Astronomical affection: Throughout February, Venus moves to within snuggling distance of Jupiter, Mars obtains a bright outlook and big, burly Saturn starts out late.
Venus starts February high in the southwestern sky at sunset, but Jupiter remains substantially higher. Thanks to celestial mechanics, however, the planets give the appearance of cosmic adoration — moving closer together from our earthly perspective.
By Valentine’s Day, Venus (negative fourth magnitude, very bright) and Jupiter (negative second magnitude, very bright) get more intimate. Venus sets about 9:12 p.m., and Jupiter hits the horizon two hours later. By the end of February, Jupiter sets one hour behind Venus. (These two planets move within three degrees by the Ides of March.)
The duo of cosmic objects becomes a trio Feb. 24, as the young, skinny moon approaches Venus. Find the moon below the luminescent Venus on that night. By Feb. 25, the waxing crescent moon wiggles with Venus and then dawdles with Jupiter the next night.
Mars becomes a very good neighbor — it is easier to see. The reddish planet rises in the eastern sky about 9 p.m. now. By the end of February, the planet ascends the east in the 6 p.m. hour. Mars goes from a -0.6 magnitude Feb. 1 (bright enough to see in urban skies) to -1.2 magnitude Feb. 29, making it an easy target in light-polluted skies. The Red Planet strides toward a great show in March.
Like a growing teenager ignoring an alarm clock, Saturn rises late in the evening. The gassy ringed planet ascends the east-southeast just before the clock strikes midnight now. By 2 a.m., this zero-magnitude planet will reside in the constellation Virgo, hanging high in the southeast. Saturn reigns at 5 a.m. high in the south, and you will see Mars in the southwest at that hour. By February’s end, Saturn rises minutes before 10 p.m.
At the end of February, the ever-fleet Mercury races from the setting sun’s glare. While Jupiter and Venus appear lovey-dovey high in that part of the sky, Mercury holds close to the horizon. At dusk, you may find Mercury (negative first magnitude, bright) low on the horizon — in the West — from Feb. 24 to Feb. 29.
Not so fast, March. We’ve got a leap day on Feb. 29, as our Gregorian calendar keeps us in sync with the sun. There’s more: Our year just got a little longer. Geoff Chester of the U.S. Naval Observatory says that a “leap second” will be added to official clocks, such as the observatory’s Master Clock, June 30.
●Feb. 5 — “Sunny With a Chance of Cloudiness . . . at a Comet,” with astronomer Jade Williams, at the open house at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. View the heavens afterward, weather permitting. 8 p.m. astro.umd.edu/openhouse.
●Feb. 11 — “Highlights From NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory,” a lecture by Harvey Tananbaum, director, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center. At the Einstein Planetarium, National Air & Space Museum on the Mall. Telescope viewing afterward. 5:45 p.m. nasm.si.edu/.
●Feb. 18 — “African Skies,” a show on how civilizations have used the sky to determine their planting, fishing and hunting seasons. Slaves in America also used the sky to escape North on the Underground Railroad by following the “drinking gourd” — the Big Dipper. Montgomery College Planetarium, Takoma Park. 7 p.m. montgomerycollege.edu/
●Feb. 20 — “Death-Defying Comet Lovejoy,” a lecture by astronomer Matthew Knight, at the open house at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Weather permitting, sky scanning will be conducted afterward. 8 p.m. astro.umd.edu/open
●Feb. 25 — “Revealing Mercury’s Secrets With the Messenger Spacecraft,” a talk by Maria Banks of the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies. At the Einstein Planetarium, National Air & Space Museum on the Mall. Telescope viewing afterward. 5:45 p.m.
●●Feb. 25 — “The City Dark,” an award-winning documentary film, at Founders Hall Auditorium, George Mason University, 3351 Fairfax Drive, Arlington, 6:30 p.m. (Accessible via Clarendon and Virginia Square Metro stations.) The premiere screening will benefit Friends of Arlington’s David M. Brown Planetarium. Panel discussion follows. Tickets: $8 for Friends members, $10 for nonmembers and $5 for students. saveplanetarium.org.
The trailer is at youtube.com/watch?v=6PxjFqQE8rk.
●Feb. 29 — “The Universe From Beginning to End,” with Brian P. Schmidt, the 2011 Nobel laureate for physics, who explains how astronomers traced our universe’s history back more than 13 billion years. In the auditorium of the Carnegie Institution for Science, 1530 P St. NW (corner of 16th and P streets). 6:45 p.m. carnegiescience.edu.
Blaine P. Friedlander Jr. can be reached at