Fantastic Winter Skies
February stargazing is fantastic for many reasons. Sure, it’s not as comfortable for stargazers living in the winter cold, but the extra special celestial jewels make it worth bundling up for! If you’re not already in the darker countryside, try to get out there. But even with light-polluted skies, I know you’ll still like what you see.
February kicks off with a comet. It may be visible to the naked eye, especially in the countryside, but you may be able to see it with a small telescope or a really good pair of binoculars. It’s Comet ZTF (C/2022 E3), named after the Zwicky Transit Facility based in California. ZTF will make its closest approach to Earth on February 2nd, about 26 million miles away. That’s when it will be at its brightest. The comet will be about ten degrees, or about the width of your fist held at arm’s length, from Polaris, the North Star, in the constellation Ursa Minor.
Unfortunately, there will be a full or nearly full moon at the same time, making spotting the comet more difficult. Before February 5th, the night of the full moon, your best chance of spotting ZTF will be about one to two hours before morning twilight. By that time, the moon will be set or very close to sinking below the horizon. After the 5th, look for the comet as early as possible in the evening before the waning full moon rises. Through February, ZTF will track southward from night to night through the constellations Auriga, Taurus, and Orion but will fade as it does. A general word of caution about comet visibility. Predicting how bright or dim a comet will be is very tricky. Comets can also partially or entirely break up as they travel through the inner solar system. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen to Comet ZTF!
The full moon on the 5th has many nicknames. One of the most popular nicknames for the February full moon is the “Snow Moon,” for obvious reasons. This time of year, the full moon takes a high arc in the sky as it rises at sunset and sets at sunrise, hampering stargazing with lunar whitewashing. That will be the case for the ten days of February. Mid-to-late February generally will be best for evening stargazing without all the moonlight.
Look in the early evening southern sky, and I know you’ll say, “Wow!” You’ll get an eyeful of bright stars and constellations, what I call “Orion and his gang.” The majestic constellation Orion the Hunter is standing more or less upright. Its visual calling card is his belt, made up of three bright stars lined up perfectly in a row. Below his belt are three fainter stars lined up to make the hunter’s sword. You can’t help but notice that the star in the middle seems fuzzy. That’s because it’s not a star but a massive cloud of hydrogen gas, being lit up like a fluorescent light powered by the energy of new stars forming within it. Click on the Orion Nebula in the Sky Guide app to find out more. It’s a great telescope target!
Several bright constellations surround Orion. There’s Taurus the Bull with the bright Pleiades star cluster. There’s also Gemini the Twins, Auriga the Charioteer, Lepus the Rabbit, and Orion’s hunting dogs, Canis Major and Minor. Canis Major is the home of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.
In the northeastern sky, the Big Dipper is standing on its handle. The Big Dipper makes up the rear end and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear. Close by, Cassiopeia the Queen and Cepheus the King hang high in the northwest heavens in the early evening. These constellations and others are close to Polaris, the North Star, shining directly above the Earth’s north pole.
In the eastern sky, there’s a sign of spring. Look for a backward question mark leaning to the left that outlines the chest and head of the constellation Leo the Lion. The great celestial lion will eventually chase Orion and the rest of his gang out of the night sky and lead in the springtime stars.
We have three planets in the February evening skies. One of them is the bright planet Mars with its easy-to-see orange-red glow, visiting the bright winter constellations this year. It’s parked just to the lower left of the Pleiades star cluster in the high southern sky. In December, Mars was super bright and close to Earth, just under 51 million miles away. At the start of February, Mars was just over 80 million miles away and will move farther away as the month continues. As bright as Mars is, it isn’t really a good telescope destination, but you might see some fuzzy surface features. On February 27th, the first quarter (half) moon will be just to the right of Mars, almost “touching” it. If you happen to be in the Arctic, the moon will actually pass in front of Mars.
Jupiter is a much better telescope target, perched in the lower southwest sky just after twilight evening. It’s beginning its slow exit out of the evening sky, so you want to get a good look at it as early in February as possible. It’s also getting farther away from Earth, but since it’s such a giant, you can still easily see up to four of its largest moons as they orbit Jupiter and change their position relative to the behemoth planet. You’ll probably see at least some of Jupiter’s brighter bands through your scope as well. Make sure you view Jupiter early in the evening because by 8 pm, Jupiter will be getting close to the horizon and the blurring effect of the thicker layer of Earth’s atmosphere.
Venus is by far the brightest planet in the February evening skies, and is on the rise, beginning the evenings higher and higher above the southwest horizon. As brilliant as it is, Venus is a useless telescope target because of its complete cloud cover. However, Venus will put on an awesome naked-eye show with Jupiter in late February and early March as the two bright planets approach each other in the early evening southwest sky. On March 1st, they will be at their closest to each other, only a half degree apart! That’s less than the width of your forefinger held at arm’s length! To add to the show, on February 21st, an extremely thin new crescent moon will lie just below the bright planets, and on the 22nd, a slightly fatter crescent moon will be very close to Jupiter, just to the lower left, a little over one degree away.
If you’re not crazy about winter and you’re an early morning riser, you can get a preview of summer a little before morning twilight, at least in the celestial dome. You can see the same constellations that you will see in the evenings in the early summer. Warmer times are coming!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications. Available at bookstores and online at www.adventurepublications.net.
If you have any astronomical questions or want me to write about something you’re seeing in the night sky drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org