Every week, SkyNews publishes a list of key events in the Canadian sky in This Week’s Sky. This series gives you all the latest news in Solar System movements, including where the planets are in our sky and Moon phases. From eclipses to meteor showers, This Week’s Sky keeps you updated on the best in upcoming astronomical highlights.
Monday, February 14 – Bright Moon passes the Beehive (all night)
After dusk on Monday, February 14, the nearly full Moon will be positioned several finger widths to the upper left (or 3 degrees to the celestial north) of the large open star cluster known as The Beehive (or Messier 44) in the constellation of Cancer. Encounters between M44 and the Moon or planets occur frequently, because the cluster is located only one degree north of the Ecliptic (green line). The Moon and the Beehive will both fit within the field of view of binoculars (green circle), but the Moon’s brilliance will mostly overwhelm the cluster’s stars. To see more of them, try hiding the Moon just outside your optics’ field of view. During the night, the diurnal rotation of the sky will shift the Moon above the Beehive.
Tuesday, February 15 – Blue Mare Tranquillitatis (all night)
The maria — Latin for “seas” — are the large, dark regions visible on the Moon’s near side. They are basins excavated by major impactors early in the Moon’s geologic history and later infilled with dark basaltic rock that upwelled from the interior of the Moon. Several maria link together to form a curving chain across the northern half of the Moon’s near-side. Mare Tranquillitatis, where humankind first walked upon the Moon, is the large, round mare in the centre of the chain. Sharp eyes might detect that this mare is darker and bluer than the others, due to enrichment in the mineral titanium. (To help remember the lunar directions, the west side of the Moon is illuminated at last auarter.)
Wednesday, February 16 – Full Snow Moon (at 16:56 UTC)
The February full Moon will occur on Wednesday, February 16 at 11:56 a.m. EST or 16:56 UTC. The Indigenous Anishnaabe (Ojibwe and Chippewa) people of the Great Lakes region call the February full Moon Namebini-giizis “Sucker Fish Moon” or Mikwa-giizis, the “Bear Moon.” For them, it signifies a time to discover how to see beyond reality and to communicate through energy rather than sound. The Algonquin call it Wapicuummilcum, the “Ice in River is Gone” Moon. The Cree of North America call it Kisipisim, the “the Great Moon,” a time when the animals remain hidden away and traps are empty. For Europeans, it is known as the Snow Moon or Hunger Moon. Since it is located opposite the Sun on this day of the lunar month, the Moon is fully illuminated, and rises at sunset and sets at sunrise. When full, no shadows are cast by the lunar terrain – so all of the albedo variations are produced by the Moon’s geology. February moons culminate very high in the night sky and cast shadows similar to summer midday Sun.
Wednesday, February 16 – Mercury at greatest western elongation (pre-dawn)
On Wednesday, February 16, Mercury will reach its widest angle of 26 degrees west of the Sun, and peak visibility for its current morning apparition. Starting around 6:30 a.m. in your local time zone, look for the planet shining very low in the southeastern sky. It will be positioned 1.4 fist diameters to the lower left of much brighter Venus and fainter Mars. In a telescope (inset) Mercury will exhibit a 59-per-cent-illuminated, waxing gibbous phase. Mercury’s position near the shallowly-dipping morning Ecliptic (green line) will make this a poor apparition for mid-northern latitude observers, but a fine showing for those located near the Equator and farther south. Mercury will be nearly as far from the Sun on the surrounding mornings.
Friday, February 18 – Limb libration reveals Mare Orientale (all night)
Due to its orbital inclination and ellipticity, the Moon tilts up-and-down and sways left-to-right up by to a half-dozen degrees while keeping the same hemisphere pointed towards Earth at all times. Over time, this lunar libration effect lets us see 59-per-cent of the Moon’s total surface without having to leave the Earth. On Friday night, February 18, the western limb of the Moon will be rotated towards Earth, revealing the edge of Mare Orientale, the youngest of the Moon’s great basins. Its name “the Eastern Sea” belies its location on the Moon’s western hemisphere. To see it, use binoculars or a telescope to first seek out the dark circular crater named Grimaldi and the very bright crater Byrgius to its south. Mare Orientale will be a darkened strip hugging the edge of the Moon and centred between those two craters.
Saturday, February 19 – Evening zodiacal light (after dusk)
If you live in a location where the sky is free of light pollution, you might be able to spot the Zodiacal Light, which will appear during the two weeks that precede the new Moon on Wednesday, March 2. After the evening twilight has disappeared, you’ll have about half an hour to check the western sky for a broad wedge of faint light extending upwards from the horizon and centered on the ecliptic. That glow is the zodiacal light, sunlight scattered from countless small particles of material that populate the plane of our Solar System. Don’t confuse it with the brighter Milky Way, which extends upwards from the northwestern evening horizon at this time of year.
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.