The month of February is named after februare, which are the ancient Roman rites of purification. For those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, this month also marks the halfway point of the winter season, which falls on Feb. 2, Groundhog Day. The Christian Candlemas also occurs on this day.

Although February is usually the coldest month of the year, each day grows several minutes longer on the steady march toward spring, and there are several good highlights well worth observing this month. These include three of our brightest planets visible in the morning sky, a very close conjunction of Venus and Saturn, several nice conjunctions of the moon with bright planets, and yet another comet.

This is a good month to get better acquainted with the winter hexagon and its many denizens if you haven’t done much searching into this part of our sky. This roughly hexagonal-shaped group of stars in our southern evening sky contains most of the brightest winter stars, along with many good stories and myths.

Start with Capella in Auriga, at the top of this hexagon. Located about 43 light years away, Capella is actually a binary star. Continue clockwise to Aldebaran in Taurus, an interesting orange giant star 150 times brighter than our sun, located about 65 light years away. Its name means “the follower,” since it seems to be following the Pleiades around the sky. At 7 billion years of age, it is 2.5 billion years older than our sun. If there were any inhabited planets orbiting this star, they would have had 2.5 billion more years to evolve than we have. Think about it.

Keep traveling to Rigel, the blue supergiant star marking the left knee of Orion as the great hunter perpetually faces us in the sky. Located about 900 light years away, the light from this star left there at about the time of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when William the Conqueror ascended to the English throne. Halley’s Comet was sighted during that battle, as is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. If you simply take the distance to each of these stars and relate them to historical events on Earth, you will review a good slice of recent history along with obtaining a more 3-D view of this seemingly flat hexagon in nearby space.

Then you will encounter Sirius in Canis Major, the brightest star in the entire sky visible from Earth. Only 8.8 light years away, you can’t go far back into history when you look at the source of this star. Known as the Dog Star, Sirius has a white dwarf companion star that completes one orbit around it every 50 years.

Continue to the dimmest of these eight stars, Procyon in Canis Minor, and not much farther away than Sirius. Procyon also has a white dwarf star orbiting around it, in its case every 40 years.

We will complete our circle with Castor and Pollux in Gemini the Twins. Each is about 50 light years away, but Castor is actually a system of six stars and Pollux is also a multiple star system. Even with good telescopes, much more is up there than meets the eye. A son of Zeus, Pollux is the immortal twin and Castor is the mortal twin.

Then we will land on Betelgeuse in the center of this hexagon, or winter circle, as it is also called, the most intriguing of all these stars. Why? Because it may not even exist anymore – it may have already run out of fuel and exploded as a supernova. Betelgeuse is about 700 times larger than our sun and located about 500 light years away, qualities that make it very similar to another red supergiant star, Antares in Scorpius, which is close to where Jupiter is now located.

Brilliant Venus has now been overtaken by Jupiter in the morning sky. Venus rises around 4:30 a.m., but Jupiter rises around 3 a.m. Venus will continue to sink lower until we finally lose it into the sun’s glare about the time that summer starts. Through a telescope you would see that Venus is now more than half illuminated by the sun and getting larger, similar to a waxing gibbous moon. Jupiter continues to rise a little earlier and get a little brighter each morning on its way to opposition in early June.

Saturn now rises just after Venus does, but they will rise at the same time on Monday the 18th, producing a close conjunction just one degree apart, which is only twice the width of the full moon. Notice that Venus will be nearly 100 times brighter than Saturn, even though it is actually about 10 times smaller than Saturn. Venus is about the same distance from us now as the sun, and Saturn is nearly 1 billion miles away, or 10 times farther. The net result is that each planet is about the same size in our sky.

Notice that Jupiter, Venus and Saturn will be about evenly spaced in our morning sky 45 minutes before sunrise by the end of the first week of this month. Then continue watching this celestial dance of great motion as Venus sinks, and Saturn and Jupiter keep climbing higher. A waning crescent moon will pass very close to Jupiter in Scorpius on the morning of the 26th.

Mars is the only evening planet, avoiding all the action and drama now taking place in the morning sky. The red planet continues to set at about 11 p.m. all month, as it will do right through spring. We are well ahead of Mars now in our orbits. Mars is moving eastward at nearly the same rate that we are moving around the sun, which is one constellation per month. The net result is that it stays in nearly the same place, but that is deceptive since we are always orbiting the sun at 18.6 miles per second and Mars is only a little slower at 15 miles per second.

To maintain our lucky string of fairly bright comets, we will have another one this month. Called Comet c/2018 Y 1, Japanese astronomer Masayuki Iwamoto just discovered this one in December. It could reach about 8th magnitude by its closest approach on the 11th. So you would need binoculars to see it, but it would be a good challenge with a great reward of spotting a primordial first-time visitor to our solar system on a steep parabolic plunge around our sun. It will be in Leo just above its bright star Regulus on the 11th. That also happens to be close to where the sun was on Aug. 21, 2017, during that amazing solar eclipse and also where the moon was recently during the total lunar eclipse at the supermoon last month.

Unfortunately it was cloudy for most of this area for that great event, but I did watch several live feeds with great pictures showing the lunar transformation as it reflected sunlight back to us that was filtered through the earth’s thin and precious atmosphere. It attained an ever-changing, stunningly beautiful light coppery orange-red color while it was completely immersed in our shadow for about one hour. It looked three-dimensional and very close to earth during this rare time. The next one will not happen until May 26, 2021.

FEBRUARY HIGHLIGHTS

Feb. 1: A star, three planets and the moon form a graceful arc in our morning sky.

Feb. 4: New moon is at 4:05 p.m. Clyde Tombaugh was born on this day in 1906. He would discover Pluto 24 years later.

Feb. 8: Jules Verne was born on this day in 1828.

Feb. 10: The moon is just below Mars in Pisces tonight.

Feb. 12: First-quarter moon is at 5:27 p.m.

Feb. 14: On this day in 1990, Voyager 1 took a portrait of all the planets in the inner solar system from deep space.

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

Feb. 18: Venus and Saturn will be just one degree apart this morning.

Feb. 19: Full moon is at 10:55 a.m. This is also called the Hunger or Snow Moon. Nicolaus Copernicus was born on this day in 1473.

Feb. 21: Mercury appears low in our evening sky.

Feb. 23: Pioneer 11 left the solar system in 1990.

Feb. 26: Last-quarter moon is at 6:29 a.m.

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


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