Mars, February 2023. (Chris Vaughan) | SkyNews
Mars, February 2023. (Chris Vaughan)

Planets at a Glance: February 2023

Keep an eye on the planets this month, as February promises some interesting views (weather pending).

What planetary events are coming up in the night sky? Read about Venus, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune and what’s going on in our Solar System in Planets at a Glance.

Mercury

Mercury, February 2023. (Chris Vaughan)  | SkyNews
Mercury, February 2023. (Chris Vaughan)

As February begins, Mercury will be visible just above the southeastern horizon before sunrise. The optimal viewing period at mid-northern latitudes will start around 6 a.m. in your local time zone. 

The speedy planet’s descent towards the Sun each morning will make it increasingly harder to see, especially after mid-month. Skywatchers located in the tropics and farther south will have their best views of Mercury for the year, including seeing the planet pass telescope-close to the globular star cluster Messier 75, on February 10-11. It will then shine as a magnitude -0.5 object several finger widths above (or 3.5 degrees to the celestial southwest of) fainter Saturn at the very end of the month. 

Viewed in a telescope during February, Mercury will display a gibbous phase that waxes to 92 per cent illuminated on February 28. Meanwhile, the planet’s apparent disk diameter will shrink from 6.5 to 5 arcseconds. Don’t aim optical aids towards Mercury unless the Sun is still completely below the horizon. The slim crescent of the old Moon will shine a palm’s width to Mercury’s right (or celestial southwest) on February 18. 

Venus

Venus, February 2023. (Chris Vaughan) | SkyNews
Venus, February 2023. (Chris Vaughan)

Venus will catch the eye in the western early evening sky throughout February. The brilliant magnitude -3.9 planet will climb higher as it increases its angle east of the Sun from 24.5 degrees to 30.5 degrees, allowing it to shine in a dark sky well beyond sunset at month’s end. 

Under magnification during February, Venus will exhibit a waning, 90 per cent illuminated disk that grows in size from 11.1 to 12.2 arcseconds over four weeks. Venus will begin February positioned just 11 degrees northeast of much fainter Saturn in Aquarius. The cloud-shrouded planet’s rapid easterly motion will carry it less than one arcminute to the south of Neptune on February 15 — but only observers in southeast Asia can see them that close together. 

In the Americas, Venus will “jump” over Neptune, allowing you to use the bright planet to find Neptune in binoculars on two nights. On February 14, Neptune’s tiny blue speck will sit 0.6 degrees above Venus (or celestial east-northeast). On the following night, Neptune will appear the same distance below Venus. In a telescope, Neptune will be extremely difficult to see next to 54,000 times brighter Venus. 

Venus will spend the balance of February catching up to Jupiter in Pisces. On February 28, Jupiter will shine less than a thumb’s width to Venus’ upper left (or 1.3 degrees to the celestial east). The very young crescent Moon will form a line below Venus and Jupiter on February 21, making a lovely photo opportunity. On February 22, the Moon will jump to sit close to Jupiter, but observers in Eastern Asia will see the Moon and Venus very close together. 

Mars

Mars, February 2023. (Chris Vaughan) | SkyNews
Mars, February 2023. (Chris Vaughan)

Mars will spend February moving eastward through the stars of northern Taurus, making its bright reddish dot easy to see during the evening. It will already be high in the southeastern sky after dusk and will set during the wee hours. Earth’s increasing distance from Mars during February will cause the red planet to fade in brightness from magnitude -0.24 to 0.42, bringing it ever closer in appearance to the nearby stars Aldebaran and Betelgeuse. 

In a telescope, Mars will display a waning, nearly full disk that will shrink in apparent size from 11 to 8 arcseconds. Although fading in brightness, Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will pass within 1.5 degrees to the east of Mars on February 10-11, allowing them to share the view in a backyard telescope. 

On the evenings around February 23, Mars will shine a thumb’s width to the upper right (or 1.5 degrees to the celestial north) of the open star cluster named NGC 1746. One day after first quarter, the Moon will shine just to the lower right (or celestial west) of Mars on February 27. Skywatchers located in Iceland north of Reykjavik and the Faroe Islands can see the Moon occult Mars around 05:00 GMT. 

