In February’s evening skies, follow the moon nightly at dusk, from a thin crescent low in the west-southwest on Feb. 12, to full, low, north of east, two weeks later on Feb. 26. (Technically, it’ll be full shortly after midnight on Feb. 27.)
Moving an average of 13 degrees per day against the background of the zodiac constellations, the fat 44 percent crescent moon passes within four degrees south of Mars on Feb. 18. On the next evening, the moon—53 percent full and just past first quarter phase—is located in Taurus, almost midway between Aldebaran and the Pleiades star cluster. On Feb. 23, the 88 percent gibbous moon is just 4 degrees south of Pollux, the brighter of the Gemini twins. The other twin, Castor, is 4.5 degrees from Pollux. On the evening of Feb. 26, the full moon appears within eight degrees to the lower left of Regulus, heart of Leo, the Lion. If you enjoy watching moonrises, then plan to catch the one on Feb. 27, when the moon will come up 10 degrees north of east around the middle of evening twilight.
As March opens, Mars, faded to magnitude 0.9, is moving about 0.6 degrees per day against the background of Taurus, the Bull.
Residents of Southern California with a clear, unobstructed view toward due south on a very clear evening might enjoy searching for the star Canopus, the second-brightest nighttime star, ranking next after Sirius. From the latitude of Palm Springs (34 degrees north), Canopus passes only three degrees above the south point of the horizon some 21-22 minutes before Sirius reaches its high point. Around March 6, Canopus reaches its high point after evening twilight ends, getting nearly four minutes earlier daily: If you spot Canopus one evening and return to the same site on the following evening, the star will appear in exactly the same place three minutes and 56 seconds earlier. Don’t wait too many days after March 6, or the sky will be too bright to find the star.
Mornings: Since Venus has moved into bright twilight, the zero-magnitude stars—golden Arcturus high in the southwest, and blue-white Vega high in the east-northeast to east—are the most-prominent stellar-appearing objects in February, until Jupiter emerges in the east-southeast late in month.
Look for these first-magnitude stars: Spica, to the lower the left of Arcturus; Altair and Deneb, completing the Summer Triangle with Vega; reddish Antares, heart of the Scorpion, in the south-southeast to south; and Regulus, sinking in the west to west-northwest. Regulus, on the night of Feb. 17-18, is at opposition as Earth passes between that star and the sun. That night, look 180 degrees from the sun for Regulus, heart of Leo the Lion: low in the east at dusk, high in the south in middle of night, and low in the west at dawn. As Regulus appears at opposition, the orbital revolution of Spaceship Earth around the sun is carrying us away from the Pleiades in the evening sky and toward a point just west of the head of Scorpius in the morning sky.
The moon at dawn: After the full moon is low in the west-northwest on Jan. 28, look for the waning gibbous moon near Regulus in the west on Jan. 30; and near Spica in the south-southwest at dawn on Feb. 2 and 3. Catch a waning crescent moon near Antares in the south-southeast on Feb. 6. The moon’s finale for this cycle will be on Feb. 9, when it will appear as a 6 percent crescent very low in the southeast to east-southeast.
Here come the planets! Binoculars will be useful as the planets emerge from the solar glare. In mid-February, Saturn, of magnitude +0.7, emerges very low in the east-southeast morning twilight. By Feb. 19, Mercury brightens to magnitude +1.0 and appears 4.7 degrees to the left of Saturn. By Feb. 23, Mercury has brightened to magnitude +0.5. Watch for bright Jupiter, of magnitude -2.0, rising 4.6 degrees to its lower left and 7.5 degrees to the lower left of Saturn. That same morning, Mercury reaches its least distance of 4.1 degrees to the lower left of Saturn, in a quasi-conjunction.
About an hour before sunrise from Feb. 25 to March 10, the moon makes an eventful two-week trek across the morning sky, passing three first-magnitude stars and three planets. On Feb. 26, the nearly full moon is five degrees to the upper right of Regulus, low in the west to west-northwest.
On Feb. 27, an hour before sunup, the full moon in the west is 12 degrees to the upper left of Regulus. The same morning, Mercury, brightened to magnitude +0.2, attains its highest altitude for this apparition, but it’s still very low in the east-southeast, 3.4 degrees to the upper right of Jupiter and 5 degrees to the lower left of Saturn. Jupiter and Saturn, less than 10 weeks after their very close conjunction, have spread to 8 degrees apart. On Feb. 28, Mercury appears 3 degrees to the upper right of Jupiter.
After the epic close conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn at dusk on Dec. 21, the giant planets have reappeared at dawn while spreading apart, to 7 degrees on Feb. 19, and 8 degrees on Feb. 27. The gap between them in the predawn sky will continue to grow until June 11, when they’ll be 19 3/4 degrees apart. After passing opposition on the nights of Aug. 1 and 19, respectively, Saturn and Jupiter will approach to within 15.4 degrees of each other in the evening sky on Oct. 24, before resuming their widening separation.
To check for the post-pandemic resumption of star parties hosted by the Astronomical Society of the Desert, visit the club’s website at www.astrorx.org. Rancho Mirage Library’s Observatory is currently closed as well, although the library is open during limited hours; visit www.ranchomiragelibrary.org/observatory.html for updates.
I originated the Abrams Planetarium’s monthly Sky Calendar in October 1968, and still produce issues occasionally. For subscription information and a sample, visit www.abramsplanetarium.org/skycalendar.
Wishing you clear skies!
Robert Victor was a staff astronomer at Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing informal sky watching opportunities for folks in and around Palm Springs. Robert D. Miller did graduate work in planetarium science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy.