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Skywatch: What’s happening in the heavens in February

As the curtain of night falls, find the planet Mars high in the southwest heavens, hanging in the constellation Aries when February begins. It moves into the constellation Taurus by mid-month.

Compared to last fall, when the Red Planet was exceptionally bright, it has moved away from us and dimmed considerably from Earth’s point of view. In October, it was a brilliant -2.6 magnitude. Soon, Mars will be magnitude +0.5 (bright enough to find under urban light pollution), but it dims further to magnitude +0.9 in late February, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory.

On Feb. 15, spy the skinny young moon above the southwest horizon at dusk. The crescent moon moves closer to Mars on Feb. 16-17, passes the planet Feb. 18, and then scoots by the Pleiades, the fuzzy star cluster M45, on the next night.

Speaking of Mars, that planet will get a little more traffic soon. NASA’s latest rover, Perseverance, will land at the Red Planet’s Jezero Crater on Feb. 18 about 3:30 p.m. Eastern time. The rover will one day help send Martian soil to Earth, and it is carrying the Ingenuity helicopter — the first such craft to fly on another planet. The space agency’s website (nasa.gov) will provide live coverage of the landing starting that day at 2:15 p.m.

For the remaining usually visible planets in our heavens, February will be a little tough.

Get a clear view of the east-southeast morning horizon later in February to see the fleet Mercury and the ringed Saturn rising together around Feb. 18 like playground chums about 6 a.m., just before dawn. They’re hugging the horizon. As the sky gets lighter, Jupiter climbs above the horizon about 6:15 a.m., but remember, it’s very low in the sky.

Very late in the month, Mercury will be at magnitude +0.3, slightly bright, and Saturn, will be at magnitude +0.7, slightly dimmer than Mercury, according to the observatory. Jupiter, at -2 magnitude (bright), may enjoy a brief cameo appearance before getting washed out at sunrise.

Venus, Earth’s luminous planetary neighbor, is too close to the sun to see. While Venus and Jupiter conjunct Feb. 11 in the constellation Capricornus, it’s hard to escape the dawn light. (Incidentally, because it is close to the sun, please don’t use binoculars or a telescope to look directly at the sun. You will go blind.) Venus returns in the spring, destined for the evening sky.

Step aside, Punxsutawney Phil. While the famed groundhog chases a shadow to celebrate winter’s midpoint on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2, the precise middle of winter is Feb. 3 at 4:32 p.m. Eastern time, according to astronomer Geoff Chester of the Naval Observatory.

Finally, we’re beginning to see the light: The cold winter doldrums may soon melt away, as Feb. 1 starts with 10 hours and 16 minutes of daylight, according to the observatory. By Feb. 28, we can look forward to enjoying 11 hours and 18 minutes of light.

On Feb. 13, enjoy the online talk “The Atmospheres of Extrasolar Super-Earths,” by Eliza Kempton, associate professor of astronomy at the University of Maryland. The atmospheres of super-Earths are an astronomer’s window into exoplanet composition. The meeting is hosted by the National Capital Astronomers at 7 p.m. For meeting details and online registration: capitalastronomers.org.

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