The Goddess of Love Gleams in the West with Maximum Mercury, and Pretty Planets Parade before Dawn!

Evening Zodiacal light

( Zodiacal light. Image Credit: ESO (Yuri Beletsky) )

For about half an hour after dusk during the two-week period preceding the new moon on February 23, look west-southwest for a broad wedge of faint light rising from the horizon and centered on the ecliptic. That’s the zodiacal light — sunlight scattered from interplanetary particles of material that are sprinkled throughout the plane of the solar system. Try to observe the zodiacal light from a location without light pollution, and don’t confuse it with the brighter Milky Way, which extends upwards from the northwestern evening horizon at this time of year.

The Moon and Planets 🌕

Fresh from reaching its full phase on Sunday morning, the very bright moon will dominate the evening and midnight sky all over the world during the first nights of this week. But as it commences the second half of its monthly orbit of Earth, the moon will wane in phase and rise later every night — leaving our evenings nice and dark on the coming weekend.

( You will never miss full moons and other celestial events with the free stargazing app Star Walk 2 for iOS and Android. )

From Tuesday evening through Friday morning, the moon will traverse the length of the large constellation of Virgo (the Maiden). Between 5:15 and 6 am EST on Thursday morning in the southwestern sky, the bright, waning gibbous moon will cross in front of (or occult) the dim, magnitude 10.2 main belt asteroid designated (3) Juno. The exact times vary by location. Observers in North America (except northeastern Canada), Central America, the Caribbean, and northern South America can see this event — but you’ll need a telescope to see the asteroid. Juno will disappear behind the bright, leading edge of the moon and re-appear from behind the dark edge — somewhat closer to the northern (top) part of the moon.

On Saturday at 5:17 pm EST, the moon will officially reach its last quarter phase. At that time, the moon will look half-illuminated, on the eastern side — towards the pre-dawn sun. At last quarter, the moon always rises around midnight and then it lingers in the southern daytime morning sky. That means that evening skies worldwide are moon-free for stargazing! To end the week, the waning moon will sit above the stars of Scorpius (the Scorpion) in the southeaster pre-dawn sky.

( Northern Hemisphere observers can look for the planet Mercury every night this week. It is easy to locate Mercury in the sky with the free stargazing app Star Walk 2 for iOS and Android. )

Mercury is putting on it best evening appearance during 2020 for equatorial and Northern Hemisphere observers around the world. On Monday after sunset, Mercury will reach peak visibility for this apparition, because it will be at its widest separation from the sun. That means that the sky will be darkening before Mercury sets at about 7:15 pm local time — making it even easier to pick out the speedy planet. You can look for the planet every night this week — sitting a generous palm’s width above the west-southwestern horizon after sunset. The optimal viewing time for Mercury will be between 6:15 pm and 6:45 pm in your local time zone. Mercury can be easily seen with unaided eyes in a cloud-free sky. If you use binoculars to hunt for Mercury, make sure that the sun has already completely sunk out of sight first.

That incredibly bright “star” that you’ve been seeing in the southwestern sky every evening recently is Venus, the Goddess of Love for Valentine’s Day. She’ll gleam in the western evening sky until spring. This week, Venus will set in the west at about 9:25 pm local time. If you want to see Venus’ less-than-fully-illuminated disk in your telescope, try to view it as soon as you can find it, while Venus is higher in the sky. That way you’ll be viewing the planet through less of Earth’s distorting atmosphere.

Distant and dim Neptune is sitting between below Venus and above Mercury in the western evening sky — but Neptune is too dim to easily observe when it’s that low in the sky. If you want to give it a go, on the evenings surrounding Monday, February 10, Neptune will pass very close to the golden, medium-bright star designated Phi (φ) Aquarii — allowing Neptune to be easily located and viewed in backyard telescopes after dusk. Closest approach will occur on Monday night, when the planet and the star will be separated by only 2 arc-minutes and will easily appear together in the eyepiece of your telescope at high magnification. Remember that Neptune will be a definite blue colour while Phi Aquarii will be yellowish.

