The Night Sky This Month: February 2020

Pleiades and Hyades
Image credit: Stellarium/IM

During the last month of winter in the northern hemisphere, prominent constellations in the night sky include Orion, Taurus, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Gemini, Auriga, Leo, Ursa Major, and Cancer. In February’s night sky review, we will be exploring notable deep sky objects to look out for in some of these constellations.

Meanwhile, astronomical delights to enjoy in February include the planets, and Venus dominating the early evening dark skies. We will also witness the first of four Super Moons to occur this year.

The Moon in January 2020

The middle of winter in the Northern hemisphere is perhaps not the best time to be outside to observe the Moon for extended periods. However, those among us who are brave enough to venture outside on the night of the 3rd of the month will be rewarded with seeing the Moon seemingly suspended between two conspicuous star clusters – the Pleiades to the upper right, and the Hyades to the lower left as shown in the Stellarium simulation above. Weather and seeing conditions permitting, of course.

New Moon First Quarter Full Moon Third Quarter
February 3rd February 9th February 15th February 23rd

Note that February’s Full Moon will be a Super Moon, the first of four Super Moons that will occur during 2020.

The Planets in February 2020

Mercury was at superior conjunction with the Sun in the first half of January. However, while the little planet will reach its greatest elongation from the Sun on the 10th of February, it will again become lost in the glare of the Sun by the 14th of the month as it starts approaching the Sun again. Nonetheless, the planet starts the month shining at magnitude -1.0, but it will dim to magnitude +0.2 by the 14th. Note also that the planet will not rise much higher than about 9 degrees above the west-south-western horizon, and that while it is visible, it will set about 70 minutes or so after the Sun.

Venus is still dominating the early evening sky in the south-west. Its elevation will continue to increase each night and the planet will rise to about 38 degrees above the horizon at sunset towards the end of the month. Sadly though, Venus’ phase will decrease from 73% to only 63%, meaning that even though its angular diameter increases from 15.3 seconds of arc to 18.6 seconds of arc, its brightness will only increase marginally, from magnitude -4.1 to magnitude -4.3.

Mars is now moving eastwards towards the Teapot asterism in Sagittarius to reach a position almost directly over the “lid” on the 24th. Look for it towards the southeast in the predawn sky at the beginning of the month. However, the Red planet will only rise to about 8 degrees above the horizon throughout the month, which could make it difficult to spot through the murkiness of the atmosphere, even though its brightness will increase slightly to magnitude +1.1. Note that no surface detail will be visible even with large telescopes.

Jupiter starts the month rising about 90 minutes before the Sun. Although the King of the planets brightens to magnitude -2.0 as the month progresses, it will remain below 10 degrees above the south-eastern horizon throughout much of the month. The use of an atmospheric dispersion corrector is therefore recommended to obtain even reasonable views of the planet and its brightest moons.

Saturn emerges from behind the Sun during the first days of the month and will become visible less than 60 minutes before dawn when it first appears. However, the planet remains below about 10 degrees above the southern horizon, which means that binoculars might be required to spot the planet. As with Jupiter, the use of an atmospheric dispersion corrector is recommended to obtain views of the planet through the murkiness of the atmosphere. The most notable aspect of observing Saturn at this time is perhaps the fact that it transits the meridian on the 13th of the month, 13 days before Jupiter.

Meteor Showers in February 2020

No significant meteor shower activity is expected to occur in the Northern hemisphere during February. While the Alpha Centaurids meteor shower peaks after midnight on the night of the 8th of the month, this shower is largely visible only from the Southern hemisphere.

Deep Sky Objects to Look For In February 2020

Prominent constellations at this time of the year include Orion, Taurus, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Gemini, Auriga, Leo, Ursa Major, and Cancer, with Orion, Taurus, and Ursa Major as the most conspicuous constellations. While almost all of the constellations that are now visible contain spectacular deep-sky objects, many of which are well-known to both professional and amateur observers, not all objects in these constellations are easy targets for modest amateur equipment. Moreover, of the deep sky objects in these constellations that are easy targets, some are less well-known, and this month we feature three objects you may not be familiar with, starting with-

V380 Orionis

V380 Orionis
Image credit: NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team

Located about 1 500 light years away in Orion, V380 is a triple star system whose collective emissions are illuminating NGC 1999, a reflection nebula near the better-known Orion Nebula. The dark patch in the nebula is sometimes referred to as the Keyhole Nebula; an area that seems to have been excised from the larger structure. While there are many such dark areas in the Orion Complex of nebulae, the most remarkable aspect of this particular example is that the mechanism(s) of its formation remain largely unexplained.

Several theories exist that explain how the hole in the nebula was created, but none can explain why; if one looks through the hole, nothing is visible on the other side of the nebula.

Messier 67 (NGC 2682)

Messier 67
Image credit: Atlas Image as part of the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS)

Located in the constellation Cancer, this pretty cluster (shown upside down here) is one of many objects in the Local Universe whose distance remains undetermined. Estimated distances range from about 800 parsecs to more than 900 parsecs, but despite that, this cluster is one of the most intensely studies open clusters because it contains little to no dust or other nebulous material to obscure views of the cluster’s inner regions.

Nonetheless, of particular note is the fact that out of a population of about 500 stars, the cluster contains more than 100 stars that resemble the Sun to varying degrees. This once prompted speculation that the Sun might have originated in this cluster. More detailed studies have however shown that based on the relative proper motions of the Sun and the cluster proper, it is extremely unlikely that the Sun was born in the cluster.

Messier 81 (M81, NGC 3031, Bode’s Galaxy)

Messier 81
Image credit: NASA/ES

While there are many other, more “flashy” spiral galaxies than M81 that can be observed with modest equipment, this particular example of a spiral galaxy in the constellation Ursa Major is perhaps the closest known analogue to the Milky Way in terms of overall structure and architecture.

Part of the reason why the Hubble Space Telescope was able to resolve globular clusters, individual stars, and even discern fine detail in the inner regions of many open star clusters in the galaxy is that much, if not most of the gas and dust in this galaxy, had been extracted from the galaxy. M81 is currently interacting with two slightly smaller companion galaxies (not shown here) in an encounter that has stripped most of the gas and dust from all three galaxies. The stripped-out material is now concentrated in filaments and sheets in the area between the galaxies, which means that the Hubble Telescope had an almost unobstructed view of the galaxy’s structure.

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