Peak Venus, Moon meets Jupiter for Valentine’s, Catch Comet Honda, and Zodiacal Light after Dark!
Comet 45P/Honda Persists
After last week’s perigee, comet 45/P Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova is visible again this week, although it is fading in brightness. It rises in late evening, visible in binoculars or a small telescope as a small green fuzzy patch. If there’s a tail, it will sweep upwards from the horizon. This week, it will climb upwards in a straight line from a position near the top of the circular constellation Corona Borealis (the Northern Crown), through the constellation of Boötes (the Herdsman), and into Coma Berenices (Berenice’s Hair), which is located to the right of the Big Dipper’s handle. The decreasing moonlight will make seeing the comet easier as the week unwinds. I’ll post a daily finder chart here.
The Moon and Planets
Visible after 10:30 pm local time, the waning gibbous moon meets Jupiter in the eastern sky late on Valentine’s Day evening, sitting about a palm’s width above the giant planet. The following evening, the moon has hopped over Jupiter and will appear a similar distance below the planet. On Saturday afternoon, the moon reaches Last Quarter, when it is half illuminated (on our left — its west). At that time of the moon’s cycle, it rises near midnight and persists into the morning daylight sky.
As it has for quite some time, Venus continues to blaze away, low in the western evening sky this week after dark, setting about 9:30 pm local time. On Friday, February 17, Venus reaches maximum brightness for the current evening apparition. A telescope will reveal that even though it is showing a waning crescent phase, it has brightened due to its larger apparent disk diameter as it moves towards Earth, on its way towards inferior conjunction with the Sun next month.
Much dimmer, reddish Mars is about a palm’s width (7°) to the upper left of Venus. The two planets are now slowly drawing apart again. Blue-green Uranus is about 12° above Venus — just inside the western (lower) arm of the “V” that forms Pisces (the Fishes). The distant planet sets just around 10 pm local time.
Bright, white Jupiter, situated just a few finger widths above the bright white star Spica in Virgo (the Maiden), is rising in the east about 10:30 pm local time this week. By dawn, it’s moved above the southwestern horizon. Yellowish Saturn rises in the east after 3:30 am local time, and can be spotted until about 6:30 am. The bright reddish star Antares in Scorpius (the Scorpion) sits 1.6 fist diameters to the right (southwest) of the planet.
Evening Zodiacal Light
For the next two weeks, starting this Friday, February 6, the faint, vertical wedge of brightening called the zodiacal light should be visible from dark locations. As soon as it’s fully dark, look above the western horizon around Venus and Mars for the glow caused by sunlight reflected from interplanetary matter along the plane of the Solar System. Don’t confuse it with the brighter Milky Way to the northwest.
Seeing the Stars of the Winter Football!
If you’ve missed my description of the huge six-sided figure (or asterism) called the Winter Hexagon, it’s posted here.
Iridium flares are glints of sunlight off of the flat reflecting sides of one of the satellites that comprise the Iridium pager and sat-phone network. The flares occur before dawn and after dusk, when the satellite passing overhead is still illuminated by the Sun, which is below the horizon for observers on the ground. The duration and brightness depend on the angles between the observer, the satellite, and the Sun. For even more info about Iridium Flares and the space station, see an article that I wrote here. Using an accurate clock, go outside a few minutes ahead and look in the direction indicated. You should first see the dim Iridium satellite moving quickly across the sky, and then it will rapidly brighten for 3 to 8 seconds, and fade out. Truly spectacular! The more negative the Magnitude number, the brighter. The larger the Alt. number, the higher up it is! (The horizon is 0°, and 90° is straight up, so 55° is a bit higher than halfway between the horizon and zenith.) These data are adapted from www.heavens-above.com. To get your own schedule, enter your location in their website.
The ISS (International Space Station) is also visible at times, gliding silently overhead. If you enter your location in the www.heavens-above.com website, you will get a list of them for wherever you might be.)
Keep looking up to enjoy the sky! I love getting questions so, if you have any, send me a note.
Stargazing News for this week (from February 12th) by Chris Vaughan.