very low in the twilit southeastern pre-dawn sky — approaching brighter Mercury from the east — on the last few mornings of February.
Magnitude 5.8 Uranus will be observable in binoculars and telescopes during early evening in February. Its small, blue-green dot will be moving slowly retrograde westwards in southern Aries, 10.7 degrees southeast of that constellation’s brightest stars, Hamal and Sheratan, and only 5.3 degrees from the medium-bright star Mu Ceti to its south-southeast. The planet will be best viewed right after dusk, when it will still be about halfway up the southwestern sky. On February 7, the nearly half-illuminated Moon will pass only 1.8 degrees to the right (celestial northwest) of the Moon. Several hours earlier, around 19:39 GMT, observers in the southern Atlantic Ocean near Queen Maud Land can see the Moon occult Uranus — the first of 15 consecutive monthly lunar occultations of the seventh planet.
After dusk during early February, the distant, blue planet Neptune will sit in the lower part of the southwestern evening sky, about 14 degrees above (celestial east of) Jupiter — but too low for easy observing. The magnitude 7.9 planet will be traveling very slowly eastward among the stars of northeastern Aquarius. On February 3, the young crescent Moon will shine four degrees to Neptune’s lower left (celestial southwest). Before month’s end, Neptune will, like Jupiter, disappear into the post-sunset twilight.
Chris Vaughan is a science writer, geophysicist, astronomer, planetary scientist and an “outreach RASCal.” He writes Astronomy Skylights, and you can follow him on Twitter at @astrogeoguy. He can also bring his Digital Starlab portable inflatable planetarium to your school or other daytime or evening event. Contact him through AstroGeo.ca to tour the Universe together.