Sky-watchers can expect a jam-packed cosmic lineup set to grace February skies. From eclipses of the sun and moon to meteors and planets galore, there are definitely plenty of reasons to look up at the night sky this month.
So dust off those binoculars and mark your February calendar!
Comet Near Venus—February 1
Look toward the southwest sky on any clear night in the first half of the month, and the super-bright planet Venus will act as a convenient guidepost for tracking down a brightening comet.
Considered the Old Faithful of icy visitors, Comet Encke has been observed every 3.3 years since its discovery back in 1819. Over the next few weeks, the comet will be approaching the sun, and its icy surface will begin to melt. For sky-watchers, this means that Encke is set to become bright enough to spot with binoculars during the early evening hours.
For most of February, you’ll find Encke hanging near Venus, with the two objects about five degrees apart, equal to the width of your three middle fingers held at arm’s length. Both should fit easily in the same field of view through binoculars under dark skies. Look for the comet to appear as a tiny, fuzzy, green-colored ball of light against the backdrop of black space.
As the days go on in February, the comet will quickly make a loop around the distinct Circlet asterism, a star pattern nestled within the constellation Pisces, the fishes. And as we head for the end of the month, the comet will dive toward the southerly constellation Virgo, dropping closer to the western horizon and the sun. Expectations are that it may even brighten a bit before it gets lost in the evening twilight by mid-March.
Moon Hides Aldebaran—February 5
On this night, look for the waxing gibbous moon to slide extremely close to the bright orange star Aldebaran high in the southern sky after darkness falls. Most of the world will see the star—which really lies 66 light-years distant—seem to snuggle up within half a degree of the moon, a separation equal to the width of the full moon disk.
However, lucky sky-watchers will see the moon occult the star if they look from across Central America, northern parts of South America, the Caribbean, southern Europe, North Africa, and western regions of the Middle East. The orange object will briefly vanish behind the dark, unlit portion of the moon and reappear about an hour later along its illuminated side. For specific occultation times in cities around the world, check out this great table from the International Occultation Timing Association.
Southern Meteors—February 8
For sky-watchers across the Southern Hemisphere, the Alpha Centaurid meteors will send shooting stars streaking across the overhead skies in the predawn hours on this night. This minor meteor shower peaks with very modest rates of five to 10 meteors an hour, and it will appear to radiate from the shower’s namesake constellation Centaurus.
Beehive Buzzes Moon—February 9
In the evening, look for the moon hanging high in the southeast pointing to one of the prettiest star clusters. The Beehive, also known as Messier 44, is a sparkling collection of a thousand young stars located in the constellation Cancer. Binoculars and small telescopes will really showcase this open star cluster, which sits just over 600 light-years from Earth.
Moon Passes Regulus—February 11
Watch as the full moon passes close to Regulus, the brightest star in the zodiacal constellation Leo, the lion. For most of the world, the two celestial objects will be close together in the predawn skies. However, for onlookers in Australia and New Zealand, the 79 light-year-distant star will briefly disappear behind the moon. Refer to this table for specific occultation times.
Lunar Eclipse—February 10
As the full moon climbs above the eastern horizon, watch it undergo a deep penumbral eclipse as it enters the outer cone of shadow cast by Earth. As this happens, the moon’s normally bright, silvery disk will undergo a subtle but distinctive shading. This is a different sight than when the moon slides through the much darker innermost shadow cone, called the umbra, as it would do during a full or partial lunar eclipse. But it’s still an event worth checking out.
The best views will be from eastern North America along with Central and South America. For those in the central and western parts of North America, the eclipse will already be underway as the moon breaks over the eastern horizon, and sky-watchers will get to witness the subtle shadowy effect glide off the moon. Meanwhile, people across Europe, Africa, and western Asia will witness the entire event as the moon rides high in the southern sky late at night.
The first sign of a dark shading sweeping over the moon will appear along its left side at 6:14 p.m. ET (22:14 UT). The deepest part of the eclipse—the time of maximum shading—will be 90 minutes later at 7:44 p.m. ET (00:44 UT on February 11).
Zodiacal Lights—February 13
For the next two weeks, observers in the Northern Hemisphere can catch the elusive glow of the zodiacal lights. Far away from city lights about an hour after sunset, look for a pyramid-shaped glow—fainter than the Milky Way—rising above the eastern horizon before sunrise. This ethereal light is caused by sunlight reflecting off countless dust particles scattered between the planets along the plane of the solar system.
Moon Joins Jupiter—February 15
Early risers looking toward the southwest sky at dawn will get to see the waning gibbous moon positioned next to the king of all planets, Jupiter. Joining them is blue-white Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, the maiden.
Moon Meets Saturn—February 20-21
The moon keeps busy this month as it pays a visit to the famous ringed planet, Saturn. The cosmic duo will appear to rise in the east, with Saturn following the moon up across the sky during the predawn hours. From one morning to the next, the moon will appear to jump from one side of the yellow star-like planet to the other. It’s worth taking a peek at Saturn through even the smallest of telescopes to take a gander at its majestic rings and larger moons.
Annular Solar Eclipse—February 26
With the new moon occurring on the 26th, lucky sky-watchers in parts of South America and Africa will get to watch the lunar disk pass directly in front of the sun. During this annular eclipse, the moon won’t completely cover the solar disk, and a ring of sunlight will remain visible.
The eclipse path begins in Chile and moves through the Patagonia region of Argentina, where the deepest part of the eclipse will last just over a minute. After passing over the south Atlantic, the eclipse will touch down on the coast of Angola, ending near the border of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo at sunset. This is the first of two solar eclipses in 2017, with the grandest of all solar eclipses occurring over the United States on August 21, 2017.
Mars Passes Uranus—February 26
As a great observing challenge, try hunting down the faintest planet visible to the naked eye. After darkness sets in, look for ruddy Mars hanging above the much brighter Venus in the southwest evening sky. The green ice giant Uranus will sit just half a degree left of Mars, equal to the apparent size of the moon’s disk in the sky.
Uranus is 10 times farther away from Earth than Mars, sitting about 1.8 billion miles away. Still, the planet shines at magnitude 5.9, which makes it theoretically visible to the unaided eye from a very dark location. Locating the distant planet becomes much easier with binoculars or a telescope, which reveal it as a tiny green disk.