There are the first signs of spring in this month’s night sky even though the winter constellations are clearly on display.
The Plough is now higher in the north east, with its handle pointing in the general direction of the horizon. If you follow the curve of the handle you will come to a bright orange star low in the sky. This is Arcturus in the constellation of Bootes. Arcturus is the brightest star in the spring sky.
The ‘W’ of Cassiopeia is high in the north west.
Orion still dominates the southern part of the sky. However, as Orion is a little to the west of south, now is the best time to see Sirius the Dog Star. This is the brightest star in the sky. Using the three stars that form Orion’s belt to form a line, continue down that line and you will reach Sirius.
The stars are a very long way away. Sirius, although the brightest, is in fact very close to us, at around 8.5 light years away.
The other winter stars, Aldebaran and the Seven Sisters in Taurus are now starting to get lower in the west, while Castor and Pollux together with Procyon are now at their highest points. Capella is still high, being just past the overhead position. However, while Capella is very high, Vega, which occupied the overhead point in summer, is now at its lowest, close to the northern horizon.
Mars has the evening skies to itself this month. Brightening up the south western sky until it sets around 1.15am. The red planet starts the month at magnitude +0.4, but fades to magnitude +0.9 as it moves from Aries to Taurus. On the 18th February Mars is joined by the crescent Moon near to the Pleiades star cluster.
The two outermost planets lie to the lower right of Mars. Neptune at magnitude +7.9 is in Aquarius and sets around 7.30pm.
Slightly brighter Uranus at magnitude +5.8 lies in Aries and sinks below the horizon around midnight.
For the first few nights of this month, you will find Mercury, very low in the south-west, at magnitude +1.4 and setting about 6pm. It then moves between Earth and the Sun, to reappear in the morning sky in the last week of February. Here Mercury has a magnitude +0.5 joins the two gas giants Jupiter and Saturn.
They also emerge from the Sun’s glare at the end of the month. To the left is brilliant Jupiter at magnitude –2.0. Mercury lies in the middle, and Saturn at magnitude +0.7 is to the right. The trio of planets rise around 6am.
Venus lies to close to the Sun for observation.
February sees three ambitious space missions arriving at Mars. NASA’s Perseverance rover arrives on the 18th to search for rocks that may bear traces of life. It will retain them with a view to them being returned to Earth by a future mission. It also carries a drone helicopter for aerial surveys.
China’s rover will arrive in orbit around the Red Planet during this month and it rover will be deployed to the surface later in the summer. Thirdly the United Arab Emirates ‘Hope’ mission will survey the planets atmosphere from orbit.
Phases of the Moon this month are:-
Last quarter 4th February
New Moon 11th February
First quarter 19th February
Full Moon 27th February