Waxing to full through the week, the Moon passes through the Winter Football and buzzes a couple of Messier objects in This Week’s Sky.
Monday, February 3 overnight – Moon Caresses the Bull’s Face
Overnight on Monday, February 3, the orbital motion of the waxing gibbous Moon (green line) will carry it along the northern edge of the triangular grouping of stars that make up the face of Taurus, the Bull. After dusk, Taurus’ triangle of stars will be arrayed below the Moon. At approximately 12:30 a.m. EST, the Moon’s orbital motion (green line) will carry it very close to the naked-eye star Epsilon (ε) Tauri, which marks the bull’s northern eye. By that time, the diurnal rotation of the sky will have tipped the bull upright, and the Moon will be tucked inside the upper right corner of the triangle.
Tuesday, February 4 evening – Moon in the Winter Football
The Winter Football, also known as the Winter Hexagon and Winter Circle, is an asterism composed of the brightest stars in the constellations of Canis Major, Orion, Taurus, Auriga, Gemini and Canis Minor — specifically Sirius, Rigel, Aldebaran, Capella, Castor & Pollux, and Procyon. After dusk, the huge pattern will stand upright in the southeastern sky, extending from 20 degrees above the horizon to nearly overhead. The Milky Way passes vertically through it. The football is visible during evenings from mid-November to spring every year. The waxing gibbous Moon will travel through the asterism from February 4 to 6.
Wednesday, February 5 evening – Moon near Messier 35
On the evening of Wednesday, February 5, the very bright, gibbous Moon will pass through the feet of Gemini’s westerly twin, Castor. The Moon will be surrounded by a collection of spectacular deep sky objects, including the bright open cluster Messier 35, which will sit less than three Moon diameters above (or 1.5 degrees to the celestial northwest of) the Moon. Binoculars might pick up the cluster’s stars that night – but a better bet is to note the location and return for a look on a night when the Moon has left the scene.
Saturday, February 8 pre-dawn – Moon Buzzes the Beehive
Before the nearly Full Moon sets in the west before dawn on Saturday, February 8, it will be sliding through the northern (right-hand) edge of the large open star cluster known as The Beehive (or Messier 44) in the constellation of Cancer. These encounters occur frequently because the cluster is located only one degree north of the ecliptic (green line). The Moon and the cluster will both fit within the field of view of binoculars (orange circle) or a low magnification telescope, but the Moon’s brilliance will mostly overwhelm the clusters’ stars. To see more stars, try placing the Moon just outside your optics’ field of view.
Sunday, February 9 at 7:33 GMT – Full Snow Moon
The February Full Moon, known as the Snow Moon or Hunger Moon, always shines in or near the stars of Leo. Full moons always rise around sunset and set around sunrise. The position of the ecliptic on winter nights causes February moons to culminate very high in the night sky and cast shadows similar to summer midday sun. This Full Moon occurs 1.5 days before perigee, the point in the Moon’s orbit when it is closest to Earth, making this almost a Supermoon. A trio of genuine Supermoons will occur in March through May 2020.
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.