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| Astronomy Essentials | Space on Feb 14, 2015

February 2015 guide to the five visible planets

Wow! What a great month for planets! Watch Venus, Mars and Jupiter pop out at nightfall. Jupiter opposition February 6. Venus/Mars conjunction February 21. Mercury and Saturn before dawn.

At the same time each evening, note the moon's change of position relative to the backdrop stars. The green line depicts the ecliptic -  pathway of the moon and planets. Read more

At the same time each evening, note the moon’s change of position relative to the backdrop stars. The green line depicts the ecliptic – pathway of the moon and planets. Read more

The moon, Jupiter and Regulus on March 3. 2015. Read more

The moon, Jupiter and Regulus on March 3. 2015. