The Night Sky This Month: February 2019

Alpine Valley on Moon
Image Credit: Robert Reeves

Favourable illumination on the night of the 13th and then again on the night of the 25th will offer lunar observers two excellent opportunities to view a major cleft, known as the Alpine Valley. This 166km valley cuts across the Apennine Mountain range, just to the east and south of the major crater Plato. The mountain range also marks out the eastern edge or boundary of the Mare Imbrium.

Prominent northern constellations at this time of the year include Orion, Taurus, Gemini, and Auriga, whose brightest star, Capella, will be close to the zenith. Of course, the north circumpolar constellation Ursa Major is always prominent. And apart from the Plough asterism, it contains a great many interesting and spectacular targets that are visible with binoculars and modest telescopes.

Read on to discover what the night sky for February is looking like. As well as few easy targets to look for in the constellation of Ursa Major.

The Moon In February 2019

Note that the Full Moon on the 19th will be a Super moon. This occurs when the full moon coincides with the Moon’s closest approach to Earth during a particular revolution of the Earth-Moon system. This month’s super moon will also be the second of three super moons to occur during 2019. 

New Moon First Quarter Full Moon Last Quarter
February 4th February 12th February 19th February 26th

The Planets In February 2019

Mercury emerges from behind the Sun at the end of January. But it will only become visible during evening twilight at or around the 12th of February, when it will shine at magnitude -1.2. During the rest of the month and much of March, Mercury will move away from the Sun. It will then reach its furthest point from the Sun on the 26th of March. At which time it will be 18 degrees east of the Sun, and have an elevation of about 9 degrees.

-Venus starts the month shining at magnitude -4.3. But note that its angular diameter will decrease from 19 seconds of arc to about 16 seconds of arc as it recedes from us. Nonetheless, the planets’ percentage of illumination will increase slightly from 62% to 72% as the month progresses. Consequently, the planets’ brightness will remain fairly constant, reducing slightly to magnitude -4.1 from magnitude -4.3. On Feb. 18th, Venus and Saturn make a close approach.

– Mars will fade slightly from magnitude +0.9 to +1.2 during the month. But it remain conspicuous in the western night sky at an elevation of about 38 degrees. The Red planet will therefore be fairly easy to spot as it moves north-eastwards from the constellation Pisces into the constellation Aries, which it will reach by the 12th. Note that although the planet will be readily visible, its angular diameter will reduce from 6 seconds of arc to less than 5 seconds of arc. Meaning that no surface detail will be visible except with very large instruments. On Feb.10, Mars will pass close to the Moon in the evening. On Feb. 12th, Mars and Uranus will also be in close conjunction as dusk turns to night.

– Jupiter begins February rising at about 3:30 AM (BST). The planet will then brighten from magnitude -1.9 to -2.0, and its angular diameter will increase slightly from 33.6 seconds of arc to 36.1 seconds of arc. However, it will remain very low on the southern horizon. Observers in low northern latitudes may be able to spot Jupiter in the southern reaches of the constellation Ophiuchus, just above the constellation Scorpius.

– Saturn starts the month rising about 90 minutes before dawn, and about 85 minutes or so before Venus. At this time, Saturn’s angular diameter is about 16 seconds of arc, which will make it shine at magnitude +0.6. Note that the ring system is still tilted towards our line of sight by 24 degrees, and spans across 35 seconds of arc. On Feb. 1st, Saturn and the Moon will pass within 0°37′ of each other in the southern sky. This will make the Ringed Planet very easy to spot.

Meteor Showers in February 2019

February sees no significant night-time meteor activity. However, two daytime showers, the Capricornids /Sagittariids (115 DCS) and the χ-Capricornids (114 DXC) will occur on February 1stand February 13, respectively. Note though that both showers have radiants within 15 degrees of the Sun. This means that even bright fireballs may not be detected visually, even from latitudes south of the equator.

Deep-Sky Objects to Look For In February Night Sky

As promised, below are details of a few easy targets in Ursa Major for you to look for in the night sky during February.

M101 (Pinwheel Galaxy)

M101 is also known as the Pinwheel Galaxy because of its resemblance to a rotating firework. This galaxy is located about 24 million light years away, and is a type Sc spiral. These typically have relatively small nuclei and widely spaced spiral arms. This particular example of this type galaxy spans across 170,000 light years. It is therefore much larger than the Milky Way, which stretches across “only” about 130,000 light years.

M51 (Whirlpool Galaxy) 

Image credit: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

The Whirlpool Galaxy does not strictly fall within Ursa Major. That said, many observers count it among the features of the constellation as it is located very close to the star Alkaid, the leftmost star of the Plough asterism. The most noteworthy feature of the galaxy is the gravitational effects of the smaller galaxy on the bigger one. It is expected that the two interacting galaxies will eventually merge to form a huge elliptical galaxy. Located about 37 million light years away, M51 was the first galaxy in which a distinctive spiral structure was identified when it was observed in 1845.

Cancer Praesepe (Beehive Cluster)

Image credit: Bob Franke

At a distance of only 600 light years, the beautiful Beehive Cluster is among the closest star clusters to us. This beautiful cluster contains around 1000 confirmed members, most of which are around 600 million years old. Furthermore, based on observed ages and proper motions, it is thought that the Hyades cluster in Taurus and the Beehive cluster share a common origin. Both having formed from the same enormous molecular cloud. This cluster is visible without optical aid under dark skies. Nevertheless, a pair of binoculars is required to resolve the brightest stars in the group. 

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