The night sky in February 2016

posted 2 Feb 2016, 07:41 by Pete Collins
by Anne Holt

Sunset   Feb 1st:  16-51     Feb 29th:  17-46

As I'm sure you all know
'February brings the rain,
Thaws the frozen ponds again.'

I've just looked at the long range weather forecast for Manchester,  it looks as if the first part of the rhyme is true,  they are predicting only 3 or 4 dry days in February.  One of these is a Thursday but don't get too excited just yet - you know how these things change.

So, what are February's highlights?  A couple of clear nights, perhaps. However, there are a few things going on above the clouds.We still have 5 planets visible in the morning sky but as the month progresses Mercury and Venus are getting lower and lower in the dawn sky.There is also a minor meteor shower and a couple of comets.

Constellations

Orion
and Taurus are now above the horizon as the sky darkens but start to set at around 2am at the start of February and soon after midnight by the end of the month.
Gemini and Auriga are still prominemt, remaining above the horizon until the early hours.
Leo, the signpost constellation of Spring, is now high in the sky for most of the night and Bootes, with it's bright red start Arcturus is rising soon after 11, and around 9 at month end.
In the early part of the evening the Plough is low in the North East standing on its 'handle', and Cassiopeia high in the North West as darkness falls.
By month end, the Summer Triangle will have risen soon after 3am - Summer already?  Someone better tell the weather.

Planets

Mercury is in Sagittarius, mag 0. Reaches greatest eastern elongation on 7th but, because of the angle of the ecliptic at this time, will still be close to the horizon and not easy to spot.  On 12th it will be 4 degrees below left of Venus.  Look low in the south east between 7am and sunrise at 7-34. By month end it will be lost in the brightening sky.

Venus is in Sagittarius, mag - 3.9. At the start of the month it is still shining brilliantly, low in the south eastern morning sky, rising a couple of hours before the sun.  By month end it will also be difficult to see in the dawn glow as it rises less than an hour before the sun.

Mars is in Libra, mag 0.8. Rises at 1am at the start of February, slightly earlier by month end, when it will also have brightened to mag 0.3.   On 1st it is 1 degree north of alpha Librae. Its apparent size is still increasing - decent amateur scopes should show some of the dark markings and northern polar caps. Best seen just before the sky begins to brighten, when it is at its highest point in the sky.

Jupiter is in Leo, mag -2.5. Rising at 7.30pm in early Feb, a little after 6pm by the end.  It reaches its highest point while the sky is still dark throughout the month, so this is a good time to view it through a telescope and see the dark bands and the Galilean satellites. On the morning of 17th the shadow of the largest moon, Ganymede, crosses the planet between 03.50 and 07.22. On 29th there is a double transit, the shadow of Europa can be seen between 20.33 and 23.20.  It is joined by Europa's at 22,32.  Between 22.46 and 23.20 the two moons and their shadows can all be seen on the face of the planet.

Saturn is in Ophiuchus, mag 0.5. Rises around 4.30am in early Feb, before 3am by month end. It is quite low in the sky, but well worth seeing through a telescope, especially towards the end of the month, as the rings are now wide open making it a beautiful sight.

Uranus is in Pisces, mag 5.9. Not at its best now, setting around 10pm at the start of the month and soon after 8 by the end. At 18.33 on 21st it will be just 3 degrees north west of the 21% lit crescent moon.

Neptune:  not visible


Meteors

Not much in the way of meteor showers in February, there are a couple which are only visible from the southern hemisphere and the delta Leonids which can be seen from our latitudes. These are active between Feb 9th and March 12th.  Peak Feb 26th,  ZHR 5. Slow moving meteors leaving trains,  average mag about 3, this year will be adversely affected by the 90% waxing moon. These have only been observed relatively recently,  first recorded in 1911 and originally thought to belong to a later shower.  Proved to be one in their own right after a radio echo survey between 1961 and 1965 showed that the Earth passes through a dust stream between the dates given.  It cannot be linked to a particular comet and is said to be a temporary stream.  In a thousand years the shower will have ceased to exist.

Comets

C2013/US10 Catalina is still around, though it is fading, estimated to be about mag 8 by the end of the month. On 1st it is 9 degrees from Polaris, then moves southwards through Camelopardis. On 8th/9th it passes close by the globular cluster Collinder 464. On the evening of 22nd it passes close to open cluster NGC1502 and the line of faint stars known as Kemble's Cascade.

Comet P/2010 V Ikeya-Murakami will also be visible through telescopes for all of February.  This comet has a period of only 5.29 years.  It was discovered in November 2010, so is now making a return visit to our skies. It will be moving westwards above Leo's sickle asterism and is predicted to reach mag 8 by month end.

Both could be visible in binoculars from dark sky sites and are best viewed around the first half and last few days of the month, when the moon will not be around to interfere .
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