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What’s in the Night Sky This Month? – February 2017

On the first day of the month weather permitting, you should be able to see the four day old Moon and Mars make a close approach, passing within 2°12′ of each other. From the south east, they will both become visible at 34º above the south-western horizon around 5:08pm.

Two days later on the 3rd, the Moon now six days old, comes close to Ceres, passing within 0°59′ of each other. They become visible 44° above the southern horizon, as the dusk sky fades around 17:11, sinking towards the horizon and eventually disappearing from view around 23:35.

Both events will be best viewed with either the naked eye or a pair of binoculars as they will be too widely separated to fit into a telescopes field of view.

The Hyginus Crater. Image credit: LROC

The Hyginus Crater. Image credit: LROC

On the same day and later in the month on the 17th, the small Hyginus crater and Rille will be visible. Hyginus is a small lunar caldera located at the east end of the Sinus Medii. It’s believed that the Hyginus crater, an 11km wide rimless pit that lies in the centre of the Hyginus Rille, could be volcanic in origin.

It is easy to see its dark surround through binoculars or a telescope, and is thought to be formed by an explosive release of dust and gas. This event created a collapse into vacant space below, forming the crater.

On Sunday 5th February, you can observe the first quarter Moon towards the south-southeast passing in front of the Hyades cluster in Taurus. Around 18:42 its shadow will occult both Theta 1 and Theta 2 Tauri stars and at approximately 20:32, the 85 Tauri star. Then later on around 23:27, it will lie very close to the red giant star Aldebaran, which sits in between the Earth and the Hyades cluster.

In the middle of the month on the 15th in the southwestern skies, you should be able to observe Jupiter lying between the Moon to its upper right and Spica, Alpha Virginis, down to its lower left.

On the 21st before the sun rises, look south-southwest to see Saturn to the lower right of a thin waning crescent Moon.

Annular Lunar Eclipse. Image credit: BBC

Annular Lunar Eclipse. Image credit: BBC

On the 26th, the Moon passes in front of the Sun, creating a solar eclipse. From certain parts of the world, the Moon will almost completely cover the Sun. Sadly however, no eclipse will be visible from United Kingdom. The path of the annular eclipse will pass through Angola, Argentina, Chile, DR Congo and Zambia.

Because the Moon’s distance from the Earth varies, it will not be large enough to completely cover the Sun, so the resulting eclipse will be annular, where the Moon passes in front of the Sun but leaves a complete ring of light glowing from its edges.

Moon Phases

New Moon First Quarter Full Moon Last Quarter
February 26 February 4 February 11 February 18

Planets

Mercury

Not the greatest period to see the solar system’s smallest rock, with it lying low just before dawn in the southeast, to the lower left of Saturn. Mid-month is the best time to catch a glimpse of the planet if you desire, but no great details can be expected, as its disk only spans 5 arc seconds across and its brightens only changes from -0.2 to -1.2 during the month of February.

Venus

Venus shines extremely brightly this month and dominates the western sky at a magnitude -4.8. In the mid-afternoon, it lies due south and surprisingly, can even by seen with the naked eye!

It reaches its highest point on the 4th February, at an elevation of 33º at sunset. Its angular disk will increase from 31 arc seconds to 46 however, its illumination reduces from 40% to 18%. The reduction in brightness however doesn’t matter greatly, as the two factors essentially cancel each other out, keeping the planet’s brightness constant and great for observing.

Under ultra violet filtering, you should be able to make out cloud details on its brilliant white surface and with an infrared filter, it can be imaged high in the sky during the daytime as the blue light from our sky is filtered out.

Mars

Lying in Pisces and to the left of Venus, Mars is simple to spot in February.

On the first day of the month, both Mars and Venus come into close quarters at 5.4 degree apart, with their separation increasing to just over 12 degrees towards the end of February. As Mars continues to move eastwards, Venus will fall back towards the western horizon.

Mars’ brightness will decrease a tad from magnitude +1.1 to +1.3 and its angular diameter will also reduce from 5.1 to 4.6 arc seconds. Unfortunately, we don’t expect to see much surface detail this month.

Jupiter

At the beginning of February, Jupiter rises in the east at around 00:30am but by month’s end by 22:45pm. At an elevation of 34 degrees, it will be due south at around 06:00 and 04:00 towards the end of the month.

Both its magnitude and disk size increase during February, from -2.1 to -2.3 and 39 to 42 arc seconds respectively.

On the 6th of the month, it ceases to move east and begins to move in a westerly direction in retrograde motion for several months. You should easily be able to see the atmospheric equatorial bands with a telescope, and at times the Great Red Spot and the Gallilean moons in orbit.

Saturn

Now a morning object rising in the southeast around 08:00 at the beginning of February and about 6:30 towards month’s end, Saturn lies in the southern part of Ophiuchus.

Consistently shining at a magnitude of +0.5, its diameter will increase from 15.6 to 16.1 arc seconds in February. Before dawn at months end, it will be high enough in the south-eastern sky to make out the incredible ring system as they are as open as they ever become at more than 26 degrees to the line of sight.

Sadly, its elevation this year never gets above 18 degrees and so the atmosphere will restrict our view of this amazing planet.

Meteors & Comets

45P (Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova)

On the 9th February, the 45P comet is forecast to reach its brightest at a magnitude of 6.6, lying at a distance of 0.95 AU from the Sun, and 0.09 AU from the Earth.

It will be visible in the dawn sky, rising at 01:09 and reach an altitude of 42° above the south-eastern horizon before fading from view at sunrise.

45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova. Image credit: Cometography

45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova. Image credit: Cometography

Deep Sky Objects

M81

On the 18th February, this spiral galaxy about 12 million light-years away in the Ursa Major constellation, will be well positioned for observation, reaching its highest point in the sky around midnight.

It is easiest to see from the northern hemisphere with its declination of +69°04′, but cannot be seen from latitudes any further south than 0°S. From the UK, it will be very well placed to observe as it will be high above the horizon all night.

M81. Image credit: NASA

M81. Image credit: NASA

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