February 2020

Welcome to SkyEye, your guide to this month's celestial events.

The Calendar

Venus, the evening star, is on its way to a very good apparition for observers in the northern hemisphere, gaining altitude above the western horizon every night. Mercury is also found in the west after sunset, at least at the beginning of the month. The other bright planets can be found before dawn. Not-so-bright red star Betelgeuse continues to baffle astronomers in the evening sky.

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Date Body Event
1 Mars descending node
2 Moon first quarter
6 Moon ascending node
7 Mercury ascending node
8 Moon 1.0° north of the open star cluster M44 (known as Praesepe or the Beehive Cluster)
9 Moon full
10 Mercury greatest elongation east: 18.2°
Moon perigee
12 Mercury perihelion
15 Saturn descending node
Venus ascending node
Moon last quarter
16 Mercury stationary point: direct → retrograde
18 Mars 0.7° north of NGC 6530, an open star cluster within M8, the Lagoon Nebula
Moon, Mars occultation of Mars — visible from western North America
19 Moon descending node
Moon, Jupiter occultation of Jupiter — visible from Antarctica
20 Moon, Saturn 1.7° apart
21 Mars maxiumum declination south
23 Moon new
26 Mercury inferior conjunction
Moon apogee
27 Jupiter descending node
28 Mars 0.3° north of the globular cluster M22

The Solar System

The word planet is derived from the Greek word for 'wanderer'. Unlike the background stars, planets seem to move around the sky, keeping mostly to a narrow track called the ecliptic, the path of the Sun across the stars. Dwarf planets and small solar-system bodies, including comets, are not so constrained, often moving far above or below the ecliptic.

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Sun CapricornusAquarius

Mercury CapricornusAquarius

Tiny Mercury is an evening sky object until almost the end of the month. It reaches greatest elongation east (18.2°) on 10 February and the first of four perihelia this year occurs two days later. As Mercury approaches inferior conjunction on 26 February, it first begins retrograde motion ten days before. The closest planet to the Sun is best seen from equatorial latitudes early in the month when it is a bright magnitude −1.0.

Venus AquariusPisces

The evening star continues its ascent above the western horizon for northern hemisphere observers. This apparition is much poorer when viewed from the southern hemisphere as Venus continues to lose altitude throughout the month. Regardless of where it is seen, it is a brilliant magnitude −4.2.

Earth and Moon

On 8 February, the nearly full Moon passes a degree north of the Beehive Cluster, also known as Praesepe and designated M44. The Moon also occults two superior planets this month, Mars on 18 February and Jupiter the following day.

Mars OphiuchusSagittarius

Mars passes through its descending node on the first day of the month. It will remain south of the ecliptic until early December. The red planet is busy on 18 February, passing 0.7° north of the open star cluster NGC6530 (located within M8, the Lagoon Nebula) and then being occulted by the Moon. The occultation begins around 11:15 UT and is visible from western North America. Three days later Mars reaches its maximum declination south for the year. On the penultimate day of the month, Mars glides past another Messier object, globular cluster M22. Mars begins the month at magnitude +1.4 but as it draws nearer to Earth, it brightens to +1.1 by the close of February.

Jupiter Sagittarius

The largest planet in the solar system is a morning sky object and is best seen from southern latitudes where it rises ahead of the dawn. Shining at magnitude −1.9, it passses south of the 'Teaspoon' asterism of the constellation Sagittarius over the course of the month. The waning crescent Moon occults Jupiter on 19 February but this event will likely be viewed only by a few penguins in the Antarctic. Finally, Jupiter passes through its descending node on 27 February.

Saturn Sagittarius

After last month's conjunction, Saturn reappears in the dawn sky. Like Jupiter, the ringed planet crosses its descending node this month. For Saturn, this event occurs on 15 February. The waning crescent Moon passes 1.7° south of Saturn five days later. The tilt of the rings is gradually lessening and as a result, Saturn dims slightly, ending the month at magnitude +0.7.

Uranus Aries

Uranus is visible in the evening and is best seen from northern latitudes. Dark skies are required to spot this sixth-magnitude object with the naked eye so try during the latter half of the month when the Moon is absent.

Neptune Aquarius

A small telescope is always necessary to view the most distant planet in the solar system. Like Uranus, Neptune is an evening sky object but look for it early in the month as it is soon lost in twilit skies. On 11 February, the blue ice giant passes fourth-magnitude star φ Aquarii.

The Celestial Sphere

Constellations are patterns of stars in the sky. The International Astronomical Union recognises 88 different constellations. The brightest stars as seen from the Earth are easy to spot but do you know their proper names? With a set of binoculars you can look for fainter objects such as nebulae and galaxies and star clusters or some of the closest stars to the Sun.

Descriptions of the sky for observers in both the northern and southern hemispheres are available for the following times this month. Subtract one hour from your local time if summer (daylight savings) time is in effect.

Local Time Mid-month Northern Hemisphere Equator Southern Hemisphere
1730 hours (1830 hours summer time) 60° N 50° N 40° N 30° N 20° N 10° N 10° S 20° S 30° S 40° S
1930 hours (2030 hours summer time) 60° N 50° N 40° N 30° N 20° N 10° N 10° S 20° S 30° S 40° S
2130 hours (2230 hours summer time) 60° N 50° N 40° N 30° N 20° N 10° N 10° S 20° S 30° S 40° S
2330 hours (0030 hours summer time) 60° N 50° N 40° N 30° N 20° N 10° N 10° S 20° S 30° S 40° S
0130 hours (0230 hours summer time) 60° N 50° N 40° N 30° N 20° N 10° N 10° S 20° S 30° S 40° S
0330 hours (0430 hours summer time) 60° N 50° N 40° N 30° N 20° N 10° N 10° S 20° S 30° S 40° S
0530 hours (0630 hours summer time) 60° N 50° N 40° N 30° N 20° N 10° N 10° S 20° S 30° S 40° S