Backyard Stargazer: A quick guide to the February heavens

By Francis Parnell

Francis Parnell, the Backyard Stargazer of Darlington

It’s almost February, and at dusk on the 1st be sure to look southwest to spot Venus, the Evening Star, blazing brightly above the horizon.
Venus is 7,521 miles in diameter, and an average temperature of –864 degrees — hot enough to melt lead!
Mercury will be to the lower right of Venus, but the best visibility of Mercury will be between the 6th and the 14th.
About an hour after sunset on the 3rd, the waxing gibbous Moon is in the Hyades, with Aldebaran, the red eye of the Bull, a few degrees lower left. The “V” of the Hyades is one of the closest open star clusters at 150 light years away, and is the “face” of Taurus.
On the 10th at dusk, Mercury reaches Greatest Eastern Elongation of 18 degrees from the Sun. An hour after sunset it’s still 10 degrees above the west-southwestern horizon. Try to spot the tiny world before it sets. Mercury is 3,032 miles in diameter, and is a toasty 801 degrees.
Just before dawn on the 19th, the thin crescent Moon and Jupiter are about 4 degrees apart just to the left of the Teapot in Sagittarius.
At dawn on the 20th, an even more slender lunar crescent is about 2 degrees lower right of yellow Saturn. Catch the pair in the southeast before sunrise.
On the 27th at dusk, find the thin waxing crescent Moon about 6 degrees left of Venus as they sink towards the western horizon.
FAST FACT: Speaking of “fast,” ever wonder how fast Earth moves along its orbit? The average orbital speed is 66,628 mph. During a year we’ll travel 584 million miles. Of course the extra day for Leap Year adds 1.6 million miles for a total of 585.3 million miles. And Earth has circled the Sun 4.5 billion times.
Migrating birds navigate by the stars. But as light pollution brightens the sky, the stars are no longer visible, which causes about a billion bird deaths each year. Reduce light pollution, save the birds and “Keep looking up”!

Author: Rachel Howell

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