Welcome to February, our shortest month and the last full month of winter.
Winter’s wane can be seen in the lengthening days, which become noticeable in February. At the start of the month, sunrise is at 7:28 a.m., with sunset coming at 5:11 p.m. By the end of the month, those times will be 6:46 a.m. and 5:51 p.m., an increase in daylight of 1 hour and 22 minutes, by my math.
Groundhog Day, on February 2, is known as a “cross-quarter” day, midway between the start of winter and the start of spring. We are on the downside of winter. Having said that, it’ll probably snow two feet on the day you read this, right?
Once again, our bright planets are mostly in the morning sky in February. Mars is an exception, although the red planet is growing farther away and fainter the entire month. Mars will be located in the southwest, about halfway up the sky, in the constellations Pisces and Aries.
Look for it as a bright “star” below the Pleiades star cluster. On the 10th, the crescent Moon will lie just to the left of Mars.
Mercury, our innermost planet, will be visible in the evenings later in February. Since Mercury is so close to the Sun, it never appears very far from the Sun as we see it.
The best time to look for it will be mid-month, right after sunset. Mercury will be brighter than most stars, and will also outshine Mars. But Mercury has to compete with the Sun’s glare, as there will only be a partially-dark sky to view it in.
Find a location with a view of the low western horizon to see it.
Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn will all be morning objects in February. At the start of the month, Venus and Jupiter will be very prominent in the eastern sky before sunrise, but as the month progresses they will become farther apart as we see them.
Later in the month, Saturn will join the show, low and to the left of Venus.
On the 18th, we’ll have a nice conjunction, with Saturn sitting just below Venus. After the 18th, Saturn will be to the right of Venus in the sky.
Early February presents some good opportunities to see the International Space Station. Your best chances are Feb. 5 and 8, when the station passes almost directly overhead.
On the 5th, it should appear at about 6:50pm in the west-northwest. It will move from the northwest, high overhead, and then drop into the southeastern sky. Before it gets to the horizon, it should fade from view, as the ISS enters Earth’s shadow.
On the 8th, the pass will start at about 5:50 p.m., again in the northwest, and will move across the sky to the southeast, passing through the familiar constellation Orion. This pass should be entirely visible, and the ISS will be brighter than any of the stars.
The reason we see the ISS, and other satellites, is that they are reflecting sunlight. Even though night has fallen down here on Earth, satellites that orbit 100 miles or more above the Earth are still in daylight. The International Space Station orbits about 250 miles above the Earth.
Our Moon will start the month as a very thin crescent in the morning sky, to the left of Venus and Jupiter. These three will be in a straight line, and should provide a nice view in the southeastern sky. The new Moon will follow on the 4th. After that, Earth’s natural satellite will be in the evening sky.
On the 13th, the first-quarter Moon will lie in the open star cluster the Hyades, in the constellation Taurus, the Bull. The full Moon will be on the 19th.
A constellation we associate with spring—Leo the Lion—will soon begin to appear in the eastern evening sky. Look for the head of the Lion, which appears to me as a “backwards question mark.” The bright star Regulus is at the base of the mark, and three similarly bright stars make up the rear end of the Lion.
One good way to locate Leo is to look “below” the dipper cup in the Big Dipper. A faint constellation, Leo Minor, lies between the dipper and Leo.