Star Trak: February 2018

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The evening and midnight sky will not have any bright planets for most of February, but three such planets will dominate the southeastern sky before dawn.

Jupiter will be the first to appear, rising around 2 a.m. local time in early February and two hours earlier by month's end. It will grow larger and brighter as the month passes. Its four Galilean moons can be seen with any telescope, providing a constantly changing display as they orbit the planet.

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Jupiter. Photo by NASA

Mars will rise an hour later and will be 12 degrees east of Jupiter on Feb. 1. The Red Planet will move among the stars of the constellation Scorpius, and on Feb. 10 it will pass due north of that constellation's bright red-orange star Antares. This will be a fine opportunity to compare the two objects and see why ancient observers named the star Antares, which means "rival of Mars."

Saturn will rise around 5 a.m. local time Feb. 1 and be 10 degrees above the southeastern horizon an hour before sunrise. Easy to spot in the brightening dawn, it will be more conspicuous than any of the stars in its background constellation, Sagittarius the Archer. By the end of the month it will be 15 degrees high at the start of morning twilight. Its famous ring system will be tilted 26 degrees to our line of sight, nearly the maximum.

Venus will set less than a half hour after the sun at the start of February, too close to the southwestern horizon for viewing. By month's end it will be 10 degrees high at sunset, fairly easy to see before it sets an hour later.

Mercury will be too low in the afterglow of sunset for observation in February.

Moon phases

The moon will be at third quarter on Feb. 7, new on Feb. 15 and at first quarter on Feb. 23.

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