February 2020

Venus, ever bright, remains a fixture in the evening sky this month as it slides alongside the western fish of Pisces. When the month starts, a first quarter moon is high above the planet in Cetus. After most of a lunar month, watch for a crescent moon near Venus in the middle of Pisces on the 27th. The next night, the moon will be almost exactly where it was among the stars when the month started.

Mercury is an evening object at February’s start. It climbs into Aquarius as the constellation slides into the sunset. By the last week of the month, Mercury is pretty much lost with the water bearer’s stars in the sunset’s glow.

North of Pisces, look for Pegasus, recognizable for its Great Square. On the rising side of the sky, see Orion, in which Betelgeuse is mysteriously fading lately. Like many stars, it is variable. But in the last few months, it has become dimmer than anyone expected. Perhaps we can never be sure until the star has vanished, but the experts do not believe it is dying just yet although it is a relatively old star. Some estimates put it at more than 8 billion years old.

A few hours into the evening and Leo is rising. Virgo rises around midnight. Hours later, still a bit before sunrise, you can see Mars rising next to Antares, so named because it was said to be the red planet’s rival. In ancient Greece, Ares was the god of war. Antares was the rival or opponent of Ares. The Romans called the planet Mars. The late Jack Horkheimer, who invited everyone to engage in astronomy on the Star Gazer TV program, said he was glad the Romans didn’t rename the star Antmars!

By the time Jupiter rises, the morning light is apparent. The big planet is by the teapot lid of Sagittarius. Saturn is a little harder to spot, rising near the same constellation but later into the coming sunrise. Jupiter and Saturn don’t seem to move much this month against the stellar background. But Mars is moving toward them. When the moon passes by Mars on the 18th, the planet is closing in on the teapot lid. More about that in a moment. The moon’s waning crescent passes by Jupiter the next morning and Saturn the morning after that. Also during this time, Sagittarius and the planets by it rise earlier and become easier to see.

On the 24th, Mars appears to be above Kaus Borealis, whose name means northern bow star. It is part of the bow that the archer Sagittarius holds. The red planet continues moving toward Jupiter in the weeks ahead. It will not be until the middle of March when Mars is near Jupiter and nearly the end of March when it’s near Saturn.

When the moon passes near Mars on the 18th, it will actually pass in front of the planet for some viewers. The western parts of North America will get to see the occultation that morning. Eastern parts of the continent will have the challenge of tracking the moon and the planet during the daytime. A telescope will help, but it doesn’t guarantee results.

In recent years, a full moon that happens within a day of perigee has become popularly known as a supermoon. February’s full moon will be the first of four so-called supermoons in a row.

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