It may be a short month, but there’s plenty to see in the night sky in February. In this month’s night sky forecast, you’ll find eight events worth bundling up for and braving the winter weather on a clear night. Don’t forget that February is also a great time to try and see the northern lights if you live in (or are traveling to) a destination at high enough latitude.
Where necessary, we have noted where you may need binoculars or a telescope to help you get the best view of each celestial event. If you need a telescope to help enjoy this month’s night sky events, we have a guide to the best stargazing telescopes. From the Meade Polaris 130 (under $200) to the Orion Atlas 8 EQ-G GoTo ($2000), you can find one for your astronomy interest and budget.
Did you know? These are some of the best stargazing events this month – but there are many other interesting events and good nights for stargazing all year long.
Learn more and get your copy of The Night Sky in 2020: When to Go Stargazing All Year Long for just $3.99.
Read on to learn about the eight events you can’t miss in the night sky in February.
February 7 – Close Approach of the Moon & M44
Messier 44 (M44), also known as the Beehive Cluster, will be easy to find late on the night of February 7th. On that night (actually just after midnight on the 8th), M44 and the Moon will pass within 1°17′ of each other, making it easy to move from the Moon to M44. You’ll need binoculars to get a good view of M44, which looks like a collection of stars – both red giants and white dwarfs – that are actually about 520 to 610 light-years away.
Unfortunately, you may struggle to get a great view of M44 on this night, as the Moon will be 98% illuminated. Light pollution from the Moon, especially if you live in an area with poor air quality, may interfere with your ability to spot M44.
February 8 – Peak of the α-Centaurid Meteor Shower
If you’re looking to spot meteors in February, your best bet will be on the night of February 8th when the α-Centaurid (alpha Centaurid) meteor shower will peak. The α-Centaurids typically occur from January 28th to February 21st each year; in 2020, the peak night is expected to be on February 8th. On this night you can expect to see roughly 5 meteors per hour.
To spot α-Centaurids on this night, look for the constellation Centaurus, which is the radiant point. As this constellation is only visible for those in the southern hemisphere, sky-viewers in the northern hemisphere will struggle to spot any meteors above the horizon. However, a night sky app may help in case it’s near the horizon based on your latitude. While meteors will appear to radiate from this point, you should be able to see meteors from anywhere in that area of the night sky.
February 11 – Mercury Reaches its Highest Point in the Evening Sky
Tiny Mercury can be tricky to spot even at the best of times – but it’s so often hidden in the glare of the sun that those ‘best of times’ are not very common! Your first good chance to see Mercury in 2020 will be on the evening of February 11th. On this evening, you may be able to spot Mercury just after sunset, when the sun dips below the horizon but Mercury is still above it.
Specifically, Mercury will reach its peak altitude of 17° above the horizon after sunset; it will be in line with Venus and the sun so you can use bright Venus to try and spot it along the ecliptic. To see Mercury, you will need a clear view of the western horizon, and be sure to use eye protection up until the sun dips fully below the horizon.
February 18 – Close Approach of the Moon & Mars
If you’re up early on the morning of February 18th, look for Mars and the Moon in their closest conjunction. They’ll appear roughly 0°45′ from one another in the pre-dawn hours before they both set in the southeastern sky. Jupiter will be even closer to the horizon, too.
On this night, the Moon will be 25 days old and roughly 23% illuminated – this should make for great stargazing especially with a telescope or binoculars that will bring the Moon’s terminator into sharp relief and reveal Mars’ rusty glow in greater detail.
February 18 – Close Approach of Mars & NGC 6530
While you’re up early admiring the Moon and Mars, use Mars as a planet-hopping guide to spot NGC 6530. This beautiful open star cluster, located within the Lagoon Nebula, is one of the best deep space objects you can see this year.
Learn more about other deep space objects to see in 2020 in our book, The Night Sky in 2020: When to Go Stargazing All Year Long.
February 19 – Close Approach of the Moon & Jupiter
As the Moon moves to its new phase in late February, the Woon and Jupiter will make a close approach on February 19th. On this night, they will pass within 0°55′ of each other; this won’t be close enough to see through most telescopes, but you should be able to spot them both through a good pair of binoculars or with your unaided eye.
For most viewers, the Moon and Jupiter will make their closest approach between 11pm and midnight local time, in the southwestern sky. On the night of the 19th, the Moon will be a waning crescent and 13% illuminated – ideal for trying to spot bright Jupiter and even its Galilean moons.
February 20 – Close Approach of the Moon & Saturn
February begins to wind down with a chance to easily spot Saturn – and the Moon will be in an ideal phase to give you a great view. On February 20th, the Moon and Saturn will pass within 1°44′ in the southern sky. This will make it very easy to spot Saturn if you’ve never seen it before or are unsure which of the visible planets you’re looking at.
On the night of February 20th, the Moon will be 27 days old, meaning it will be the tiniest sliver of a waning crescent, and only 8% illuminated. Therefore, the Moon won’t cause any light pollution to interfere with your ability to see Saturn.
February 28 – Close Approach of Mars & M22
Rounding out the month, Mars again helps you spot one of amateur astronomers favorite deep space objects: M22, an elliptical globular cluster in the constellation Sagittarius.
This star cluster is home to nearly 70,000 stars and almost 10,000 light-years from earth – but it’s still easy to spot with a telescope or binoculars and using Mars to find it. On the night of February 28th, Mars and M22 will appear within 0°20′ of one another in the southern evening sky.
Do you have questions about night sky events in February? Let us know in the comments!
Featured photo credit: Richard Leighton via Flickr