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.
Read on to learn about the eight events you can’t miss in the night sky in February.
February 1 – Close Approach of the Moon & Saturn
February kicks off with a chance to easily spot Saturn – and the moon will be in an ideal phase to give you a great view. On February 1st, the moon and Saturn will pass within 0°37′ 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 February 1st, the moon will be 27 days old, meaning it will be the tiniest sliver of a waning crescent, and only 5% illuminated. Therefore, the moon won’t cause any light pollution to interfere with your ability to see Saturn.
February 8 – NGC 2808 is Well-Placed
NGC 2808, a globular cluster that is estimated to be home to more than a million stars, will be well-placed for viewing on the night of February 8th. NGC 2808 is visible in the constellation Carina, the ship’s keel, in the southern hemisphere – so those in the northern hemisphere won’t be able to see it, unfortunately.
On the night of February 8th, look for Carina and NGC 2808 high in the sky – almost straight up. You’ll need a pair of binoculars at a minimum to see NGC 2808; with the right equipment, you’ll see the hazy glow and some distinct spots of light from of those million-plus stars, over 31,300 light-years away.
February 12 – Close Approach of Mars & Uranus
While we see the five visible planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn – with some regularity, it takes a bit more work to see the other planets in our solar system. On February 12th, you’ll have a chance to see Uranus, using Mars as a guiding point to spot the 7th planet from the sun.
Grab a telescope and look for Mars’ rusty spot in the western sky (it may appear further southwest or northwest depending on your position on the globe). Mars and Uranus will pass within 0°58′ of one another as dusk fades and the night begins. Use your telescope to guide from Mars to Uranus – you won’t be able to see both within the same field of vision, but you can scan the area near Mars to look for pale blue Uranus.
February 17 – Close Approach of the Moon & M44
Messier 44 (M44), also known as the Beehive Cluster, will be easy to find on the night of February 17th. On that night, M44 and the moon will pass within 0°16′ 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 96% 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 18 – Close Approach of Venus & Saturn
On the night of February 18th, look for Venus and Saturn to make a close approach. While these two planets have typically been associated with opposing forces – the feminine and the masculine – they’ll pass within 1°05′ of each other and be ideally situated for easily seeing them both.
You won’t need binoculars or a telescope to spot Venus and Saturn, but if you have them, that will improve the experience. You might even notice Venus’ oblong shape or Saturns rings as they appear illuminated from our perspective here on earth.
February 19 – Bode’s Galaxy/M81 is Well-Placed
Bode’s Galaxy, also known as Messier 81 (M81), is a stunning spiral galaxy roughly 12 million light-years from earth. Despite this massive distance, Bode’s Galaxy is visible here with even a pair of binoculars. On the night of February 19th, Bode’s Galaxy is well placed for observation as it will appear high in the sky in the constellation Ursa Major (the constellation which includes the Big Dipper/Plough).
With a pair of binoculars (or better yet, a telescope), Bode’s Galaxy will reveal itself as a spiral galaxy see at an angle – but with a clear spiral shape and arms. Unfortunately, Bode’s Galaxy is only visible in the northern hemisphere.
February 23 – Close Approach of Venus & Pluto
Pluto, you are never forgotten! On the night of February 23rd, intrepid stargazers can use Venus as a guide to spot the once-ninth, now-dwarf planet Pluto. Venus will pass within 1°24′ of Pluto on this night, though it may be difficult to spot as the closest approach will occur in the pre-dawn hours of the 24th for most viewers. With a pair of binoculars or a telescope, look for Pluto ‘beneath’ Venus on this evening.
February 27 – Close Approach of the Moon & Jupiter
To round out the month of astronomical sights, the moon and Jupiter will make a close approach on February 27th. The moon will be slightly more illuminated than during its close approach with Saturn earlier in the month; at 38% illumination, it may interfere with your ability to see Jupiter clearly – or to pick out any of its moons.
It’s still worth looking for the pair in the southern sky as they pass within 2°17′ of each other. For most viewers, this will occur in the early morning hours of February 28th.
Do you have questions about night sky events in February? Email/contact us!
Featured photo credit: Richard Leighton via Flickr