In February, Venus rises above the evening horizon and settles into her last reign as an “evening star.” But the sun is also rising, so we have to go out later each night to see our sister planet against a dark sky.
As Venus rises, Jupiter falls towards it, thanks to Earth leaving the giant planet behind in the orbital race. Look for Jupiter in the southwest and watch the two brightest planets move closer each night. The couple ends the month about to cross on March 1.
While Earth regularly leaves Jupiter in the dust, it can’t do that to Venus because it’s closer to the sun and faster than Earth. Thus, Venus rises and falls due to her own movement. When it is an evening star it haunts us, but when it appears in the morning sky we are “eating its dust”.
Mars is now high in the south at nightfall. The red planet is fading but still easy to find; look east of the Pleiades star cluster and above Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the bull. Also, take this opportunity to compare Venus, the brightest planet, with Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Sirius is the lowest of the bright winter stars now gathered in the southeast and shines to the lower left of Orion’s hourglass figure. Try in the middle of the month, when Venus will be highest at nightfall and the moon won’t interfere.
February’s full moon arrives on the 5th. During the moon’s next cycle, it visits Jupiter and Venus on the 21st and 22nd and Mars on the 27th.
On Groundhog Day we celebrate an ancient Celtic astronomically based holiday called Imbolc, or lamb’s milk. It marked the beginning of the calving season and was one of four cross days that fell halfway between a solstice and an equinox. It is not clear how the groundhog was linked to this day. As to why it was important to see your shadow, or not, one theory suggests that if the day was cloudy and without shadows, it heralded rain and softening of the cultivated fields. But a clear, cold day signaled a more stubborn winter.
Public views of the University of Minnesota’s night sky at its Duluth and Twin Cities campuses have been reduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For more information, see:
• Duluth, Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium: www.d.umn.edu/planet
• Twin Cities, Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics: www.astro.umn.edu/outreach/pubnight
• Check out astronomy shows, free telescope events, and planetarium shows at the
Bell Museum of the University of Minnesota: www.bellmuseum.umn.edu/astronomy
• Find U of M astronomers and links to the world of astronomy at: http://www.astro.umn.edu