We have quite a celestial show coming up this month!
Not only do we have the brightest stars of the year during winter, but our brightest magnitude planets are putting on a show.
Magnitude is a measure of the brightness of a celestial object, as it appears from Earth. The brightest objects will have the lowest magnitude number. Our brightest stars are first magnitude, fainter at second magnitude and fainter still reach third magnitude.
Our human eyes can see up to sixth magnitude, but you need dark, pristine skies. The brightest planets, on the other hand, are more brilliant than first magnitude, peaking in negative numbers.
So, what are the brightest natural objects in our sky?
The Sun, of course, is the brightest object at -26.7 magnitude. You can’t even look at the Sun directly, you would need a special filter. For the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024, we will need to wear special filter glasses when looking at the Sun, except during totality.
The Moon is next at magnitude -12.7 during full phase and -6.0 during crescent phase.
Now on to the most brilliant planets. Venus, which is the closest planet to Earth, is -4.7 at peak brightness. It is bright enough to see during the day if you know where to look. Venus is dazzling due to its proximity to Earth and its thick reflective clouds. Its brightness varies depending on how close it is to Earth and its phase appearance. Remember Venus’ orbit is inward from Earth, so it shows phases.
Next, Mars’ maximum magnitude is -2.9, which happens every two years at opposition, when Mars is opposite the Sun in Earth’s sky. Mars was just at opposition on Dec. 8, 2022. So, Mars is still bright but fading. Next year, it will be much dimmer. Not only will it be on the other side of the solar system, but Mars is also a small planet. Third, is the king of the planets, Jupiter at peak magnitude of -2.8.
Jupiter is our largest planet, but it is much further away. Jupiter always shines around the same brilliance. This month is a real treat because Venus, Jupiter and Mars are dazzling in the evening sky! Venus and Jupiter will continue to get closer throughout the month in the western sky after sunset. What a show this will be!
After finding these three planets, be sure to enjoy the dazzling stars of winter. The brightest, Sirius, is magnitude -1.4. Sirius is joined by other bright winter stars, Betelgeuse, Rigel, Capella, Procyon, Aldebaran, Castor and Pollux.
During December, January and February we are looking into our local galactic spiral arm, the Orion Arm, toward some gigantic stars that are close to us. This is why we see the brightest stars during winter. So, bundle up, head out on the next clear night. You don’t want to miss the planet and star show!
Night sky for February
Planets and the Moon
Venus and Jupiter are 29 degrees apart, in the southwest, on Feb. 1.
During the month, Venus climbs upward, and Jupiter sinks lower until they almost meet on Feb. 28. On Feb. 28, the pair is around one degree apart and remain visible until 8 p.m. Venus’ magnitude is -3.9 all month. On Feb. 1, Venus sets two hours after the Sun. Jupiter starts the month at magnitude -2.2 and quickly dims by 0.1 magnitude. On Feb. 22, the slender crescent Moon joins Venus and Jupiter.
Mars starts out the month at magnitude -0.2 and is located ten degrees due east of the Pleiades. It moves eastward each night throughout the month across northern Taurus and fades to magnitude 0.3. The first quarter Moon passes north of Mars on Feb. 27.
Neptune is located in Aquarius and is joined by Venus. On Feb. 14, Venus and Neptune are less than one degree apart. Neptune will be northwest of Venus, binoculars and dark skies will help to locate it. The Moon passes south of Neptune on Feb. 21.
Uranus is located in southern Aries with the Moon passing just north on Feb. 25. Mercury is low in the southeast before dawn at magnitude -0.1 near eastern Sagittarius. On Feb. 1 Mercury is four degrees high before sunrise. A week later it is 1.5 degrees high an hour before sunrise. By Feb. 14, it brightens to magnitude -0.2 and is visible 45 minutes before sunrise.
The waning crescent Moon joins Mercury, which is on the upper left of the Moon, 30 minutes before sunrise. In early February, Saturn is visible in the west for less than an hour after sunset. It fades from the evening sky and will be visible next month in the morning sky.
We also have a special visitor in our evening sky in February. Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will be closest to Earth on Feb. 2 and might be our brightest comet of the year. On Feb. 10, face west and look for Orion, the Hunter. Bright red, orange Mars is to the right of Orion. The comet will be just above Mars, binoculars work best.
South – Look for the three stars in a line, which make up the belt of Orion, the Hunter. The bright red-orange star up and to the left of the belt is Betelgeuse. The bright blue-white star down and to the right of the belt is Rigel. Draw a line down from the belt to the brightest star, Sirius the Dog Star. Draw a line up from the belt to a red, orange star, Aldebaran, which is the eye of Taurus, the Bull. The sideways V shape is the face of Taurus. Above Taurus, the small cluster of stars is the Pleiades or Seven Sisters. Making a counterclockwise loop from the Pleiades, the next bright star is Capella. Continuing down, the two stars you see are Gemini, the Twins.
North – The Big Dipper is swinging up on its handle. Following the two stars at the end of the cup to the next bright star, is Polaris, or the North Star. The constellation Cassiopeia is to the left of Polaris and resembles a sideways letter ‘M”.
East – Head back to the cup of the Big Dipper. Locate the flat part of the cup. Look to the right for the shape of a backwards question mark. This is the head of Leo, the Lion.
Binocular highlights – When facing north, locate the “M” shape of Cassiopeia. From the bottom point of the “M” shape, scan slowly up to the left. You will see a fuzzy circular shape. That is the Andromeda Galaxy. From the top point of the “M”, scan up slightly. You will come upon the Double Cluster in Perseus. High overhead, you will see the small cluster of stars, the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters. The Pleiades is a beautiful open star cluster. Head to Orion, the Hunter. Scan below the three stars of Orion’s belt. You will see fuzzy area with bright stars. This is the Orion Nebula, a hydrogen gas cloud where new stars are forming. For a challenge, scan between Leo and Gemini. There you will find the Beehive Star Cluster.
For further night sky details, maps and audio, visit my website www.starrytrails.com.
Visit Hoover Price Planetarium
Visit www.mckinleymuseum.org, for show dates and times! Planetarium shows are free with Museum admission. The Planetarium is located inside the McKinley Presidential Library & Museum, 800 McKinley Monument Drive NW, in Canton. For more information, call the Museum at 330-455-7043.