The only other observable evening planet nowadays is Uranus. The blue-green planet is observable for a few hours after dusk (it sets just before midnight local time). Uranus is located a generous palm’s width above (or 7° to the celestial east of) the modest stars that form the V-shaped constellation of Pisces (the Fishes) — although Uranus is actually located within the boundary of Aries (the Ram). The planet is positioned to the lower left (or to the celestial south of) that constellation’s two brightest stars, Sheratan (the lower, more westerly star) and Hamal (the higher, more easterly star). The planet is also a fist’s diameter to the lower right of the ring of stars that form the head of Cetus (the Sea-Monster).

Shining at magnitude 5.8, Uranus is bright enough to see under dark sky conditions with unaided eyes and with binoculars — or through small telescopes under less-dark conditions. If you view Uranus right after the sky darkens, it will be higher — and you’ll be looking through the least amount of Earth’s disturbing atmosphere.

( Planets Parade (Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) in the pre-dawn sky on February 16, 2020. Use the free stargazing app Star Walk 2 for iOS and Android to find out the best viewing time in your area. )

The rest of the planets are hanging out in the eastern pre-dawn sky. Mars is starting to increase in brightness as Earth moves towards it, with October being closest approach. The red planet will continue to shine in the southeastern pre-dawn sky this week, where it will remain for months to come. This week, Mars will rise at about 4:10 am local time and remain visible until dawn.

The relative positions and combined orbital motions of Earth and Mars are causing Mars to appear in roughly the same place in the sky at the same time every morning. However, the planet is actually moving rapidly eastward in front of the distant background stars because they rise four minutes earlier every morning — while Mars does not. This week, Mars will enter the stars of Sagittarius (the Archer) — and will soon pass close to many deep sky objects in that region of sky. Mars’ stellar rival, the bright, ruddy-tinted star Antares will be sitting 1.75 fist diameters to Mars’ upper right. That star marks the heart of Scorpius (the Scorpion).

Finally, if your southeastern horizon is low and free of obstacles, try and spot very bright Jupiter sitting two fist diameters to the lower left (or celestial east) of Mars. The giant planet will be visible from about 6 am local time until dawn. Saturn is there, too — but it’s too soon to look for it. Both Jupiter and Saturn will become easier to see every week.

Binocular Comet Update ☄️

A relatively modest comet is traversing the northeastern evening sky this winter — and this week’s young, waxing moon will allow observers in the Northern Hemisphere to continue watching it. The comet is named C/2017 T2 (PanSTARRS), after the robotic telescope that discovered it and the date it did so. It is currently shining at about magnitude 9 — well within reach of medium or large binoculars and backyard telescopes. It is conveniently positioned in the sky for evening viewing. It’s very high in the northern sky after dusk — and then it drops lower in mid-evening as the Earth’s rotation carries the northwestern sky lower.

During the week, the comet will cross from Perseus (the Hero) into Cassiopeia (the Queen). If you face northwest, the comet will be positioned 1.5 fist diameters to the lower right of the very bright star Mirfak in Perseus, and a palm’s width above (or 5° to the celestial west) of the medium-bright star Ruchbah in Cassiopeia. Ruchbah marks the top of the shorter peak of Cassiopeia’s “M”-shape, which will sit sideways in mid-evening.

Comets move past the background stars faster than the planets do. Over the next seven nights Comet C/2017 T2 Panstarrs will shift by almost one finger’s width of sky, directly towards the star Segin, Cassiopeia’ highest star.

This week, the comet will also continue to sit a few finger widths to the lower right of the famous Double Cluster. That close-together pair of star clusters is visible to unaided eyes under dark skies and is very easy to see in binoculars from the city — making finding the comet very easy to find.

When viewed in binoculars and telescopes, Comet PanSTARRS will appear as a dim, fuzzy patch that might exhibit a faint greenish centre. Its modest tail should point roughly away from the Double Cluster. Let me know if you see the comet and if you see a tail! This comet is expected to brighten much more in the coming months.

Astronomy Skylights for this week for the week of February 9th, 2020 by Chris Vaughan.

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