The month of February is named after Februa, which was the Roman festival of purification. We are now halfway through winter. That point is marked by Groundhog Day on the second of this month. Legend has it that if the groundhog sees its shadow, it will retreat back into its burrow and there will be six more weeks of winter. For us in Maine, there will be six more weeks of winter regardless of this artificial outcome.

There will be several interesting highlights that will be well worth making the effort to observe this month that will give you a much better sense of the dynamic and ever-changing nature of our solar system. These include Jupiter at its best, a slowly fading bright comet arcing through Perseus and Andromeda, a large asteroid crawling through Cancer the Crab, a good chance at seeing a fireball or bolide, and a great triple conjunction of our closest planetary neighbors.

Carefully observing this quintet of very different events and applying it to similar scenarios in our solar system will give you a better appreciation of planetary orbits, the motions and nature of comets and asteroids, and the nature of tiny objects burning up high in our atmosphere.

Jupiter will reach opposition this month on Friday the 6th. That means it will rise at sunset, stay in the sky all night long and not set until sunrise. A superior planet is always at its best and brightest at this point, because it is closest to Earth in its elliptical orbits as it gets exactly opposite Earth from the sun on that day. That happens about every 13 months for all the superior planets except for Mars, which only reaches opposition once every 26 months because it is so much closer to us than the other superior planets.

Jupiter began its retrograde or westward motion in the sky on Dec. 9 of last year and will end its retrograde motion on April 8 this year. The midpoint of this retrograde loop that superior planets appear to trace through the sky is known as it opposition. Since Saturn is well behind Jupiter now, the opposition of Saturn will not happen until May 22 of this year, although it will start its retrograde loop in Libra on March 14.

The King of the Planets shines brilliantly just above and to the right of Regulus, the brightest star in Leo the Lion. Notice that it is still about four times fainter than Venus. Jupiter rotates on its axis in just 10 hours, so you will be able to witness a complete rotation through a telescope and look for its famous red spot and many other nice cloud bands and turbulence features since the planet is visible for 12 hours straight near its opposition.


Another unusual phenomenon to look for this month through a telescope will be several mutual occultations and eclipses of Jupiter’s four large Galilean moons. This is possible because the plane of its moons is edge on to Earth now for a few months. All four of its largest moons will be lined up in order to the east side of Jupiter on the night of its opposition. The order will be Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. On the night of the 26th, three of its moons will go through four mutual occultations and eclipses.

Just by watching Jupiter and its miniature solar system this month, you will see the results and applications of many laws of physics and be better able to identify with Galileo as he first saw some of these events 406 years ago and used them to prove that Earth can’t be the center of our solar system.

Saturn starts the month rising around 4 a.m. and by the end of February will be rising around 2 a.m. It continues to rise a little earlier each night as it approaches its own opposition on May 22. Notice that the ringed planet is about 80 times fainter than Venus.

Last month Venus and Mercury put on a great show and we learned about the contrasts and similarities of our first two planets since they were so prominent in our evening sky. This month we can extend that knowledge to our neighbor on the other side, Mars. Mercury has dropped out of our evening sky and Mars sinks lower as Venus climbs higher. Watch our two closest celestial neighbors catch up with each other for the first 20 days this month. They will be less than 1 degree apart on Friday the 20th when a slender waxing crescent moon will join the pair one hour after sunset in the western sky. The next evening Mars and Venus will be even closer together, but the moon will be 14 degrees above the pair. Try to photograph this rare and stunning conjunction both for its beauty and its scientific value.

We just found evidence of the Beagle 2 lander that the British sent to Mars back on June 2, 2003. We have pictures of the partly opened lander, a parachute, a cover and possibly an air bag. It would have been a great Christmas gift to the whole world on Dec. 25 of 2003 when the Mars Express dropped this highly innovative probe that would have revealed many more mysteries about Mars including possible life on this alien world.

Comet Lovejoy is nicely visible in binoculars above and to the right of the Winter Hexagon. It will pass to the right of a galaxy called NGC 891 in Perseus on the first of the month and then just to the right of M76, also known as the Little Dumbbell Nebula on the 20th. It should fade to 8th magnitude this month.


Our fourth largest asteroid, Juno, a potato-shaped rock 170 miles in diameter, can be seen crawling through Cancer the Crab, not far from Jupiter this month. It is about 8th magnitude, so you will need at least a pair of binoculars to see this minor planet orbiting the sun in our sky. Juno will pass close to M44, an open cluster known as the Beehive, and M67, another open star cluster. You will notice that it moved if you look at it every three to four hours.

There are no major meteor showers until April, but you have a chance of catching five or six sporadic meteors not associated with any particular comet each hour on clear, moonless nights. They are known as a fireball if they are brighter than Venus and it is called a bolide if it explodes at the end of its path, which can light up the night sky for a split second as if a giant flash bulb went off to photograph the terrestrial night and all of its earthly surroundings for that instant.


Feb. 1: Neptune passes less than 1 degree north of Venus tonight.

Feb. 3: Full moon is at 6:09 p.m. EST. This is also called the Snow Moon or Hunger Moon.

Feb. 4: Clyde Tombaugh was born on this day in 1906. He would discover Pluto on the 18th of this month in 1930.


Feb. 6: Jupiter is at opposition tonight. Alan Shepard hit golf balls on the moon on this day in 1971.

Feb. 7: The Stardust comet probe was launched on this day in 1999.

Feb. 8: On this day in 1974, the last Skylab mission ended.

Feb. 11: Mercury is stationary. Last quarter moon is at 10:50 p.m. The first Japanese satellite was launched on this day in 1970.

Feb. 12: The moon passes 2 degrees north of Saturn tonight.

Feb. 15: Galileo Galilei was born on this day in 1564.


Feb. 18: New moon is at 6:47 p.m.

Feb. 19: Nicholas Copernicus was born on this day in 1473.

Feb. 20: The moon, Mars and Venus pass very close tonight.

Feb.23: Supernova 1987 a in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our own, exploded today in 1987.

Feb. 25: First quarter moon is at 12:14 p.m.

Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England.

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