Astro Bob: Celestial sights make happy February nights
Our February event calendar highlights Comet ZTF and Mars, Venus and Jupiter at dusk and a stellar reminder of spring.
February is a transition month for the constellations. Although the winter groups still rule the roost, the first hints of spring appear low in the eastern sky later in the month, led by the sparkling orange star Arcturus in the constellation of Boötes the Herdsman. Come May, this peachy luminary will shine high in the southern sky.
Off to the west, Saturn is now lost in the solar glow. Farewell! We won’t see this iconic world again until early April at dawn. Venus and Jupiter tantalize as they gradually draw together in preparation for their very close conjunction next month. I'm looking forward to seeing them get tighter with each passing night.
If you haven’t yet seen Comet ZTF (C/2022 E3) you still have time. Named for the Zwicky Transient Facility in California where it was discovered in early 2022, the fuzzy visitor will be brightest early in the month and then gradually fade. Right now, the comet competes with the nearly full moon. We all know who'll win that battle. Better to wait until about Feb. 7. That's when the moon starts to exit the evening sky, and darkness returns. On that date, we get about a half-hour of moonlessness. The next night, the dark "window" expands to 90 minutes.
After passing the sun and inner planets, Comet ZTF is on a one-way ticket out of the solar system — a journey that will take millions of years. Good news. It should remain visible in binoculars from lesser light-polluted skies through about Feb. 20.
Feb. 1 – Comet ZTF (C/2022 E3) closest to Earth today at 26 million miles (42 million km) and visible as a fuzzy glow in binoculars. Track it as it dives through Auriga and Taurus and into Orion.
Feb. all month – Watch Venus and Jupiter gradually get closer during the month. Venus is the lower and brighter of the two planets in the southwestern sky at dusk. Look about an hour after sunset. Their separation shrinks from 29 degrees (three fists at arm’s length) on Feb. 1 to just 1 degree by month’s end.
Feb. 5 – Full Snow Moon. Find a favorite spot facing east-northeast and treat yourself to a moonrise.
Feb. 10 – Use binoculars to spot fuzzy Comet ZTF just 1.5 degrees to the upper left of Mars. They’ll both sit together in the same field of view. Mars is the bright, red-colored “star” in Taurus about one fist to the left of the Dipper-shaped Pleiades star cluster also known as the Seven Sisters.
Feb. 13 – Last quarter moon
Feb. 20 – New moon
Feb. 22 – Young crescent joins Jupiter and Venus at dusk in an attractive trio. Bring your camera!
Late Feb. – The brilliant orange-red star Arcturus, harbinger of spring, rises in the northeastern sky around 9:30 p.m. local time. You'll find by following the arc of the Big Dipper’s Handle down toward the horizon.
Feb. 26 – Half-moon shines to the left of the Pleiades star cluster
Feb. 27 – First quarter moon. Moon and Mars in conjunction