FEBRUARY 2014 NIGHT SKY CALENDAR
"The February consolation," or so it's called. The hopeful hints that the warm weather shall soon -geologically speaking- return to our permafrost coated land. First, we notice that the sky is not as black as stinking pitch at 5:00 p.m anymore. Direct evidence that we've increased our daylight duration quite a bit since the solstice. Secondly, one can finally "feel" the noonday Sun with an outstretched hand. In December and January, the Sun is pure sky ornamentation. And, meteorlogically, we hit the nadir on February 2nd. The high temperatures vary widely day to day. However, if tabulated over many decades, the average high temperature describes a smooth, undulating curve that reaches a high point around August 1 and a low point around February 2. Even though February can still be horridly frigid, the average high temperature gradually increases throughout the month.
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 1: MOON 3.9 DEGREES NNW OF MERCURY
Any moon-planet appulse is always a treat for the eye. Sometimes, however, the treat is well hidden. Such is the case with this gathering of the first world and the waxing crescent moon. They'll be 18 degrees from the Sun and therefore visible only briefly in the western evening sky before setting. They'll be gone before astronomical twilight ends.
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 2: CANDLEMAS OR GROUND HOG'S DAY
Ground Hog's Day is an astronomical event. It is the year's first cross-quarter day. A cross-quarter day marks the midpoint between a solstice and equinox or vice versa. The year contains as many cross-quarter days as it has seasonal points. Candelmas (Ground Hog's Day) is the CQ day between the Winter (December) Solstice and the Vernal (March) Equinox. May Day (Beltane), on May 1st, is the CQ day between the Vernal(March) Equinox and the Summer (June) Solstice. Lammas, on August 1st, is the CQ day between the Summer (June) Solstice and the Autumnal (September) Equinox. Finally, the CQ day Samhain/Halloween marks the midpoint between the Autumnal (September) Equinox and the Winter (December) Solstice.
MONDAY, FEBURARY 3: MERCURY AT PERIHELION
This is a perfect example of an "academic event." There is nothing to see here. However, it is nevertheless noteworthy and therefore included. A planet follows an elliptical orbit, one that is slightly oval, as opposed to perfectly circular. Consequently, a planet's distance varies continuously, from a maximum distance (aphelion) to a minimum distance (perihelion). The difference between these two maxima depends on the orbit's elongation. The greater the elongation, the greater the difference between perihelion and aphelion. This elongation relates directly to the value "eccentricity," which measures an ellipse's departure from circularity. An ellipse with a zero eccentricity is a circle. An ellipse with an eccentricity of 1 is no longer an ellipse, but a parabola (like a "u" shape.) Mercury's eccentricity of 0.20 is high by planetary standards. (Earth's is only 0.017). To translate this value into something meaningful, understand that Mercury's aphelion distance is twenty percent greater than its mean (average) distance, just as its perihelion distance is twenty percent less. In contrast, Earth's aphelion distance is 1.7% greater than the average and the perihelion 1.7% less. Today, Mercury is about 45.2 kilometers (approx 28 million miles.)
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 6: FIRST QUARTER MOON
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 7: MOON 6.5 DEGREES SOUTH OF THE PLEIADES
Well, what can we say? The sky conceals depth, so all the celestial objects appear juxtaposed along a single membrane, when they are, in fact, almost always far away from one another. Today's event is a perfect example. The closest celestial object, the Moon, veers close to the Pleiades ("Seven Sisters"), a galactic star cluster poised northwest of Taurus the Bull. At an estimated distance of 400 light years, this open cluster is 9.7 billion times farther from us than the Moon. Our limiting perspective does not permit us to notice this slight distance difference. We will notice that the waxing gibbous moon shines brighter, but is not so bright as to obscure the Pleiades altogether. The Moon and the Seven Sisters make for a lovely pairing, especially in the evening winter sky.
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 11: MOON 4.9 DEGREES SOUTH OF JUPITER (SILVER EVENT!)
Jupiter is neither as prominent nor as bright as it was at year's beginning, though it remains the second brightest planet after Venus. Tonight, we'll observe the moon and Jupiter together: a coupling that pleases the eye, hence the silver medal.
TUESDAY: FEBRUARY 11: VENUS AT MAXIMUM BRIGHTNESS FOR 2014 (BRONZE EVENT) Two medals events in one day. Venus shines brightest tonight, or, more properly, in the early morning sky. At magnitude -4.6, Venus is nearly nineteen times brighter than Sirius, the night sky's brightest star. We only confer the bronze award on this event as Venus is currently an early morning planet. After a rapid hiatus between Earth and the Sun in January, Venue has ascended high into the eastern pre-dawn sky. See it at its best this morning. It might seem rather soon in the year for Venus to attain its greatest brilliance, but remember that Venus vanishes in late August, only to return in December!
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 14: FULL MOON
A full moon on Valentine's Day! The last time we had a Valentine's Day full moon was 1968, that "summer of love" year. The combination of the most romantic holiday with the most romantic Celestial object will certainly fulfill a scroll's load of prophecies this year. So, we have the Love Moon, as opposed to the cold moon, long night moon, or late winter moon. You decide which name you prefer.
