Tonight’s Sky

The Greater Hazleton Area Astronomical Society

Saturday, Feb. 1 evening — The Moon Meets Vesta

In the southwestern sky on the evening of Saturday, Feb. 1, the orbital motion of the waxing moon (green line) will carry it toward the main belt asteroid designated (4) Vesta. Binoculars and backyard telescopes will be required to see the magnitude 7.9 asteroid. By the time the moon sets at about 1:20 a.m. local time, Vesta will be positioned less than two finger widths to the upper right (or 2 degrees to the celestial east) of the moon. Hours later, at approximately 8:50 GMT on Feb. 2, observers in southern Asia, eastern Afghanistan, northern Philippines, China, Japan, eastern Russia, Alaska, and western Canada will see the moon occult Vesta. 

Sunday, Feb. 2 at 1:42 GMT — First Quarter Moon

When the moon reaches its first quarter phase, the relative positions of the Earth, sun, and moon cause us to see the moon half illuminated — on the western (right-hand) side. Sunlight striking the moon at a shallow angle produces spectacularly illuminated landscapes along the pole-to-pole terminator that separates the lit and dark hemispheres. First quarter moons rise at noon and set at midnight, so they are visible starting in the afternoon hours. The term first quarter refers not to the moon’s appearance, but the fact that our natural satellite has now completed the first quarter of its orbit around Earth, counting from the last new moon.

Monday, Feb. 3 overnight — Moon Caresses the Bull’s Face

Overnight on Monday, Feb. 3, the orbital motion of the waxing gibbous moon (green line) will carry it along the northern edge of the triangular grouping of stars that make up the face of Taurus, the Bull. After dusk, Taurus’ triangle of stars will be arrayed below the moon. At approximately 12:30 a.m. EST, the moon’s orbital motion (green line) will carry it very close to the naked-eye star Epsilon (ε) Tauri, which marks the bull’s northern eye. By that time, the diurnal rotation of the sky will have tipped the bull upright, and the moon will be tucked inside the upper right corner of the triangle.

Tuesday, Feb. 4 evening — Moon in the Winter Football

The Winter Football, also known as the Winter Hexagon and Winter Circle, is an asterism composed of the brightest stars in the constellations of Canis Major, Orion, Taurus, Auriga, Gemini, and Canis Minor — specifically Sirius, Rigel, Aldebaran, Capella, Castor & Pollux, and Procyon. After dusk, the huge pattern will stand upright in the southeastern sky, extending from 20 degrees above the horizon to nearly overhead. The Milky Way passes vertically through it. The football is visible during evenings from mid-November to spring every year. The waxing gibbous moon will travel through the asterism from Feb. 4 to 6. 

Wednesday, Feb. 5 evening — Moon near Messier 35

On the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 5, the very bright, gibbous moon will pass through the feet of Gemini’s westerly twin, Castor. The moon will be surrounded by a collection of spectacular deep sky objects, including the bright open cluster Messier 35, which will sit less than three moon diameters above (or 1.5 degrees to the celestial northwest of) the moon. Binoculars might pick up the cluster’s stars that night — but a better bet is to note the location and return for a look on a night when the moon has left the scene. 

Saturday, Feb. 8 pre-dawn — Moon Buzzes the Beehive

Before the nearly full moon sets in the west before dawn on Saturday, Feb. 8, it will be sliding through the northern (right-hand) edge of the large open star cluster known as The Beehive (or Messier 44) in the constellation of Cancer. These encounters occur frequently because the cluster is located only one degree north of the ecliptic (green line). The moon and the cluster will both fit within the field of view of binoculars (orange circle) or a low magnification telescope, but the moon’s brilliance will mostly overwhelm the clusters’ stars. To see more stars, try placing the moon just outside your optics’ field of view. 

Sunday, Feb. 9 at 7:33 GMT — Full Snow Moon

The February full moon, known as the Snow Moon or Hunger Moon, always shines in or near the stars of Leo. Full moons always rise around sunset and set around sunrise. The position of the ecliptic on winter nights causes February moons to culminate very high in the night sky and cast shadows similar to summer midday sun. This full moon occurs 1.5 days before perigee, the point in the moon’s orbit when it is closest to Earth, making this almost a supermoon. A trio of genuine supermoons will occur in March through May of 2020. 