Jupiter

Jupiter, February 2023. (Chris Vaughan) | SkyNews
Jupiter, February 2023. (Chris Vaughan)

Bright Jupiter will occupy the western sky in early evening during February, but its daily descent sunward and the later sunsets will narrow the window for crisp telescope views of the giant planet. 

Jupiter will be travelling slowly eastward along the crooked border between Pisces and Cetus, allowing much faster and brighter Venus to nearly overtake the magnitude -2.1 planet on February 28, when they will shine only 1.3 degrees apart. The waxing crescent Moon will provide a beautiful photo opportunity when it sits less than 1.2 degrees to Jupiter’s left (celestial south) on February 22. At around 23:00 GMT that day, observers in parts of western Antarctica, the Falkland Islands, and southern South America can see the Moon occult Jupiter just before they set in the evening. 

In a backyard telescope during February, Jupiter will exhibit dark equatorial bands across a disk that diminishes in size from 36 to 34.2 arc-seconds. The Great Red Spot will appear every second or third night, and Jupiter’s four large Galilean satellites will eclipse and occult one another. Moons will cast their round, black shadows on the planet on February 6, 10, 13, 17, and 25. 

Saturn

Saturn, February 2023. (Chris Vaughan) | SkyNews
Saturn, February 2023. (Chris Vaughan)

For the first few evenings of February, the magnitude 0.8 ringed planet Saturn might be visible with difficulty just above the western horizon below Venus. Observers at tropical latitudes will see it more easily. Saturn will pass solar conjunction on February 16, and then enter the eastern pre-dawn sky. Observers at southerly latitudes might glimpse the planet shining several degrees to the lower left of Mercury on February 28. Always turn all optical aids away from the eastern horizon before the Sun rises. 

Uranus

Uranus, February 2023. (Chris Vaughan) | SkyNews
Uranus, February 2023. (Chris Vaughan)

The blue-green, magnitude 5.75 planet Uranus will be observable during evenings in February. Its 3.6 arcseconds-wide disk will be most easily resolved in telescopes immediately after dusk, when it will be highest in the southwestern sky. Uranus will be slowly travelling eastward through central Aries, along the line connecting Jupiter to Mars. 

On nights when the Moon is not close by, Uranus can be found using binoculars. Search a generous fist’s width to the lower left (or 12.5 degrees southeast of) Aries’ brightest star Hamal, and a palm’s width above (or six degrees to the celestial north of) the star Mu Ceti. 

On February 24, Uranus will be positioned only a palm’s width above (or six degrees to the celestial east of) the waxing crescent Moon. With the Moon sliding east by its own diameter every hour, observers in more westerly time zones will see it getting closer to the planet, allowing the pair to share the view in binoculars. Hours later, around 12:00 GMT, observers located in the southern half of Greenland and parts of far northern Canada can see the Moon occult Uranus, the last in a monthly series of occultations that began in early 2022. 

Neptune

Neptune, February 2023. (Chris Vaughan) | SkyNews
Neptune, February 2023. (Chris Vaughan)

Neptune will spend the month of February creeping slowly eastward in northeastern Aquarius, toward that constellation’s border with Pisces. The faint, blue planet will be in the lower part of the western sky — 12 degrees below Jupiter on February 1, and 17 degrees below it on February 28. 

Until mid-February, Neptune will be higher than Venus. But Venus’ rapid easterly motion will overtake Neptune, carrying it less than one arcminute from Neptune on February 15 for observers in Southeast Asia. In the Americas, Venus will “jump” over Neptune, allowing you to use the bright planet to find Neptune in binoculars on two nights. 

On February 14, Neptune’s tiny blue speck will sit 0.6 degrees above Venus (or celestial east-northeast). On the following night, Neptune will appear the same distance below Venus. In a telescope, Neptune will be extremely difficult to see next to 54,000 times brighter Venus. After the Venus conjunction, Neptune will become increasingly difficult to find or observe as it drops lower and sunward. 

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.

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