Kiss the Sky Tonight -- Month of February 2021
Diffuse nebula NGC 2068, best known as Messier 78, consists of two round greenish nebulae that are actually cavities carved out of the surrounding dark dust clouds. The extended dust is mostly dark, even to NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, which took this infrared image. The edges show up in mid-wavelength infrared light as glowing, red frames surrounding the bright interiors. Messier 78 is easily seen in small telescopes in the constellation of Orion, just to the northeast of Orion's belt, but looks strikingly different, with dominant, dark swaths of dust. Spitzer's infrared eyes penetrate this dust, revealing the glowing interior of the nebulae. [Video and Content Credits: NASA, JPL – Caltech, and the Office of Public Outreach – STScI] [Image Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech]
Kiss the Sky Tonight -- Month of February 2021
Welcome to the night sky report for February 2021 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. The brightly starred winter sky beckons on clear, cold nights. In February, the Winter Triangle is your guide to the night sky. The northern hemisphere treats an observer to views of the stars Procyon, Sirius, and Betelgeuse (which together make up the Winter Triangle) and to awe-inspiring views of the Orion Nebula, which is sculpted by the stellar winds of central bright stars. See the bright star Regulus near the Moon and look for Mercury in the first days of February. You'll need a clear view toward the west, as Mercury will appear just a few degrees above the horizon.
Orion, the hunter of Greek mythology, dominates the heavens with a bright belt of three stars. The hunter’s shoulder is marked by the red supergiant Betelgeuse, a massive star nearing the end of its life. Betelgeuse is roughly 1000 times the size of our sun. An image from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows its huge atmosphere with an enormous, mysterious spot, glowing brightly in ultraviolet light. Hubble’s sharp vision allows astronomers to monitor features of the star’s atmosphere and better understand how it changes over time.
Marking Orion’s foot is another bright, hot supergiant: blue-white Rigel. Massive stars like Rigel lead short, brilliant lives. Below Orion’s shining belt lies the Orion Nebula, a hazy spot to the naked eye. A small telescope reveals it to be a diffuse, glowing cloud in space, illuminated by the energy of bright, hot stars in its center. NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes reveal the nebula in festoons of glowing gas and dust sculpted by the stellar winds of central bright stars. The Orion Nebula is an immense stellar nursery, filled with hot young stars that glow brightly in X-ray light detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.
Follow the belt of Orion down and left to find blue-white Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Sirius lies in the constellation Canis Major, the Great Dog and companion to Orion. Sirius is also one of the nearest stars—just 8.6 light-years away—and has a faint white dwarf companion star.
Just below Sirius lies a star cluster called M41. It is easily seen with a pair of binoculars as a scattered twinkling. M41 consists of about 100 stars that formed together from a giant cloud of gas and dust.
Above and left of Sirius is another bright star, a yellowish giant named Procyon. Procyon is part of the constellation Canis Minor, the smaller dog and Orion’s second companion. Procyon, Sirius, and Betelgeuse form a geometrical pattern called the Winter Triangle.
Let the Winter Triangle be your guide to the glories of the winter sky.
Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, is Groundhog Day. The tradition in the US is that if the groundhog sees its shadow, winter will end on Groundhog Day. If not, winter will last six more weeks. Groundhog Day appears to tie back to European lore about whether or not badgers, wolves, or bears (instead of groundhogs) see their shadows.
Tuesday afternoon at about 4:42 p.m. EST, a Near-Earth Object (2020 SO), between 25 to 56 feet (8 and 17 meters) across, will pass the Earth at 0.6 lunar distances, traveling at 4,000 miles per hour (1.79 kilometers per second).
Heading into Wednesday morning, Feb. 3, 2021, the bright star Spica will appear to the lower right of the waning gibbous Moon. The Moon will rise in the east at 11:07 p.m. EST, with Spica rising to the right about 7 minutes later. The Moon will reach its highest in the sky for the night Wednesday morning at 5:01 a.m., and morning twilight will begin around 6:12 a.m.
Wednesday will be the last morning for this apparition that Venus will appear above the horizon 30 minutes before sunrise (an approximation of the last time it may be visible in the glow of dawn).
Wednesday afternoon, at 2:33 p.m. EST, the Moon will be at perigee, its closest to the Earth for this orbit.
Thursday midday, Feb. 4, 2021, the waning Moon will appear half-full as it reaches its last quarter at 12:37 p.m. EST.
Sometime in the first half of February (2021-Feb-05 19:10 UTC with 6 days, 21 hours, 14 minutes uncertainty), Near-Earth Object (2018 CH2), between 22 to 49 feet (7 and 15 meters) across, will pass the Earth at between 1.3 and 30.2 lunar distances (nominally 14.5), traveling at 22,190 miles per hour (9.92 kilometers per second).
