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Celestial News: Planets light up February skies


Jimmy Westlake
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Occultations of the planets by the moon are both uncommon and spectacular. This image captured Jupiter and its giant satellites just after emerging from behind the moon on Dec. 4, 2004. Coloradans will have the opportunity to see the moon cover up the planet Mars before dawn Feb. 18.
Jimmy Westlake/courtesy

Venus, the so-called Evening Star, dominates the early evening sky this month, shining down on us from the constellation of Pisces the Fish. For the first half of the month, the planet Mercury joins Venus after sunset for one of its best appearances of the year.

Mercury is challenging to spot because it is always close to the sun in our sky and can only be seen in the minutes after sunset or before sunrise. Conditions this month are very favorable for getting a glimpse of the elusive planet. Look down below dazzling Venus about 45 minutes after sunset. Mercury will look like a bright star shimmering in the multicolored sunset glow.

Meanwhile, in the predawn sky, the other three naked eye planets — Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — are visible low in the southeast.  Early risers on the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 18, will get to see a very special treat when the moon passes in front of the planet Mars.

As the moon runs its course through the constellations, it occasionally passes in front of a distant star or planet, temporarily hiding it from our view. When the moon covers up the sun, we call it an eclipse, but when the moon covers up a star or planet, it is called an occultation. Occultations of the bright stars and planets are rather rare, so, this event is definitely worth stepping outside to see.

Mars and the moon will rise together in the southeastern sky around 3:40 a.m. before dawn Tuesday, Feb. 18. As they rise higher over the next hour, the moon will creep closer and closer to Mars until at 4:39 a.m. The Red Planet will disappear completely behind the bright edge of the moon, near the Moon’s 7-o’clock position. Mars will be nearly 168 million miles from Earth at the time, compared to the moon’s distance of only 240,000 miles. Even though Mars is considerably larger than the moon, it will appear much, much smaller, far off in the distance.

To the unaided eye, the poor contrast between Mars and the bright edge of the moon could make seeing Mars challenging. It will be much easier to watch Mars pop back into view along the dark edge of the moon at 5:57 a.m, near the moon’s 2-o’clock position. The pending sunrise will already be brightening the sky as Mars returns, and the view should be spectacular.

If you own a telescope or a pair of ordinary binoculars, by all means, aim it skyward and watch Mars play hide and seek with the moon. 

Jimmy Westlake retired from full-time teaching at Colorado Mountain College’s Steamboat Springs campus in 2017, after 19 years as professor of physical sciences. His “Celestial News” column appears monthly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Check out Westlake’s astrophotography website at jwestlake.com.


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