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 7 – Half-moon passes Uranus (evening)
On Monday evening, February 7, the orbital motion of the nearly half-illuminated Moon will carry it closely past the magnitude 5.78 planet Uranus. After dusk, use binoculars (green circle) to scan for Uranus sitting less than two finger widths to the right (or 1.8 degrees to the celestial northwest) of the Moon. During the rest of the evening, the Moon will shift farther from the planet, and the diurnal rotation of the sky will lift the Moon above Uranus. Several hours earlier, around 19:39 UTC, observers in the southern Atlantic Ocean near Queen Maud Land can see the Moon occult Uranus. Once the bright Moon has left the scene on subsequent nights, you can use the bright stars Menkar in Cetus and Hamal and Sheratan in Aries to find Uranus.
Tuesday, February 8 – First quarter Moon (at 13:50 UTC)
When the Moon completes the first quarter of its orbit around Earth at 8:50 a.m. EST (or 13:50 UTC) on Tuesday, February 8, the relative positions of the Earth, Sun and Moon will cause us to see our natural satellite half-illuminated on its eastern side. While at first quarter, the Moon always rises around noon and sets around midnight, allowing it to be seen in the afternoon daytime sky, too. The evenings surrounding first quarter are the best for viewing the lunar terrain when it is dramatically lit by low-angled sunlight.
Thursday, February 10 – Moon crosses the Winter Football (evening)
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. Viewed after dusk from mid-northern latitudes, the huge pattern will stand upright in the southeastern sky, extending from 30 degrees above the horizon to overhead. The Milky Way passes vertically through the asterism. The hexagon is visible during evenings from mid-November to spring every year. The waxing gibbous Moon will cross the giant shape from Thursday, February 10 to Saturday, February 12 (red path with dates:hour).
Friday, February 11 – Bright Moon near Messier 35 (all night)
On Friday night, February 11, the orbital motion of the waxing gibbous Moon will carry it just above (to the celestial north of) the large and bright open star cluster in Gemini known as Messier 35, or the Shoe-Buckle Cluster, which sits near the bright toe-star Propus. After dusk, when the cluster’s stars will become visible in binoculars (green circle), the Moon will be poised about two finger widths above (or 2.2 degrees to the celestial northwest of) the cluster. By the time of their closest approach around 1 a.m. Eastern Time, 10 p.m. Pacific Time or 06:00 UTC, the pair will be close enough to share the view in a backyard telescope. At that time, the diurnal motion of the sky will have shifted the Moon to the upper right of the cluster. To better see the Shoe-Buckle’s stars, hide the Moon just beyond the field of view of your binoculars or backyard telescope.
Saturday, February 12 – Venus at greatest illuminated extent (pre-dawn)
On Saturday, February 12, Venus will reach its greatest illuminated extent for the current morning apparition. In a telescope, the planet will show a 26-per-cent-illuminated, waxing crescent phase and an apparent disk size of 41 arcseconds. Even with a less than fully-illuminated disk (inset), Venus’ distance from Earth of only 0.413 Astronomical Units (38.39 million miles or 61.78 million km) will boost its brightness to a brilliant magnitude -4.86. After rising at about 4:30 a.m. local time, Venus will be visible in the southeastern pre-dawn sky near the teapot-shaped constellation of Sagittarius and just a palm’s width to the upper left of reddish Mars. Venus will appear nearly as bright on the following morning.
Sunday, February 13 – Venus veers towards Mars (pre-dawn)
During the second half of February and much of March, the bright planets Mars and Venus will shine together in the southeastern sky between about 5 a.m. local time and dawn. At magnitude -4.86, the white dot of Venus will outshine reddish Mars by 300 times! Starting this weekend, the two planets will become binoculars-close (green circle). Each morning, the gap between them will decrease slightly (red paths with labelled date:hour). At the same time, the magnitude 7.65 main belt asteroid designated (4) Vesta will be situated several finger widths to the left (or 3 degrees to the celestial northeast) of Mars, and Mercury will be hugging the horizon.
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.