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Astro Mark's Astro Alert: What’s Up Above? February Stargazing

By “Astro” Mark Laurin

I’ll admit it, stargazing is difficult in winter. Especially in February. Even the hardiest hesitate. A crystal clear, cloudless night, dark as motor oil, still beckons you, however. Resolve rises inside and you bundle up. Just a quick step outside and a fast glancing about for a few moments, you say to yourself to build motivation. So you do, and you do. Immediately you are rewarded. Underneath the celestial sphere, the sky feels much larger and more expansive in the depth of the cold. The night is darker. It’s almost three dimensional. The shining luminous pin pricks of jeweled light are closer. You are amazed. Your mind and soul wander. Suddenly, the cold slaps you. The dream ends. The primal drive to find warmth shouts over the subtlety of the moment.

That’s stargazing in February. It takes motivation and commitment to break from warm confines to then step out into the night’s bone chilling cold. My tip: Make many short trips outside. Maximize each one under our winter celestial canopy by admiring these celestial events. It will be worth it.

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Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF, Next Stops: Alpha Camelopardalis, Capella, Mars, and Aldebaran.

All aboard! Comet E3 ZTF is running on schedule and on time. After E3 ZTF passed near Earth on February 1st, the next stops on the comet commuter rail line are high in the sky and easy to find. First stop, February 2nd, next to the somewhat dim star Alpha Camelopardalis, in the constellation Camelopardalis. All aboard! Next stop on February 5th is the 6th brightest star in the night sky, Capella, in the constellation Auriga, the Charioteer. If all elements align, the tail of E3 ZTF will overlay Capella. A spectacular sight to behold. Back onboard, our next comet stop is Mars, on February 11th. Super easy to find as Mars rides high throughout the evening. The final stop on our comet commuter rail line is the star, Aldebaran, inside the constellation of Taurus. This star is the gigantic red giant. A stunning contrast it will be comparing the orangey-red color of Aldebaran on the right, and against the comet’s greenish hued coma and tail on the left. Pro tip: view the comet earlier in the month as the Moon’s growing luminosity will obscure it.

Relatedly, circle the 27th on your calendar to look almost straight up after 7pm local time. You’ll see the first quarter moon looking half asleep between Mars, and Aldebaran below. With two red “eyes” it appears the Moon may have been out a bit too late and had a bit too much fun the night before.

Y-Ursae Minorid Meteor Shower: Earlier February

While you’re looking at comet E3 ZTF, keep a keen eye out for the final stray meteors leftover from the y-Ursae Minorid meteor shower. Primarily a January meteor shower, a few spilling over into early February. Why then, you ask, should I look for a January meteor shower now in February? That’s because the shower’s radiant point is around the star Polaris and that star is still in the general vicinity of the comet E3 ZTF. It’s two for one. To find the radiant point, look due north after sunset. Find the big dipper, which points you to Polaris, and then settle in for the show. If you see a meteor zip by the comet, believe you me, you are truly special. Only a handful have seen this extremely chance occurrence in real time.

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Zodiacal Lights, February 11th

Did your eyes narrow as you read the word “zodiacal?” What the heck? You are smart enough to know that the zodiacs are used in astrology, and that astrology is enormously different from astronomy. As for the zodiacal light phenomena, let’s say the two are at least agreeable.

First, what is the zodiac? In astronomy it is a metaphorical belt in the night sky around the Earth where the middle of the belt’s width is the ecliptic. The ecliptic is the general path of the sun projected on the night sky. It is within this belt that spans 8 degrees above and below the ecliptic, the twelve zodiac constellations and symbols of Astrology reside. Zodiacal light is sunlight, which is backscatters resulting from interplanetary dust plasma found in the ecliptic. From the 11th forward look to the western horizon about an hour after sunset to see the zodiacal light. Get to a dark location outside city lights and gain some elevation if possible. The more elevation, the better. Look to the western horizon for a subtle cone of light. A glowing shape where the base of the cone rests on the horizon and the tip points up arching along the ecliptic. The glow of the cone’s light is faint yet noticeable. The glow is visible for about one hour after first sighting, and then slowly sets as the evening progresses. To find the cone, I suggest you slowly sweep your vision broadly along the western horizon, from left to right, and then from right to left. The zodiacal light is visible in the evening sky for a few weeks after the 11th.

Venus is Rising, The entire month of February

In appearance the planets, constellations, and stars move from east to west, because of the Earth spinning on its axis. But it’s more than that: the Earth moves around its orbit, as do the planets, leading to complex apparent motion from here on Earth.

This is evident in the path of Venus in February. Appearing near the western horizon near sunset at the beginning of the month, over the weeks it gains altitude and appears to move northeast. As time passes, Venus appears higher in the sky, first toward meeting Neptune (on the 14th of February) and then to join Jupiter in conjunction (on the 28th). From that date forward, Venus continues to appear higher in the sky and northeast, reaching an unusually high position in the sky of 20 degrees by mid-June.

It’s appropriate then to say that in the end, that the Goddess of Love conquers all, and rides high.

Clear skies to you!