Friday evening, Feb. 5, 2021, will be the last evening for this apparition that the planet Mercury will appear above the horizon 30 minutes after sunset (an approximation of when Mercury may still be visible in the glow of dusk).
On Saturday morning, Feb. 6. 2021, the bright star Antares will appear to the lower right of the waning crescent Moon. The Moon will rise in the east-southeast at 2:41 a.m. EST, with Antares rising 22 minutes later. Morning twilight will begin around 6:10 a.m.
On Monday morning, Feb. 8, 2021, the planet Mercury will pass between the Earth and the Sun, called inferior conjunction. Planets that orbit inside of the orbit of Earth can have two types of conjunctions with the Sun, inferior (when passing between the Earth and the Sun) and superior (when passing on the far side of the Sun as seen from the Earth). Mercury will be shifting from the evening sky to the morning sky and will begin emerging from the glow of dawn on the eastern horizon after about February 11, 2021 (depending upon viewing conditions).
Thursday afternoon, Feb. 11, 2021, at 2:06 p.m. EST, will be the new Moon, when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun and will not be visible from the Earth. The day of, or the day after, the New Moon marks the start of the new month for most lunisolar calendars.
Beginning on or after Monday morning, Feb. 15, 2021, the bright planet Jupiter will begin emerging from the glow of dawn, rising in the east-southeast about 30 minutes before sunrise.
Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, will be Mardi Gras, also known as Shrove or Fat Tuesday, the traditional carnival on the last night before the 40 days of fasting for Lent. The date of Mardi Gras is loosely tied to the lunar cycle. Mardi Gras is 47 days before Easter, and Easter is generally tied to the first Sunday after the first full Moon of spring.
On Wednesday evening, Feb. 17, 2021, sometime around 8:29 p.m. EST (2021-Feb-18 01:29 UTC with 1 hour, 45 minutes uncertainty), Near-Earth Object (2020 CX1), between 132 to 295 feet (40 and 90 meters) across, will pass the Earth at between 3.7 and 5.9 lunar distances (nominally 4.8), traveling at 18,510 miles per hour (8.27 kilometers per second).
Thursday morning, Feb. 18, 2021, at 5:22 a.m. EST, the Moon will be at apogee, its farthest from the Earth for this orbit.
Also Thursday morning, Mercury and Saturn will begin appearing above the horizon in the east-southeast at the time morning twilight begins (at 5:57 a.m. EST), with Saturn appearing to the right of Mercury. Initially, Saturn will be the brighter of the two, but after a few mornings, Mercury will appear brighter than Saturn.
Thursday evening, Mars will appear to the upper right of the waxing crescent Moon. The Moon will appear 61 degrees above the southwestern horizon as evening twilight ends at 6:48 p.m. EST, and the Moon and Mars will set together in the west-northwest on Friday morning at 12:40 a.m.
On Friday afternoon, Feb. 19, 2021, the Moon will appear half-full as it reaches its first quarter at 1:47 p.m. EST.
Friday evening into early Saturday morning, Feb. 19 to 20, 2021, the bright star Aldebaran will appear near the half-lit Moon. Aldebaran will appear about 8 degrees to the left of the Moon as evening twilight ends at 6:49 p.m. EST and will appear to shift a degree or so closer by the time the Moon sets Saturday morning (at 1:39 a.m.). By Saturday evening the Moon will appear to have shifted to about 8 degrees to the other side of the Moon, and the pair will continue to separate after that.
Around Sunday morning, Feb. 21, 2021, Mercury will begin appearing brighter than Saturn.
Tuesday morning, Feb. 23, 2021, will be when Mercury and Saturn will appear at their closest together, just 4 degrees apart, low on the east-southeastern horizon (only 2 degrees above the horizon at the time morning twilight begins). After this, Mercury and Saturn will appear to separate, with Saturn continuing higher each morning while Mercury will appear to slow down, then begin to shift back towards the horizon each morning.
Heading into Wednesday morning, Feb. 24, 2021, the bright star Pollux, one of the twins in the constellation Gemini, will appear near the waxing gibbous Moon. Pollux will appear about 4 degrees to the upper left of the Moon as evening twilight ends at 6:53 p.m. EST. The Moon will reach its highest in the sky for the night at 9:40 p.m. EST with Pollux appearing about 5 degrees above the Moon, and the Moon will set Wednesday morning at 5:19 a.m. EST with Pollux about 6 degrees to the right of the Moon.
Friday morning, Feb. 26, 2021, the planet Mercury will appear at its highest above the horizon for this apparition at the time morning twilight begins, after which it will begin to shift back toward the horizon.
Friday evening, the full Moon will appear to the left of the bright star Regulus. As evening twilight ends at 6:56 p.m. EST, Regulus will appear about 7 degrees to the upper right of the full Moon, and the pair will appear to separate as the evening progresses.
