Watch February skies for Zodiacal Light

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Early spring brings us opportunities, once again, for viewing the Zodiacal Light. To see it, find a nice dark viewing spot and wait until it is completely dark after sunset. In the spring you look to the western horizon to see sunlight reflected by interplanetary dust particles. Look for a tall, left sloping wedge of diffuse light rising up from the horizon.

Mercury makes both early evening and early dawn appearances this month. From the 1st through the 4th of the month look west-southwest about 45 minutes after sunset and about 5 degrees above the horizon. After the 4th Mercury sinks fast and disappears, passing through inferior conjunction on the 15th, and reappearing in the early morning skies at the end of the month. Try looking to the southeast about 30 minutes before sunrise. You may need binoculars to find it.

Jupiter continues to dominate the night skies although it dims a little to magnitude -2.4. High in the night sky Jupiter will afford those with small telescopes excellent opportunities to discern atmospheric features. Mars rises around 11 p.m. at the beginning of the month and by 9:30 at the end of February. Mars brightens from magnitude +0.2 to -0.4 during the month. This should allow those with telescopes to begin to discern some surface features.

Saturn will be a prime target for planet observers this month, especially so for those with telescopes. The ringed planet rises around 1:30 a.m. as it approaches western quadrature with the sun on the 11th. The result for us is to be able to view the maximum extent of the planet’s shadow that is cast upon the rings. The rings are temporarily at a maximum tilt of 23 degrees and offer excellent telescopic viewing as well.

Venus now continues to dazzle us with a maximum brightness of magnitude -4.9 in morning skies. During this appearance Venus will only be about 18 degrees above the eastern horizon. The best viewing will be about 30 minutes before sunrise.

The Moon will be first quarter on the 6th, full on the 14th and last quarter on the 22nd. Looking west-southwest on the 1st, and about 45 minutes after sunset, the new crescent Moon will be about 10 degrees above and to the left of Mercury. On the 10th the nearly full moon will be just to the right of Jupiter in the constellation Gemini. Looking southwest on the 29th, about one hour before sunrise, the waning moon will be very close to the bright star Spica in Virgo and below and to the right of Mars. Look to the southeast about 30 minutes before sunrise on the 26th to see the waning crescent Moon just below and to the right of dazzling Venus.

Jon Spargo is with the New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club.