What to see in the night sky in February
After a stunning month of stargazing in January, what does the short month of February have in store? Below are several moments in the coming days and weeks that you won’t want to miss. Here’s hoping for clear skies!
Happy Cross-Quarter Day! (Feb. 2)
Feb. 2 marks the halfway point between winter and the start of spring. (Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr)
Feb. 2, celebrated in the United States as Groundhog Day, is also an astronomical holiday marking the approximate midway point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. These so-called cross-quarter days (Halloween on Oct. 31 is another) have been observed by pagans for centuries, with the Feb. 2 holiday marking a time for purification and spring cleaning for the year ahead.
Welcome the dark of the New Moon (Feb. 4)
The Milky Way stretching over the Lütispitz Mountain in Switzerland. (Photo: Lukas Schlagenhauf/Flickr)
Those looking to take in the celestial beauty of February’s night sky will get their best conditions early on, with the month’s New Moon hitting its peak on Feb. 4. It will likely be freezing cold outside, but these kinds of chilly nights offer the best conditions for clearly taking in the splendor of the universe.
“One reason for the clarity of a winter’s night is that cold air cannot hold as much moisture as warm air can,” writes Joe Rao of Space.com. “Hence, on many nights in the summer, the warm moisture-laden atmosphere causes the sky to appear hazier.”
A speedy comet cruises safely by (Feb. 12)
Comet Lovejoy glowing green above the Atacama Desert in Chile in 2015. (Photo: Shawn Stephens/Flickr)
A comet only recently discovered by Japanese astronomer Masayuki Iwamoto in late 2017 will make its closest pass by Earth on Feb. 12. Named Comet C/2018 Y1 (Iwamoto), this mass of rock and ice is something of a speed demon, traveling through the solar system at an estimated 147,948 mph relative to Earth! Thankfully, it poses no threat to our planet and will safely cruise by at a distance of about 28 million miles.
As it passes through the inner solar system and nears the sun, the comet is expected to brighten to a magnitude of 7. While not visible to the naked eye, those with binoculars and backyard telescopes should have no problem spotting the dull green of Comet Iwamoto in the constellation Virgo. But catch it while you can: Comet Iwamoto is not expected to swing our way again for nearly 1,000 years.
The rise of the Snow Moon (Feb. 19)
February’s full moon is nicknamed the Snow Moon. (Photo: Mikael Wiman/Flickr)
February’s full moon will rise at 10:53 am EST on the morning of Feb. 19. With February on average the snowiest month in the U.S., this moon’s common nickname is “the snow moon.”
SpaceX attempts 1st Dragon Crew Test (Feb. 23)
The effort to officially end the United States’ reliance on Russia to transport astronauts to the International Space Station will have its first shot some time in late February. The date presently being thrown about is now Feb. 23, a delay from early January. With the threat of yet another government shutdown looming, this could be pushed back again.
According to NASA, SpaceX will perform the maiden launch of its Crew Dragon capsule from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Should this un-crewed test flight prove successful, it will likely keep SpaceX on track to launch a crewed mission in June 2019.
Boeing is also prepping the launch of its own crewed capsule, the Starliner, with a test set for March and a manned version in August.
Zodiacal light (All February)
The zodiacal light is best viewed during the spring and fall. (Photo: European Southern Observatory/Flickr)
Best viewed just after sunset, the zodiacal light is a cone-shaped, hazy light that can be seen emanating just over the western horizon. According to EarthSky, this solar system phenomenon is caused by “sunlight reflecting off dust grains that circle the sun in the inner solar system.” A 2010 study found that nearly 85 percent of the dust was caused by fragmentation from Jupiter-family comets.
While light pollution makes viewing the zodiacal light something of a challenge, those in darker areas of the world should have a solid shot at viewing this celestial phenomenon.
Editor’s note: This story was originally written in January 2017 and has been updated with new information.
What to see in the night sky in February
From a speedy comet to the return of the Zodiacal light, these are the best skywatching moments for February 2018.