Welcome to February, our shortest month. The month will feature great evening views of Venus, Jupiter in the morning, and some nice overhead passes of the International Space Station. Step outside when the weather clears!
Let’s start with Venus. Our neighbor planet will be brilliant, outshining everything except the Moon in the night sky. Venus is bright enough to be seen during the day, and has been mistaken by Aircraft controllers as an approaching plane. You can’t miss it, Venus will be bright and dazzling in the western sky after sunset.
Venus can be bright enough to even cast a faint shadow, and February may be a good time to look for it. Years ago, on a winter morning with Venus bright in the sky, I saw the faint shadow of trees cast on the white snow.
If you still have snow in February, it may make a nice contrast and allow you to view the subtle shadow. It would require a dark site, away from artificial lights, and with the Moon out of the sky. Mid-month, after Feb. 11 or 12, should work best.
On the first of February, look for a pretty lineup of Venus, Mars, and the crescent Moon in the southwestern sky after dark. Mars will be to the left of Venus, with the Moon farther again to the left.
February’s full Moon will be on Feb. 10, with new Moon following on Feb. 26. On Feb. 5, the waxing gibbous Moon will lie near the bright star Aldebaran. On Feb. 15, you’ll find the waning gibbous Moon near Jupiter, in the morning sky.
Giant Jupiter is again growing closer to us, and is prominent in the morning sky. It is also entering the evening sky rising at about 11:15 p.m. at the start of the month, and at about 9:25 p.m. by the end of February. Jupiter will be at its closest in 2017 on April 7.
The International Space Station (ISS) makes some nice passes overhead in February. The best will be on Feb. 1, at about 5:50 p.m., Feb. 3 at about 5:42 p.m., and Feb. 11 at about 6:45 p.m.
On these dates the ISS will be brighter and will pass high overhead. Other dates may have passes where the ISS stays closer to the horizon. It moves from west to east, so look first to the west. You can check out other flyover times for the ISS at Heavens-Above online, at http://www.heavens-above.com/. You will need to enter your location to get an accurate time.
An interesting constellation to view in February is Gemini. Look for the Twin constellation to the left of Orion, in the eastern sky. Gemini is dominated by two almost equally bright stars, Castor and Pollux – names that come from Greek mythology. As you view them in the eastern sky, Castor will be the higher star in the sky, and Pollux the lower one.
Castor is actually a complex made up of six stars. Through a telescope, you can see that Castor is a double-star. A third, fainter star orbits them…and all three are made up of two stars, too close to each other to coax apart. So when you look at Castor, you’re actually seeing six different stars.
You may have noticed the increase in day length recently. It will pick up steam in February. At the start of the month, there will be about 9 hours and 45 minutes of daylight. By the end of February, that will increase to just over 11 hours of day length. Spring is coming!