Monday, Feb. 10 evening — Mercury at Greatest Eastern Elongation

On the evening of Monday, Feb. 10, Mercury (orbit shown as red curve) will reach its widest separation, 18 degrees east of the sun. With Mercury sitting above a nearly vertical evening ecliptic, this will be the best appearance of the planet in 2020 for Northern Hemisphere observers. The optimal viewing times fall between 6 and 7 p.m. local time. Viewed in a telescope (inset) the planet will exhibit a waning half-illuminated phase. 

Monday, Feb. 10 after dusk — Neptune close to Star Phi Aquarii

On the evenings surrounding Monday, Feb. 10, distant, dim Neptune (annotated red path) will pass very close to a golden, naked-eye star designated Phi (φ) Aquarii — allowing Neptune to be easily located and viewed in backyard telescopes after dusk. Closest approach will occur on Feb. 10, when the planet and the star will be separated by only 2 arc-minutes and will easily appear together in the eyepiece of a telescope at high magnification (red circle). Your telescope is likely to flip and/or invert the view shown here. 

Tuesday, Feb. 11 to Sunday, Feb. 23, after evening twilight — Evening Zodiacal light

For about half an hour after dusk during the two-week period preceding the new moon on Feb. 23, look west-southwest for a broad wedge of faint light rising from the horizon and centered on the ecliptic (green line). This is the zodiacal light — reflected sunlight from interplanetary particles of matter concentrated in the plane of the solar system. Try to observe from a location without light pollution, and don’t confuse the zodiacal light with the brighter Milky Way to the northwest.

Thursday, Feb. 13 pre-dawn — Moon Occults Stationary Asteroid Juno

On Thursday, Feb. 13, the main belt asteroid designated (3) Juno will cease its regular eastward motion across the distant stars of Virgo and begin a westward retrograde loop that will last until early June. Between 5:15 and 6 a.m. EST that morning, the bright, waning gibbous moon will occult the dim, magnitude 10.2 asteroid (exact times vary by location). Observers in North America (except northeastern Canada), Central America, the Caribbean, and northern South America can see this event. 

Saturday, Feb. 15 at 22:17 GMT — Last Quarter Moon

At its last quarter phase, the moon rises around midnight and remains visible in the southern sky during morning daylight. At this time, the moon is illuminated on the eastern side, towards the pre-dawn sun. Last quarter moons are positioned ahead of the Earth in our trip around the sun. About 3½ hours later, earth will occupy that same location in space. After this phase, the waning moon will traverse the last quarter of its orbit around the earth, on the way to new moon. 

Monday, Feb. 17 pre-dawn — Mars meets Messier Objects

In the southeastern pre-dawn sky for several days starting on Monday, Feb. 17, the orbital motion of Mars (red path with dates and times) will carry the planet close to several bright deep sky objects in northern Sagittarius. On Monday, look for the Trifid Nebula (Messier 20) and the open cluster Messier 21 sitting less than a finger’s width to the upper left (or 0.5 degrees to the celestial north) of Mars. The Lagoon Nebula (Messier 8) will be positioned below Mars. Several days later, Mars will pass below bright Messier 24, dimmer Messier 18, and Messier 25. Some of the deep sky objects will be visible in binoculars (red circle) under dark sky conditions. 

Tuesday, Feb. 18 from 12:25 to 13:50 GMT — Old Moon Occults Mars

In the southeastern morning sky on Tuesday, Feb. 18, the waning crescent moon will occult Mars for observers in North America (except western Canada & Alaska), most of Central America, the Caribbean, northern South America, the southern tip of Greenland, and the Azores. In the Eastern Time zone, the event will begin in daylight at 7:25 a.m. EST when the bright, leading limb of the moon covers Mars. The planet will re-appear from behind the moon’s opposite, dark limb at 8:50 a.m. (Exact ingress and egress times vary by location.) Binoculars and backyard telescopes (red circle) will show the event — although telescopes will flip and/or invert the image shown here. Observers located in the Central, Mountain, and Pacific time zones will see the encounter in a darker sky. 

Wednesday, Feb. 19 pre-dawn — Old Moon Meets Jupiter

In the southeastern pre-dawn sky on Wednesday, Feb. 19, the slim crescent moon will sit less than 4 finger widths to the upper right (or 4 degrees to the celestial southwest) of very bright Jupiter. Both objects will appear together in binoculars (red circle), and the pairing will make a lovely wide-field photograph when composed with local landscape features. This meeting will also allow you to later find Jupiter in the morning daylight sky using the moon as a reference. At around 21:00 GMT, observers in Antarctica and southern South America will see the moon occult Jupiter in daylight. 

