By “Astro” Mark Laurin
Used with permission.
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 moment, 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 more expansive in the depth of the cold. The King of the Sky, Jupiter’s supreme reign high in the sky continues bold, resolute, undaunted, unquestioned. The Sun and Jupiter locate an elusive Uranus, and Café Valentine has many guests to celebrate the day of love. Bundle up!
We’ll Follow the Sun: February 9th
The night of the 9th ushers in a New Moon and all of the darkness it promises. With no moonlight to illuminate the night sky dimmer objects become more illuminous. Finer details and contours are visible, and with the aid of binoculars, guides by the setting Sun, the planets Saturn, and Jupiter, the Pleiades, and Uranus can be found and enjoy. At sunset the New Moon is too close to the Sun to be seen, but Saturn and Jupiter are visible. At that time Jupiter is pretty much the only bright object high in the southwest evening sky. Draw a reference line between the two. One quarter the distance between the location on the horizon where the Sun just set and Jupiter is the planet Saturn. It will be much dimmer in brilliance than Jupiter and it is a muted, light green color. You know when you find it as the light it reflects is steady, it doesn’t twinkle. Next extend our reference line from Jupiter up in the sky the same distance you used to find Saturn. There is the Pleiades. It is an open cluster and looks like a Mini Big Dipper. You’ll see a fuzzy patch, like a finger print on the sky with at least five bright stars within it. If you advert your vision and look at it from the side you’ll see a total of seven stars – The Seven Sisters. Next to Uranus. At 8pm, split the distance between the Pleiades and Jupiter, there you’ll find Uranus. You’re looking for a quite faint bluish-green colored dot of light. Again, look for a rounded steady point of reflected light. Relax and advert your vision as you search for Uranus. It will take a moment, but you’ll find it. Uranus is 1.6 billion miles away from Earth when it is closest (perigee) in its orbit to us. At that moment it take light from Uranus 2 hours and 39 minutes to reach us. Think about this when you gaze upon that tiny bluish green dot.
At Café Valentine, Jupiter and a Crescent Moon Talk About Love: February 14th
Throughout time Jupiter and the Moon have witnesses much love. From lovers professing theirs underneath them, or poet and musicians being inspired to create because of them. One thing they both nod in agreement is that love intoxicates both gods and mortals. Join them won’t you with your smitten this earlier evening with an aromatic to celebrate Valentine’s Day. To find Café Valentine and then Jupiter and the Moon’s table, get outside after sunset and face southwest. Look halfway up from the horizon to the point between the horizon and the point directly overhead. There the King of the Sky shines in illuminating brilliance with the 5-day old crescent Moon five degrees (three finger widths apart) to the west. As is known to happen at Café Valentine, one can linger and evening can turn into night. With darkness Uranus enters the Café in its normal green-tinged cloak. The merriment continues till the western horizon’s makes the Café’s last call for all to bid another Valentine’s Day evening adieu. As for you and your beloved, well, that’s up to you.
Venus and Mars Are Alright With Me: February 22nd
On the early morning of February 22nd the God of War and the Goddess of Love rise with dawn over the east southeast horizon announcing a new day. The words “separated by less than one degree” and others like “the two are in an intimate conjunction” could cause a prurient eyebrow to raise in suspicion; astronomically, it refers to proximity, however. It means that Venus and Mars will share almost the same right ascension, which is one variable in determining an object position in the celestial globe. Look to the east southeastern horizon around 6am on the 22nd. Venus as the “morning star” now will be a noticeable bright whitish-blue. Mars is below Venus to the south. It will be fainter with a brown, reddish, dull color. The two planets are visible till the morning Sunlight overpowers and obscures them around 7am that morning.
A Snowy Micro Full Moon: February 24th
The Old Farmer’s Almanac states the Full Moon for February occurs on this day at 5:30am MT and won’t be visible to us at its peak illumination. The Moon is in opposition to the Sun. This means when the Sun sets in the west, the Moon rises in the east and is visible the entire night. This Snowy Full Moon is notable as the Moon is at apogee in it’s orbit around the Earth. This means the Moon is farthest point was from the Earth in its elliptical orbit. Something the Moon at apogee is also called a Micro Moon. This Full Moon is called the Snowy Moon in it arrives as traditionally the month with heavy snowfall to North America. Other common names for the February Full Moon are the Hungry Moon or the Bony Moon. Both reference food sources being difficult to find at this point in the winter season. For this Full Moon instructs that despite scarcity, we must keep our inner hearths blazing.
A False Dusk. Zodiacal Lights: The Entire Month of February
Did your eyes narrowed as you read the word “zodiacal?” What the heck? You smart enough to know that the zodiacs are used in astrology, and that’s enormously different from astronomy. For the zodiacal light phenomena, let’s say the two are agreeable. And don’t forget, the first astronomers in ancient times were astrologers.
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. This 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, reside the twelve zodiac constellations and symbols of Astrology. Zodiacal light is sunlight which is backscatters resulting from interplanetary dust. From the beginning of February through the remainder of the month, look to the eastern horizon about an hour before sunrise to see the zodiacal light. Get to a dark location outside city lights and gain some elevation if possible. The more elevation, the better. Now, look at the eastern horizon for a cone of light. A glowing shape where the base of the cone rests on the horizon and the tip points up along the ecliptic. The cone’s light glow is faint yet noticeable. The glowing cone is visible for about one hour after first sighting, and slowly set as the dawn progresses. I suggest you slowly sweep your vision broadly along the eastern horizon, left than right. The zodiacal light is visible in the morning sky for a few weeks so make sure you get up early one clear morning to see the light.
Night time in February is different. It’s darker 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 trip outside to look up. Maximize each one under our winter celestial canopy by admiring these celestial events. It will be worth it.
Clear skies to you!