The month of February is named after the word Februa, which are the ancient Roman rites of purification. We can all do some of that this month as we look up into the cold midwinter skies to ponder what is really out there beyond the earth.

Groundhog Day on the second of every February marks the half way point through winter. This is one of four cross quarter days each year. This one is also called Candlemas, which is a Christian holiday.

The highlights for this month include a plethora of planets in the morning sky and one lone planet, Venus, finally returning to our evening sky late this month. Then we have some nice lunar conjunctions with the planets and a partial solar eclipse on the 15th during new moon that will not be visible for us in this country.

Jupiter now rises around 2 a.m., but it is rising about 4 minutes earlier each day, just like each individual star would do, so by the end of this month the King of the Planets will be rising around midnight.

Jupiter can be found in the constellation of Libra the Scales, just to the west or right of Scorpius, with the bright orange supergiant star Antares marking the heart of the Scorpion. That is an incredible star that is about 400 light years away from us and about 700 times bigger than our sun. Its name means “rival of Mars”, since the Greek word for Mars is Ares. This star seems to be a rival because it is very similar in brightness and color to Mars. To give you a better sense of just how enormous this star really is, if you could place it where our sun is in the sky, the surface of Antares would stretch all the way to Mars, thereby engulfing its own namesake.

Antares is similar in size and color and distance to another famous star that is very visible right in the middle of the winter hexagon, called Betelgeuse. Notice the orange hue of all three of those bright celestial objects. Both Betelgeuse and Antares are fairly young at only around 10 million years, and they are both near the end of their lives because of the prodigious rate that they are burning through their enormous amounts of fuel. Betelgeuse has already run out of Hydrogen and is now fusing helium into carbon. It is one of only a handful of naked eye visible stars that may actually already have exploded, but most likely it still has about 100,000 years to live.

Jupiter takes 12 years to orbit the sun, so it spends one year in each of the 12 zodiac constellations. However, it doesn’t just make a smooth eastward trip along the ecliptic, because it goes through a retrograde loop every 13 months, appearing to stop, back up and move westward for about 4 months before returning to its regular direct eastward motion. This is just an optical illusion, since all the planets are nearly in the same plane, so as the faster-moving Earth catches up with them, they appear to stop moving and then they even move backward for a while until we get far enough ahead of them again.

Mars is slowly drifting farther away from Jupiter this month and closer to Antares in Scorpius. The red planet rises at about 2:30 a.m. beginning this month and will only rise about half an hour earlier by the end of the month. It is moving eastward along the ecliptic at about the same rate that we are moving around the sun, so the net result is that it doesn’t rise much earlier each morning. However, Mars is also getting a little brighter and closer and larger each morning.

Notice that Mars will be only 5 degrees above Antares on Feb. 11 and 12. They will both be about first magnitude and the same color. Then keep watching as Mars slowly gets brighter than Antares by the end of the month and will just keep getting brighter and closer until the end of July. A waning crescent moon will pass near Jupiter and Mars and Antares one hour before sunrise during the mornings of the 7th, 8th and 9th.

Saturn is the last of the morning trio to rise. It now rises around 5 a.m., and it will rise by 3 a.m. by the end of the month. Saturn is also getting a little brighter and closer each morning, but at a slower rate. It will be at its best toward the end of June, just after summer starts.

Saturn can now be found in Sagittarius, just east of Scorpius that harbors Mars and Libra, which hosts Jupiter now. Notice that an even thinner waning crescent moon will pass right over Saturn on Sunday morning the 11th. This will make for some good pictures if you can capture it.

Venus is finally returning to our evening sky. Try to challenge yourself to see how early you can find it in our west-southwestern evening sky. You will probably need binoculars to spot it before the middle of this month. By Friday the 16th, Venus will be just below a very slender waxing crescent moon only 20 minutes after sunset. Then keep watching as the moon gets a little larger and 12 degrees farther above Venus each evening after that. Through a telescope, you will see that Venus is close to fully illuminated by the sun because it just passed superior conjunction with the sun and was at its farthest from Earth on Jan. 11.

Mercury is too close to the sun now. But you may be able to spot it in the evening sky near Venus during the last few days of the month.

Since we are in an eclipse season again, having just had a total lunar eclipse on the last day on January, we will also have a partial solar eclipse this month. Neither one of those will be visible for us, but there will be a chance to catch the very beginning of the lunar eclipse just as the sun rises and the moon sets on the last morning of January.

The solar eclipse will only be about a 70 percent partial or just a little more than what we could see here in Maine for the great American total solar eclipse last August. It will only be visible over the southern part of South America and parts of Antarctica on Thursday the 15th. It will pass just south of where the next two good total solar eclipses will be over Chile and Argentina. The first one is less than two years away on July 2, 2019, and the next one is right behind it on Dec. 14, 2020.


Feb. 2-16: The zodiacal light can be seen in the western sky after sunset as a faint pyramid of hazy light from a dark sky site with no moon. This is caused by all the dust in the ecliptic plane of our solar system, made visible to us as it reflects sunlight back to us.

Feb. 4: Clyde Tombaugh was born on this day in 1906. He would discover Pluto just 24 years later on Feb. 18, 1930.

Feb. 7: Last quarter moon is at 10:55 a.m.

Feb. 8: Jules Verne was born on this day in 1828. Notice that Antares, Mars, the waning crescent moon and Jupiter will form a celestial arc through Scorpius and Libra this morning.

Feb. 11: Mars will be closest to Antares this morning at just 5 degrees above it.

Feb. 15: Galileo was born on this day in 1564. New moon is at 4:06 p.m. There will be a partial solar eclipse.

Feb. 19: Nicholas Copernicus was born on this day in 1473. The Russian Mir space station was launched on this day in 1986 and lasted 15 years in space.

Feb. 20: John Glenn became the first American to go into orbit on this day in 1962, and only the second human to do so after Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961.

Feb. 23: The moon will occult Aldebaran in Taurus again this morning. Supernova 1987 A was discovered on this day in the Tarantula nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Last quarter moon is at 3:10 a.m. Pioneer 11 left the solar system on this day in 1990.

Feb. 28: The nearly full moon will occult Regulus in Leo this morning.

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

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