Thursday, Feb. 20 before sunrise — Crescent Moon near Saturn

For a short time before sunrise on Thursday, Feb. 20, look very low in the southeastern sky for the very slim crescent moon sitting about two finger widths to the lower right (or 2.3 degrees to the celestial southwest) of very bright Saturn. Both objects will appear together in binoculars while the sun remains safely hidden below the horizon. Brighter Jupiter and Mars will be positioned 10 and 24 degrees, respectively to Saturn’s upper right. 

Sunday, Feb. 23 at 15:32 GMT — New Moon

At its new phase, the moon is travelling between the Earth and the sun. Since sunlight is only reaching the side of the moon aimed away from us, and the moon is in the same region of the sky as the sun, the moon is hidden from view for about a day. 

Thursday, Feb. 27 evening — Crescent Moon Meets Venus

In the western evening sky on Thursday, Feb. 27, the young, crescent moon will make a lovely sight sitting a generous palm’s width to the left (or 6 degrees to the celestial south) of very bright Venus. Viewed in a telescope, Venus will exhibit a gibbous phase (inset).

Friday, Feb. 28 evening — Moon and Uranus

In the western evening sky on Friday, Feb. 28, the waxing crescent moon will be positioned a palm’s width to the upper left (or 6 degrees to the celestial southeast) of the dim, blue-green planet Uranus. Uranus will be observable in binoculars and backyard telescopes. The very bright planet Venus will be well below the moon and Uranus.

Saturday, Feb. 29 pre-dawn — Mars passes a Globular Cluster

In the southeastern pre-dawn sky on Saturday, Feb. 29 and the following morning, the orbital motion of Mars (red path with dates) will carry the planet very close to the bright globular star cluster Messier 22. At closest approach on Feb. 29, both objects will appear together in the eyepiece of a backyard telescope at medium magnification (red circle) until morning twilight arrives. The globular cluster will appear as a fuzzy grey patch to the lower right of Mars in binoculars, too. 

Planets

Mercury

During the first half of February,Mercury will complete its best evening appearance for mid-northern latitude observers during 2020, climbing higher in the west-southwestern sky every evening. The optimal viewing period will be between about 5:45 and 6:15 p.m. local time. The speedy planet will reach its greatest elongation 18 degrees east of the sun on Feb. 10. After Feb. 14, Mercury will rapidly descend sunward and fade in visual brightness. It will become lost in the western twilight and reach inferior solar conjunction on Feb. 26. During its visible period, Mercury will diminish in apparent magnitude from -1.0 to 0.0 while growing in apparent disk size from 5.75 to 8.1 arc-seconds — and wane in illuminated phase from 82% to 30% illuminated. 

Venus

After spending months lower in the sky, the steepening of the ecliptic will lift Venus higher in the southwestern evening sky during February. Even better, its orbit will carry it above the ecliptic at mid-month. The planet will spend all of February among the modest stars of Pisces. It will appear very bright, shining at -4.1 as February begins and becoming even brighter at month-end. Viewed in a telescope, the planet will wane in phase from 73% to 62% illuminated, and its apparent disk size will increase from 15.4 to 18.8 arc-seconds. On Feb. 26-27, the waxing crescent moon will pass a palm’s width to the left (or 6 degrees to the celestial south) of the bright planet.

Mars

Mars will spend all of February in the lower part of the southeastern pre-dawn sky, where it will be visible from about 4:30 a.m. local time to dawn. Mars will move from southern Ophiuchus to Sagittarius on Feb. 11. During the rest of February, the red planet will pass close to a number of the Milky Way’s finest deep sky objects. On Feb. 16-17, look for the Trifid Nebula (Messier 20) and the open cluster Messier 21 sitting less than a finger’s width to the upper left (or 0.5 degrees to the celestial north) of Mars — with the Lagoon Nebula (Messier 8) positioned 1 degrees below the planet. The waning crescent moon will crash that party on the 17th. On Feb. 29 and 30, Mars will pass very close to the north of the bright globular star cluster Messier 22. During the month, Mars will increase in apparent brightness from magnitude 1.36 to 1.12, and increase in apparent disk size from 4.8 to 5.5 arc-seconds. On Feb. 18, the waning crescent moon will occult Mars for observers in North America (except western Canada & Alaska), most of Central America, the Caribbean, northern South America, the southern tip of Greenland, and the Azores. 

