February is always a short month; in 2021, it also happens to be one of the quietest months of the year for astronomy events. While we normally get creative to find a good number of reasons to get out and go stargazing each month, the February night sky will certainly beautiful – but not particularly full of special astronomical experiences.
Don’t let that dissuade you! Even if you don’t make it out for one of these few astronomy events this month, you can still enjoy all the other wonders of the night sky. Mars is high passing across our view, and cold clear air will help improve the quality of viewing. Get out and go stargazing this month, no matter what you’re trying to see.
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 five events you can’t miss in the February night sky.
February 2 – Asteroid 18 Melpomene at Opposition
2021 is a good year for asteroid-spotting if you’re looking for a fun challenge to use your telescope and discover more objects in the night sky. In particular, 15 asteroids will reach opposition throughout the year, including two in February.
First up is asteroid 18 Melpomene on February 2nd. This night, 18 Melpomene will reach opposition and be at its most brightly lit; an ideal time for asteroid-spotting. Melpomene is a large, bright, main belt asteroid comprised of silicates and metals. Look for it in the constellation Cancer too. While the moon will be bright at 70% illuminated, it will be in a different part of the sky.
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 2021, 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 18 – Conjunction of the Moon and Mars
If you’re out stargazing on the evening of February 18th, look for Mars and the Moon in conjunction. They’ll appear roughly 3°41′ from one another in the dusk hours of the eastern sky.
On this night, the Moon will be 7 days old and roughly 42% illuminated. This isn’t great for planet-gazing as the moon will be quite bright, but a telescope or binoculars will bring the Moon’s terminator into sharp relief and reveal Mars’ rusty glow in greater detail.
February 21 – The Moon in the Winter Circle
This isn’t an astronomical event specifically, but an interesting opportunity to get a sense for the stars overhead. On the night of February 21, the moon will pass through an asterism called the “Winter Circle.”
The Winter Circle is not a constellation; it is a shape in the sky (an asterism) made up of stars that are part of other constellations. The Winter Circle is made of:
- Rigel (in Orion)
- Aldebaran (in Taurus)
- Capella and Pollux (in Gemini)
- Procyon (in Canus Minor)
- Sirius (in Canus Major)
These are some of the brightest in the night sky, so the shape is quite easy to spot. On February 21st, a waxing gibbous moon will be approaching full a few days later and make it easier to spot this asterism.
February 22 – Asteroid 29 Amphitrite at Opposition
For the second asteroid-viewing opportunity of February, mark your calendar for the night of the 22nd. On this night, asteroid 29 Amphitrite will reach opposition around midnight local time. It is likely the 5th largest S-type asteroid in the main belt, and will appear at its brightest this night.
Look for Amphitrite in the constellation Leo; while a bright waxing gibbous moon will be 76% illuminated, it’ll be a bit away from this part of the sky, so you should still be able to try and spot the asteroid.
February 28 – Mercury Reaches its Morning Peak
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 2021 will be in the morning of February 28th. Before sunrise, you may be able to spot Mercury just after sunset, when the sun is still below the horizon but Mercury is above it.
Specifically, Mercury will reach its peak altitude of 17° above the horizon before sunrise. 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.
Do you have questions about these night sky events in February? Let us know in the comments!
Featured photo credit: Richard Leighton via Flickr