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February’s Sky

February is a fantastic time to see planets, with all five of the brighter “wanderers” visible by the end of the month. Mercury and Mars will be up in the early evening while Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus will show their faces in the pre-dawn morning. The month also features the second of three so-called supermoons of 2019 and one of the sky’s most distinct constellations. One thing that will be missing is a meteor shower; while the Quadrantids peaked in January, the next major meteor shower, the Lyrids, doesn’t arrive until April. Let’s look at some highlights for the month:

The Sun and Moon

The days will be getting longer, as they say, during February. Of course, this refers to the increasing amount of daylight, not to any lengthening of the day past its normal period of 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4.1 seconds. On February 1 the Sun rises at 7:25 a.m. and sets at 5:54 p.m.; by the end of the month, the Sun will be up at 6:56 a.m. and down at 6:21 p.m.

As for the Moon, the phases fall on the following dates:

New Moon – February 2

First Quarter – February 12

Full Moon – February 19

Third Quarter – February 26

Ancient Native American cultures often referred to the full Moon in February as the Snow Moon, since this is one of the snowiest months of the year. Another nickname was the Hunger Moon, referring to the sparse food available due to the difficulty in hunting during the wintry conditions.

February’s full Moon is also one of three supermoons that will appear in 2019. “Supermoon” is one of those scientifically dubious terms that has found its way into popular culture thanks in large part to our knack of giving nicknames to events. Astrologer Richard Nolle coined the term several decades ago to describe a full or new Moon that is less than 223,000 miles from Earth (the Moon is on average 239,000 miles away). While their proximity results in these Moons appearing to be a bit larger and correspondingly brighter than average full Moons, they are otherwise normal and happen several times per year.

Constellation of the Month

Orion is perhaps the most prominent constellation in the current night sky. Most civilizations have seen this pattern of stars as representing some form of humanoid, whether Orion the hunter by Greeks, the great god Osiris by ancient Egyptians, or the First Slender One by Navajos.  First Slender One is one of the eight major constellations recognized by Navajo culture (the Greek/Roman system distinguishes 88).

Orion is characterized by its distinct array of stars that includes Orion’s Belt, a line of three bright stars that serves as a handy guide to finding other celestial objects. As seen from the Northern Hemisphere, an imaginary line drawn through the belt stars to the left will point to Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky and part of the constellation Canis Major, the greater of Orion’s two hunting dogs (the other is Canis Minor). A line drawn through the belt stars to the right leads to Aldebaran, a red star that is usually depicted as the eye of Taurus, the Bull.

Below and nearly perpendicular to Orion’s Belt is another row of three fainter stars, usually seen as some sort of scabbard hanging down from the belt.  Upon further inspection, the middle “star” looks fuzzy; through binoculars or a telescope its true nature may be revealed as an emission nebula, an interstellar cloud of glowing gas. Known as the Orion Nebula or the Great Nebula, it is about 1500 light years from Earth and a very popular and fascinating object to view through a telescope. It is also well-studied by professional astronomers, as it is a stellar nursery, a region where stars are currently being formed. For the month of February, the Orion Nebula is the featured object for guests to view through telescopes at Lowell Observatory.