Jupiter

Throughout February, very bright Jupiter will shine at magnitude -1.92 low in the southeastern pre-dawn sky — slowly increasing its separation from the sun while moving eastward through the stars of northern Sagittarius. On Feb. 1, Jupiter will rise at around 6 a.m. local time. By month-end that time will advance to 4:15 a.m., increasing Jupiter’s period of observability. Both Jupiter, and faster Mars, will chase Saturn along the ecliptic during February and March. By the end of February, the three bright planets will form a 19 degrees long line, with Jupiter in the middle. On Feb. 19, the waning crescent moon will sit four finger widths to Jupiter’s right. 

Saturn

Saturn will appear very low in the southeastern pre-dawn sky during February — although it will become easier to see late in the month, when it will climb out of the dawn twilight. Shining all month with a visual magnitude 0.6, the Ringed Planet will be moving eastward through the stars of eastern Sagittarius, and never venturing farther than about 10 degrees from Jupiter all year. On Feb. 20, the waning crescent moon will sit less than two finger widths to Jupiter’s lower right. At the end of February, Saturn will start to pass less than 2 degrees to the north of the globular cluster Messier 75. 

Uranus

During February, blue-green Uranus will move eastward through the stars of southwestern Aries, and be well positioned for observing in the southwestern evening sky before midnight. At visual magnitude 5.8, Uranus is bright enough to observe in binoculars under dark sky conditions. At the end of February, Venus’ faster eastward orbital motion will start to overtake slow Uranus. 

Neptune

Blue-tinted Neptune will spend February descending in the western evening sky among the stars of Aquarius. Before mid-month, the dim, magnitude 8.0 planet will become hidden in the evening twilight. On Feb. 10, Neptune will pass within 2 arc-minutes of the magnitude 4.2 star Phi (φ) Aquarii — allowing Neptune to be easily located and viewed in backyard telescopes.

Skywatching Terms

Gibbous: Used to describe a planet or moon that is more than 50% illuminated.

Asterism: A noteworthy or striking pattern of stars within a larger constellation.

Degrees (measuring the sky): The sky is 360 degrees all the way around, which means roughly 180 degrees from horizon to horizon. It’s easy to measure distances between objects: Your fist on an outstretched arm covers about 10 degrees of sky, while a finger covers about one degree.

Visual Magnitude: This is the astronomer’s scale for measuring the brightness of objects in the sky. The dimmest object visible in the night sky under perfectly dark conditions is about magnitude 6.5. Brighter stars are magnitude 2 or 1. The brightest objects get negative numbers. Venus can be as bright as magnitude minus 4.9. The full moon is minus 12.7 and the sun is minus 26.8.

Terminator: The boundary on the moon between sunlight and shadow.

Zenith: The point in the sky directly overhead.

Night Sky Observing Tips

Adjust to the dark: If you wish to observe faint objects, such as meteors or dim stars, give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the darkness.

Light Pollution: Even from a big city, one can see the moon, a handful of bright stars and sometimes the brightest planets. But to fully enjoy the heavens — especially a meteor shower, the constellations, or to see the amazing swath across the sky that represents our view toward the center of the Milky Way Galaxy — rural areas are best for night sky viewing. If you’re stuck in a city or suburban area, a building can be used to block ambient light (or moonlight) to help reveal fainter objects. If you’re in the suburbs, simply turning off outdoor lights can help.

Prepare for skywatching: If you plan to be out for more than a few minutes, and it’s not a warm summer evening, dress warmer than you think necessary. An hour of observing a winter meteor shower can chill you to the bone. A blanket or lounge chair will prove much more comfortable than standing or sitting in a chair and craning your neck to see overhead.

Daytime skywatching: When Venus is visible (that is, not in front of or behind the sun) it can often be spotted during the day. But you’ll need to know where to look. A sky map is helpful. When the sun has large sunspots, they can be seen without a telescope. However, it’s unsafe to look at the sun without protective eyewear. See our video on how to safely observe the sun, or our safe sunwatching infographic.

All Images are from Starry Night @2020