With speed that rivals Olympian Usain Bolt, the fleet, innermost planet Mercury runs around the sun. Quick! Catch it while you can.
Find Mercury lingering low toward the horizon in the early-evening western sky for the next couple of weeks. This fast planet will appear at negative first magnitude, bright enough to see from Washington. Roost in a good spot to get a clean view of the horizon.
While Mars may be hard to find (first magnitude, dim), the Red Planet dances near Mercury. On Friday, Mercury hangs just above Mars. The young, razor-thin sliver of moon joins Mercury and Mars the evening of Feb. 11, if you have a clear view of the lower, western sky. By late February, the fleet planet falls out of view into the sun’s light.
At dusk now, Jupiter pops out in the evening heavens very high in the southern sky. You could say it’s almost overhead. Spot the gassy giant planet easily at negative 2.4 magnitude (bright), loitering between the Hyades and the Pleiades in the constellation Taurus. It now sets around 2:30 a.m. in the Washington skies, and will set around 1:20 a.m. at the end of February.
Catch the moon dash across the sky for a close encounter with Jupiter: On Feb. 14, the young moon — though distant in the sky from Jupiter — begins its approach. By the next night, the moon is chubbier and a little closer. By Feb. 17, our lunar companion (magnitude negative 10.2, very bright) embraces Jupiter in a sort of celestial snuggle, and the moon passes this king planet the next night.
Saturn ascends the eastern heavens just after midnight in these early days of February, while the zero magnitude object is bright enough to see from Washington. In midmonth, the ringed planet rises around
11:40 p.m. By the very end of February, find it rising just before 11 p.m.
Farewell, friendly neighbor Mars. From our earthly perspective, the Red Planet takes a long, cosmic hiatus from our night sky beginning in mid-February. The planet returns to our morning skies in early summer.
●Feb. 5 — “Fractals, ‘Lakes’ on a Moon and Google Maps: Comparing the Surface Evolution of Saturn’s Moon Titan to Earth,” a lecture by astronomer Katie Jameson at the University of Maryland Observatory open house, College Park. Weather permitting, view the heavens through telescopes afterward. 8 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.
●Feb. 9 — “Magma and Water Oceans in the Early Solar System,” a lecture by Lindy Elkins-Tanton of the Carnegie Institution for Science at a meeting by the National Capital Astronomers, at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 7:30 p.m. www.capitalastronomers.org.
●Feb. 10 — “Four Thousand Years of Women in Science,” a talk by Sethanne Howard, a former astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory, at the newly refurbished Arlington Planetarium, next to Washington-Lee High School. 1:15 p.m. Adults $5. Members, kids, seniors $3. Tickets: www.friendsoftheplanetarium.org.
●Feb. 10 — “Observable Lunar Craters,” a talk by astronomer Eric Douglass at the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club meeting, in the “Showcase Room” at the base of the Research Hall Observatory, George Mason University, Fairfax. 7 p.m. www.novac.com.
●Feb. 16 — Learn about African creation myths and how American slaves ran to the North and freedom on the Underground Railroad by following the Drinking Gourd. (We know it today as the Big Dipper.) The presentation is at the Montgomery College Planetarium, Takoma Park.
7 p.m. www.montgomerycollege.
●Feb. 16 — “Venus: 50 Years after Mariner 2,” a lecture by geophysicist Bruce Campbell, at the Albert Einstein Planetarium, National Air and Space Museum on the Mall. 5:15 p.m. Free, but tickets required. www.airandspace.si.edu.
●Feb. 20 — “Artist Impressions in Astronomy?” a lecture by astronomer Peter Tueben, at the University of Maryland Observatory open house, College Park. Weather permitting, telescope viewing afterward. 8 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.
●Feb. 23 — “A Universe of Data: How We Get Science Out of Space Telescopes,” a talk by astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Lecture starts at 5:15 p.m. at the Albert Einstein Planetarium, National Air and Space Museum on the Mall. Free, but tickets required. www.airandspace.si.edu.
●March 2 — “Robots and Humans Unite: A Decade of Astronomical Discovery With Hectospec,” a talk by physicist Dan Fabricant of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Lecture starts at 5:15 p.m. at the Albert Einstein Planetarium, National Air and Space Museum on the Mall. Free, but tickets required. www.airandspace.si.edu.
Blaine Friedlander can be reached at