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Star Trak: February 2020

For immediate release: January 31, 2020

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The solar system's two inner planets, Venus and Mercury, will stand out conspicuously in the early evening sky during February. The three mid-range planets -- Mars, Jupiter and Saturn -- will highlight the sky before dawn.

Venus Cloud Tops Viewed by HubbleVenus Cloud Tops Viewed by Hubble
Photo Credit: NASA - Hubble

Venus will brighten even more during February, appearing more than 500 times brighter than any star in its vicinity. Though it can be spotted easily within a half-hour after sunset, it will appear 20 degrees high in the west-southwest as twilight fades on Feb. 1 and 5 degrees higher by Feb. 29, when it will set after 9:30 p.m. local time.

Mercury will appear far lower than Venus at nightfall in the first two weeks of February, but it will still be 10 degrees above the horizon shortly after sunset. It will fade rapidly and disappear during the third week of the month, reaching inferior conjunction with the sun on Feb. 25.

Mars will rise in the southeast shortly before 4 a.m. local time in February, brightening as it passes above the Teapot formation in the constellation Sagittarius. On the morning of Feb. 18, viewers in most of North America will have a rare opportunity to see the moon pass between Mars and Earth, blocking our view of the red planet.

Jupiter will rise about 90 minutes before the sun on Feb. 1, and Saturn will follow 40 minutes later. After the moon occults Mars on Feb. 18, it will pass 4 degrees to Jupiter's right (south) on Feb. 19 and 3 degrees to Saturn's lower right on Feb. 20. By month's end, all three planets will rise before morning twilight begins. Mars will be highest, with Jupiter 10 degrees to its lower right and Saturn 9 degrees farther on. Saturn's famous rings will be tilted 22 degrees to our line of sight.

Zodiacal light

If you live in an area that is dark enough for you to see the Milky Way sprawling across the night sky, you also have a chance of seeing the interplanetary dust in the plane of our solar system. Moonless evenings in late winter and early spring are the best time to see this dust. As darkness falls, look for a faint pyramid of light spreading upward from the western horizon over a large area of the sky. This is the zodiacal light, which is sunlight reflected from trillions of dust particles left behind in space by comets and asteroids that orbit the sun in the same plane as the planets. This year the planet Venus will be in the middle of the zodiacal glow.

Moon phases

The moon will be at first quarter on Feb. 2, full on Feb. 9, at third quarter on Feb. 15 and new on Feb 23.

Author: Hal Kibbey Email: hkibbey [at] gmail.com

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