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SKY GUIDE: This map represents the night sky as it appears over Maine during February. The stars are shown as they appear at 10:30 p.m. early in the month, at 9:30 p.m. at midmonth, and at 8:30 p.m. at month’s end. Jupiter is shown at its midmonth position. To use the map, hold it vertically and turn it so that the direction you are facing is at the bottom. Sky chart by Seth Lockman

The month of February is named after the Roman festival Februa, which are rites of purification. The second day of this month is Groundhog Day, which marks the halfway point of winter. We will have at least six more weeks of winter here in New England regardless of whether or not Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow.

There are several interesting highlights this month that make it well worth braving the cold as winter settles in after a mild start. The nights are getting shorter, but they are still plenty long enough to take in all of the wonders of the sky that our little local slice of the galaxy can offer.

These highlights include a very close conjunction of our two neighboring planets, Mars and Venus, late this month. Three planets – Mercury, Venus and Mars – are still visible in the eastern morning sky until Mercury drops out early this month and Venus sinks lower, even as Mars climbs higher. The second largest asteroid, Vesta will be visible in Taurus near M1, the Crab nebula. Not one but three comets will be visible this month with a small telescope. Jupiter in Aries the Ram and Uranus just to the east of it in Taurus the Bull are still visible, but getting a little fainter each night. This will be your last chance to catch Saturn in Aquarius in the evening sky. It will sink into the twilight around the middle of the month and will reappear in the morning sky in late March, about when spring starts.

There are no major meteor showers until the Lyrids in early April, but you can see the zodiacal light in the western evening sky about an hour after sunset this month and next. This light is caused by the trillions and trillions of tiny dust particles from comets reflecting sunlight back to us. So you are essentially seeing all of the comet dust at once, but it is not falling through our atmosphere to burn up and create those brilliant flashes of light that are so thrilling and remind us that we have an atmosphere that only extends about 60 miles into space, which is extremely thin compared to our radius of 8,000 miles.

The Winter Hexagon is now at its highest. It includes eight of the brightest stars in the winter sky in six different constellations. You can start at the top with Capella in Auriga the Charioteer. Think of it as “cap on the sky.” It is about two-and-a-half times as massive as the sun and 12 times as large. It is located about 42 light years away. Then move clockwise to Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull. This orange giant star is 65 light years away and about 40 times larger than our sun but only about twice as massive. It is orbited by at least one exoplanet, Aldebaran b, about six times larger than Jupiter. Then keep going another 15 degrees and you will encounter Rigel, a blue supergiant star in Orion. It is about 865 light years away, 80 times the diameter of our sun and 20 times as massive. It is only about 8 million years old but since it is burning through its fuel so fast, it will only live for about another million years. Then the supernova it will create will either become a neutron star or even a black hole.


Next you will encounter Sirius in Canis Major, the brightest star in the sky at minus 1.4 magnitude and only 8.8 light years away. Think of it as “seriously bright.” It has a white dwarf orbiting it simply named Sirius b. A white dwarf is a dead star that shrank down to the size of the earth after it blew up when it ran out of fuel and became a planetary nebula. That is the fate of about 90% of the stars in the galaxy including our own sun in about 5 billion years. Then you will run into Procyon in Canis Minor. It is about 12 light years away and twice the diameter of our sun. It also has a white dwarf orbiting it. Then close out the hexagon or winter circle with Castor and Pollux in Gemini. Castor, the mortal twin, is about 50 light years away and Pollux, the immortal twin is only 33 light years away and slightly orange in color.

Betelgeuse in the middle of this winter circle or winter hexagon marking the right shoulder of Orion is the most interesting of these eight stars. Located about 600 light years away, it is 700 times the diameter of our sun and about 20 times as massive. It is one of only a handful of naked eye visible stars that may not even be there anymore since it ran out of hydrogen fuel and is now fusing helium into carbon.

Most of the planetary action is still in the morning sky. They are all lined up within 13 degrees in the constellation of Capricorn when the month begins. Mercury and Mars are now over three degrees apart. They were less than 1 degree apart late last month. Then Mercury drops out of the picture in a few days heading toward its conjunction with the sun. It will show up as an evening planet again next month, reaching its highest in our sky toward the end of March about when spring starts.

The main highlight this month will be the very close conjunction of our two next-door planetary neighbors, Mars and Venus. Venus will pass just 0.6 degrees north of Mars on Thursday, Feb. 22, which is about the width of the full moon, or half a degree. Notice that Venus is on the way down and Mars is on the way up. Venus will keep getting lower in our morning sky, but it won’t disappear completely until May after which time it will just show up in our evening sky again about the time summer starts in June.

This is your last chance to catch Saturn in Aquarius. Notice that a very slender waxing crescent moon will be just below Saturn on Feb. 10, half an hour after sunset in the western sky. We will not lose Jupiter until early May, after which time is will just show up again as a morning planet in June about when summer starts.

The zodiacal light is best seen in February and March in the evening sky about an hour after sunset, when it is also called the false dusk. When it shows up an hour before sunrise in the morning sky in October and November it is called the false dawn. I have seen this phenomenon three or four times and it can be very subtle yet thrilling. It forms a pyramid or haystack of light which can shimmer almost as bright as the Milky Way galaxy at times from a dark sky site with no moon to interfere. This cone of light will extend through Aquarius, Pisces and Aries, engulfing Saturn, Neptune and Jupiter, and right up to the Pleiades if all of the conditions are right.



Feb. 2: Last quarter moon is at 6:18 p.m.

Feb. 4: Clyde Tombaugh was born in 1906. He would discover Pluto using a blink comparator when he was just 24 on Feb. 18, 1930. …  The moon passes just 0.6 degrees north of Antares in Scorpius.

Feb. 7: The moon passes 5 degrees south of Venus this morning.

Feb. 8: Jules Verne was born in 1828. … The moon passes 4 degrees south of Mars this morning. … The asteroid Vesta is stationary in Taurus.

Feb. 9: New moon is at 5:59 p.m.


Feb. 10: The moon passes 1.8 degrees south of Saturn this evening.

Feb. 14: In 1990 Voyager 1 took the first portrait of planets including Earth and the moon from deep space, 3.7 billion miles away, beyond the distance to Pluto. This iconic image inspired Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994).

Feb. 15: Galileo was born in 1564. … The moon passes 3 degrees north of Jupiter and Uranus this evening.

Feb. 16: First quarter moon is at 10:01 a.m.

Feb. 19: Nicolaus Copernicus was born in 1473.

Feb. 20: John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962.

Feb. 22: Venus passes 0.6 degrees north of Mars this morning.

Feb. 24: Full moon is at 7:30 a.m. This is also known as the Snow or Hunger Moon.

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

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