The Moon will be full early Saturday morning, Feb. 27, 2021, at 3:17 a.m. EST. The Moon will appear full for about three days through Sunday morning, Feb. 28, 2021.
The night sky is always a celestial showcase. Explore its wonders from your own backyard.
The following Deep Sky Objects are found in constellations that peak during the month. Some can be viewed with a small telescope, but the majority will require a moderate to large telescope. The following is adapted from my personal viewing list: "The Guy Pirro 777 Best and Brightest Deep Sky Objects."
NGC 2632 Open Cluster M44 Beehive Cluster
NGC 2682 Open Cluster M67
NGC 2775 Galaxy C48, Herschel 400 H2-1
Constellation: Canis Major
IC 468 Diffuse Nebula P132
IC 2165 Planetary Nebula P133
NGC 2204 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H13-7
NGC 2207 Galaxy P216
- IC 2163 Galaxy - Interacting with P216
NGC 2217 Galaxy P72
NGC 2243 Open Cluster P134
NGC 2287 Open Cluster M41
NGC 2345 Open Cluster P73
NGC 2354 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H16-7
NGC 2359 Diffuse Nebula P20 Thor’s Helmet
NGC 2360 Open Cluster C58, Herschel 400 H12-7
NGC 2362 Open Cluster C64, Herschel 400 H17-7 Tau Canis Major Cluster
NGC 2367 Open Cluster P74
NGC 2374 Open Cluster P75
NGC 2383 Open Cluster P135
NGC 2384 Open Cluster P76
Constellation: Canis Minor
NGC 2419 Globular Cluster C25, Herschel 400 H218-1
NGC 2683 Galaxy Herschel 400 H200-1
NGC 2782 Galaxy Herschel 400 H167-1
IC 434 Diffuse Nebula P92 Horsehead Nebula
NGC 1662 Open Cluster P39
NGC 1788 Diffuse Nebula Herschel 400 H32-5
NGC 1976 Diffuse Nebula M42 Great Orion Nebula
NGC 1977 Open Cluster P40 Running Man Nebular Cluster
- NGC 1973 Diffuse Nebula - Part of P40
- NGC 1975 Diffuse Nebula - Part of P40
NGC 1980 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H31-5
NGC 1981 Open Cluster P41
NGC 1982 Diffuse Nebula M43 DeMairan Nebula
NGC 1999 Diffuse Nebula Herschel 400 H33-4
NGC 2022 Diffuse Nebula Herschel 400 H34-4
NGC 2023 Diffuse Nebula P93
NGC 2024 Diffuse Nebula Herschel 400 H28-5 Flame Nebula
NGC 2039 Open Cluster P94
NGC 2068 Diffuse Nebula M78
NGC 2071 Diffuse Nebula P42
NGC 2112 Open Cluster P170
NGC 2141 Open Cluster P171
NGC 2143 Open Cluster P172
NGC 2169 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H24-8
NGC 2175 Open Cluster P43
- NGC 2174 Diffuse Nebula - Part of P43
- IC 2159 Diffuse Nebula - Part of P43
NGC 2186 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H25-7
NGC 2194 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H5-6
NGC 2298 Globular Cluster P98
NGC 2396 Open Cluster P99
NGC 2409 Open Cluster P100
NGC 2414 Open Cluster P101
NGC 2421 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H67-7
NGC 2422 Open Cluster M47, Herschel 400 H38-8
NGC 2423 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H28-7
NGC 2432 Open Cluster P241
NGC 2437 Open Cluster M46
NGC 2438 Planetary Nebula Herschel 400 H39-4 Part of M46
NGC 2439 Open Cluster P46
NGC 2440 Planetary Nebula Herschel 400 H64-4
NGC 2447 Open Cluster M93
NGC 2451 Open Cluster P47
NGC 2453 Open Cluster P176
NGC 2455 Open Cluster P242
NGC 2467 Open Cluster P102
NGC 2477 Open Cluster C71
NGC 2479 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H58-7
NGC 2482 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H10-7
NGC 2483 Open Cluster P103
NGC 2489 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H23-7
NGC 2509 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H1-8
NGC 2527 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H30-8
NGC 2533 Open Cluster P104
NGC 2539 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H11-7
NGC 2546 Open Cluster P48
NGC 2567 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H64-7
NGC 2568 Open Cluster P177
NGC 2571 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H39-6
NGC 2579 Open Cluster P105
NGC 2580 Open Cluster P178
NGC 2587 Open Cluster P179
NGC 2588 Open Cluster P243
NGC 2613 Galaxy Herschel 400 H266-2
NGC 2627 Open Cluster Herschel 400 H63-7
NGC 2635 Open Cluster P244
NGC 2658 Open Cluster P180
NGC 2818 Planetary Nebula P245
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