February was named after the Roman festival of purification, named Februa. We are already halfway through winter, since Groundhog Day happens six weeks after the winter solstice. Winter is actually the shortest season each year, lasting about one day less than summer because the Earth is now near its closest to the sun on its slightly elliptical orbit and therefore moving a little faster than in summer.
Our average speed around the sun is 18.6 miles per second, or about 67,000 mph. At that speed, you could get all the way to California in just under three minutes. You could travel the circumference of the Earth, which is about 25,000 miles in just 22 minutes. Travel time would never be a problem and you could go anywhere almost instantaneously. That may seem fast, but it is still crawling compared to the speed of light, which is exactly 10,000 times faster than 18.6 miles per second. Then, you could travel around the Earth seven and a half times every second.
There are several highlights to see this month if you are willing to spend some time under the stars. Brilliant Venus dominates the evening sky, now shining at its brightest in five years. Look for shadows on the snow cast by this planet on a moonless night. Mars is close by and Jupiter now rises before midnight. There are several nice conjunctions with the moon and planets, and Comet 45P Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova is still visible through binoculars in Aquarius, near Venus. We are also entering another eclipse season. We will experience a deep penumbral lunar eclipse, which we can see, and an annular eclipse that will be too far south for us to see two weeks later.
This will also be the last eclipse season before the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse, which will carve a narrow path all the way from the west coast to the east coast of our country. I will give you far more details on that eclipse, the first in nearly 100 years to completely cross our country, in future columns.
Venus will reach its brightest and highest point in our sky early this month, when it will be 40 degrees above the horizon at sunset and will not set until nearly four hours after the sun. Then our sister planet begins to decline again, and it will set just under three hours after sunset by the end of the month. Through a telescope, you will notice that its phases go through a dramatic change, from nearly half lit by the sun at the start of the month to only 18 percent lit just 28 days later.
Mars can still be seen just to the left and above Venus. Our closest neighboring planets will be only 5 degrees apart on the first of February. Then they will drift apart again, reaching a separation of 12 degrees by the end of the month. Orange Mars continues to fade a little as Earth keeps getting farther ahead of it in our faster orbit around the sun. On the other hand, Venus keeps getting closer to Earth and will finally sink below our western horizon in late spring. Glowing with a soft orange light at a magnitude of 1.2, Mars is now six magnitudes or 250 times fainter than brilliant Venus in our evening sky.
Jupiter starts the month rising at 11 p.m. and ends it rising by 9 p.m. The king of the planets will reach opposition by early April, when it will rise at sunset. It brightens in our sky as it slowly gets closer and closer to us in its respective orbit.
What is especially interesting about Jupiter now is that it will reach aphelion, or its farthest point from the sun, on Feb. 17. The king of the planets only does this once every 12 years, since that is how long it takes to complete one orbit around the sun. That allows it to spend exactly one year in each of our 12 zodiac constellations. That is not a smooth eastward path, since it makes a retrograde loop for about four months in one of these constellations each year. That will happen on Feb. 6. Jupiter will appear stationary that day, and the very next day it will be moving westward in the constellation of Virgo until it reverses direction once more in early June. That is just an illusion, since all planets are orbiting counterclockwise around the sun all the time. They only appear to go retrograde at different times because we are in the same plane and moving faster than the superior planets and slower than the inferior planets of Mercury and Venus. The nearly full moon will be very close to Jupiter one hour before sunrise on the 15th.
Then Saturn rises about three hours before sunrise in Scorpius. It will be about 20 degrees to the left of orange Antares, which is about half a magnitude fainter than Saturn. A waning crescent moon will be close to the ringed planet on the 21st.
Mercury can be seen low in the morning sky for the first three weeks of this month.
There will be a deep penumbral eclipse on the evening of the 10th, starting soon after the moon rises. Penumbral means the moon will only pass through the less dense part of our shadow, so it will be hard to see unless you have binoculars or a telescope or a good telephoto lens to photograph the subtle shading. Our shadow always stretches about one million miles into space. Things get really interesting when these shadows intersect with solid objects, like the Earth and moon.
Just two weeks later, there will be an annular eclipse of the sun, but you need to be in the right part of South America and Africa to see it.
Feb. 3: First quarter moon is at 11:19 p.m.
Feb. 4: Clyde Tombaugh was born in 1906. He would discover Pluto just after turning 24, on Feb. 18.
Feb. 5: The moon will be near the Pleiades and Aldebaran in Taurus tonight.
Feb. 8: Jules Verne was born in 1828.
Feb. 10: Full moon is at 7:33 p.m. This is also called the Snow or Hunger Moon. A penumbral lunar eclipse happens this evening as the full moon enters part of our shadow.
Feb. 11: The moon is near Regulus in Leo this evening.
Feb. 14: In 1990, Voyager 1 took a portrait of the planets from deep space.
Feb. 15: Galileo was born in 1564. He was the first to turn a telescope to the heavens in 1609 and he discovered many things, like rings of Saturn, phases of Venus, sunspots on the sun and moons of Jupiter.
Feb. 17: Venus is illuminated to its greatest extent of the year tonight.
Feb. 18: Last quarter moon is at 2:33 pm. Pluto was discovered in 1930.
Feb. 19: Nicolaus Copernicus was born in 1473. He is sometimes called the father of modern astronomy because he figured out that planets orbit around the sun and that we live in a heliocentric solar system and not a geocentric one. The Mir space station was launched in 1986. It would last 15 years in space.
Feb. 20: In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth.
Feb. 23: Supernova 1987A exploded in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our own Milky Way. Pioneer 11 left our solar system in 1990.
Feb. 26: New moon is at 9:58 p.m.; annular solar eclipse over South America and Africa.
Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England.
Source:: Google Science]]>