The night sky in February 2017

posted 31 Jan 2017, 15:45 by Pete Collins
by Anne Holt

Sunrise:  1st    07.54        28th     06.59
Sunset:   1st    16.32        28th     17.54

Astronomical darkness
1st:   18.53  to   05.57      28th:   19.41  to  05.00

Full Moon  11th      New Moon   26th

Struggling to find any real highlights this month.  Venus and Jupiter are still bright and well placed,  we have a couple of comets described as 'binocular' - though probably only visible through scopes in our polluted skies. 

There's a penumbral Lunar eclipse on 26th/27th, when the Moon passes through the outer, fainter, part of the Earth's shadow.  If the sky is clear a slight darkening may be seen between 22.34 and 02.53.

On 26th, there is an annular Solar eclipse.  the Moon is at its furthest from Earth, so the disc appears too small to cover the sun,  leaving a ring of light.  The bad news is that it is only visible from certain parts of S America, the South Atlantic and S W Africa.  

There are some bright early evening passes of the International Space Station from 1st to 12th of the month. See heavens-above.com ISS visible passes

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:   in Sagittarius until 7th, then moves through Capricorn and into Aquarius on 25th.  Not easily seen this month, on 1st it rises less than an hour before the Sun and a few minutes after it on 28th.   On the first few days of February it might just be possible to spot it, very low in the SE about 20 minutes before sunrise.

Venus:  in Pisces, mag - 4.5. Now at its brightest, shining like a beacon in the SW evening sky, setting around 21.15 throughout February.  During the month, observers using a scope or good binoculars will be able to see the crescent become thinner and the diameter increase as the planet is now moving towards us.

Mars:  in Pisces, mag 0.9. Remains quite close to Venus throughout February - slightly higher and to the left of the much brighter planet.  Sets at 21.38 on 1st, when it will appear midway between Venus and the 24% lit waxing Moon. By month end it will have faded slightly to mag 1.1 and set a few minutes later at 21.49.

Jupiter:  in Virgo, mag -2.1. Rises at 23.22 on 1st and 21.32 at month end, shining brightly in the later part of the night.  It culminates (reaches its highest point in the sky) during astronomical darkness throughout the month. From 6th it is retrograde - appearing to move Westwards against the background stars.

Saturn:  in Ophiuchus, mag 0.6. Still not well placed, though its position is improving slightly.  It rises a few minutes after 5am on 1st and at 03.30 by month end - when it will have finally moved out of Ophiuchus into Sagittarius.  The waxing crescent moon passes a few degrees above it on the night of 20th/21st.  

Uranus:  in Pisces, mag 5.9. Best seen in early Feb, when it sets a little before 11.30.  On 26th it is just over half a degree SE of Mars and both should be visible through good binoculars.  Best seen around 18.30 when they will be 28 degrees above the SW horizon.  Both planets set at 21.50.

Neptune:  in Aquarius, mag 8.0. Appears very close to the Sun this month.  On 1st it sets at 19.27, about 2 1/2 hours after the Sun and just before it by 28th.

Meteors

No major showers this month - unless you are in the Southern Hemisphere on 7th/8th when the alpha Centaurids peak.    For those of us further North the best we can manage is the delta Leonids, active between Feb 9th and March 12th, peak 26th,  ZHR up to 5.  These are slow moving, not particularly bright meteors often leaving trains.  First  recorded in 1911, they are not associated with any particular comet and are thought to be a temporary stream caused when the Earth passes through a dust cloud lying across its orbit.     The later part of the month might see some activity from the antihelion source - meteors, not belonging to a specific shower,  which appear to emanate from the point on the ecliptic directly opposite the position of the sun.

Comets

A couple of theoretically binocular comets are visible in our skies this month. 

45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova is just past perihelion and will be very low in the East just before sunrise at the start of the month, when it is predicted to have a magnitude of around 7.  As it moves rapidly Northwards it becomes visible earlier - towards the end of the month it passes above Leo and will be visible from 21.00, though it is expected to have faded to mag 11.   It is at its closest to Earth on 11th - the night of the full Moon.

C/2015 V2 (Johnson).  the orbit of this comet is thought to be a hyberbola, an open curve, so when it has passed round the Sun it will travel to the outer reaches of the Solar System, or beyond, never to return.   It starts February in Bootes, moving Westwards across the sky into Hercules by mid month. It has yet to reach its predicted maximum brightness.

For more details of these,  see www.cometwatch.co.uk  and  https://theskylive.com
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