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 15: MERCURY AT INFERIOR CONJUNCTION
This one isn't exactly an academic event, because it tells us what we can’t see, namely "Mercury." The first world passes between Earth and the Sun today. Were Mercury to be in superior conjunction, it would be at the far side of the Sun. As Mercury will be 3.7 degrees N of the Sun, we won't see it at all. Were Mercury directly aligned with the Sun-Earth plane, we would see it moving across the Sun, a phenomenon called a "'transit." The next transit of Mercury won't occur until May 9, 2016. (Yes, it will be visible in Eastern North America.)
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 16: SUN ENTERS AQUARIUS
The Sun ascends through the water bearer. After lingering low in Sagittarius and then climbing slightly in Capricornus, the Sun now begins a sharper upward curve toward the higher altitudes. Though it remains below the celestial equator, Sol is moving upwards and onwards. Each year the Sun appears to migrate through thirteen
constellations comprising the "zodiac." These constellations are
AQUARIUS THE WATER BEARER, Pisces the Fish, Aries the Ram, Taurus the Bull, Gemini the Twins, Cancer the Crab, Leo the Lion, Virgo the Maiden, Libra the Scales and Scorpius the Scorpion, Ophiuchus the Serpent Charmer and Sagittarius the Archer. The Sun enters Pisces the Fish on March 12
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 19: MOON 3.0 DEGREES SSW OF MARS
Mars shall become far more prominent as we move into the spring. Now, it is a late evening object brighter than both Mercury and Saturn. (See "Planet Watch") Find Mars and the waning gibbous moon rising together in the mid evening. Take note of Mars' distinctive crimson hue as opposed to the Moon's stark white glow.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 21: MOON 0.32 DEGREES SSE OF SATURN
Like Mars, Saturn will be brightest and most prominent come spring. Now, Saturn rises around midnight and is joined this evening by a nearly quarter moon. Were we located near the Southern Indian Ocean, we'd give this event the Gold as the Moon will 'occult' Saturn, which means it will move in front of it. Such occultations are spectacular because one can observe the planet approach the lunar limb and then vanish behind it in an instant, as the Moon lacks an atmosphere. However, these occultations are highly localized events, so we won't see Saturn vanish here. Instead, the Moon and Saturn will appear close together.
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 22: LAST QUARTER MOON
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 26: MOON 0.2 DEGREES NORTH OF VENUS (GOLD EVENT!)
Venus almost at its maximum brightness while almost touching the Moon. What else does one need to produce a fantastic celestial event! See brilliant Venus and the thin waning crescent moon in the eastern pre-dawn sky. Best seen against the brightening twilight. This is a thousand-calorie eye candy. If we were in western Africa, we'd see the Moon occult Venus. But, no matter, this close coupling is spectacle enough
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 27: MOON 2.8 DEGREES NNW OF MERCURY
At month's beginning, the Moon and Mercury gathered in the evening. At month's end, we see them together in the early morning. During both events, the Moon was NNW of Mercury, though this event brings the planet and moon slightly closer than they were on February 1.
MERCURY: Although we were a bit Mercury obsessed this month, Mercury remains as elusive as ever. See it low in the evening western sky at month's beginning, and then see it low in the eastern pre-dawn sky toward the end of February. VERDICT: Try early night early in the month; early morning late in the month. Don’t' bother in the middle of the month.
VENUS: We won't be giving Venus the Pick Planet crown often this year. Though it is brilliant this month, Venus is an early morning object. VERDICT: A better sight for morning people rather than night people. If you're up before Sunrise, seek out Venus, especially on the morning of February 26, when it will veer close to the crescent moon.
MARS: Remember that Mars didn't excite us much in 2013. In 2014, it gains greater prominence and will reach opposition in April. This month, it rises earlier each night and will be up by 9:30 p.m. at month's end. VERDICT: If you've missed Mars, you'll have plenty of opportunity to observe it through the next few months. Not quite for early risers , yet, but still an easy sight throughout the night.
JUPITER: (PICK PLANET!) Though Mercury lurks low in the western evening sky at month's end, Jupiter essentially has the evening stage to itself this month. Mars rises before midnight, but is dimmer. Saturn doesn't appear until after midnight. By the time Venus rises, Jupiter will be about to set. Jupiter outshines all the night sky stars, and is nearly three times as bright as Sirius. VERDICT: A beautiful evening sky sight all month. Be careful, wishers, as Jupiter will appear before any star when twilight darkens.
SATURN: Saturn is the dimmest planet this month and rises late. It's up at 1:30 a.m. at month's beginning, and appears at 11:30 p.m. at month's end. If one chooses to remain awake well after midnight, one can still easily find Saturn as it still appears brighter than most stars. VERDICT: Though still not a cinch, Saturn is becoming easier to observe and will be quite prominent in the late spring and summer.
PLANETS IN ORDER OF DECREASING BRIGHTNESS
VENUS - JUPITER - MARS- MERCURY - SATURN
(Mercury and Mars were equally bright at month's beginning.