The Night Sky This Month: February 2021

spiral galaxy NGC 5575
Magnetic fields around spiral galaxy NGC 5575, rendered in visible light to show electrons following magnetic field lines around the galaxy at near-light speeds.

The February night sky presents a plethora of astronomical events to enjoy. This includes The Winter Hexagon, which is an asterism consisting of some of the brightest stars across six different constellations. These stars, namely Rigel, Aldebaran, Capella, Procyon, Sirius, and Pollux, also provides a fine example of the different color stars that can be observed in the celestial heavens.

The Moon Phases In February 2021

Third Quarter
New Moon
First Quarter
Full Moon
February 4th February 11th February 19th February 27th

The New Moon on February 11th will be located on the same side of the Earth as the Sun, and so will not be visible in the sky. Weather and seeing conditions permitting, this should subsequently provide ideal conditions to hunt down faint objects, as there will be no moonlight to intrude.

The Planets in February 2021

Mercury will pass across the Sun on the 5th of the month, but will become visible shining at magnitude -0.8 in the east-south-east just before dawn on the 25th.

Venus is now approaching a position of superior conjunction with the Sun, which position it will reach on the 27th of March. Therefore, the planet will remain very low above the horizon, although it may be possible to obtain glimpses of the planet shining at magnitude -3.9 just before sunrise during the first few days of February, after which it becomes unobservable for several weeks.

Mars is now located in the constellation Aries, and is best viewed soon after dark. During the first days of February, the ‘Red Planet’ will shine at magnitude +0.4, but since it is now receding from Earth towards the constellation Taurus, it will become progressively more difficult to discern surface details on the planet- even though it will culminate at an elevation of 55 degrees. Nonetheless, Mars will remain visible in the night sky until August, just before it moves in behind the Sun in early October.

Jupiter moved in behind the Sun during the last days of January, and will therefore not be observable until the last week of February, when it will start a new apparition on the 23rd of the month as a pre-dawn object. Note that on this date, the ‘King of the Planets’ will rise only about 30 minutes or so before the Sun, but it will remain below about 15 degrees above the east-south-eastern horizon.

Saturn rises between Jupiter and Mercury, and on the 25th of February, the planet will rise at 6:25 UT to form a rather close grouping with Jupiter and Mercury. Although Saturn will shine at magnitude +0.7 and have an angular diameter of 15.4 seconds of arc on this date, the planet will remain below about 15 degrees above the horizon, and it will be this low on the horizon for several more months.

Meteor Showers in February 2021

No significant meteor activity is expected to occur during the month.

Deep Sky Objects to Look For In February 2021

Constellations that are prominent in the south at this time of the year include Orion, Taurus, Auriga, Gemini, Canis Minor, and Canis Major, which contains Sirius, the brightest start in the entire night sky. Also visible is Leo that now houses the planet Saturn just to the upper rightward of the bright star Regulus, and the constellations Cancer, and Ursa Major, the Big Bear.

Weather and seeing conditions permitting, all of these constellations contain a multitude of spectacular deep sky objects that are visible with modest amateur equipment, some of which are briefly discussed below-

Messier 44 (Beehive Cluster, Praesepe, M44, M44, NGC 2632, Cr 189)

Messier 35
Image: Wikisky

At a distance of between 520 and 610 light years from Earth, M44 is one of the nearest and most densely populated open star clusters to Earth. While the cluster is visible to the naked eye as a faint fuzzy patch of light, a pair of binoculars or a small telescope at low power will resolve individual stars in the cluster.

From a purely scientific perspective, however, this cluster is noteworthy for the fact that it has the same age as the Hyades clusters, and shares a similar, if not identical proper motion, which suggests that the two clusters may have had a common origin.

Hyades (Caldwell 41, Collinder 50, or Melotte 25) Taurus

Hyades
Image: Jerry Lodriguss/ AstroPix.com

Located only about 153 light years away in the constellation Taurus, the Hyades Cluster contains several hundred stars that are arranged in a roughly globular pattern. This supports the theory that all the stars in the cluster have a common origin, since all the stars in the cluster move in the same direction and at that the same velocity. The cluster is also of further scientific interest because it contains a giant gas planet orbiting the star Epsilon Tauri, making it the first exo-planet to be discovered in an open star cluster.

The Flaming Star Nebula (IC 405 SH 2-229, or Caldwell 31) Auriga

Flaming Star Nebula
Image: Giuseppe Donatiello

Located about 1,500 light years away in the constellation Auriga, the Flaming Star Nebula is both a reflection and emission nebula. It contains the irregular variable star AE Aurigae, whose light r emits, and it is located close to the emission nebula IC 410, the open clusters M38 and M36, and the K-class star Iota Aurigae, whose combined light it reflects. This nebula is of particular scientific interest because studies have suggested that its central star may have been ejected from the area surrounding Orion’s Belt.

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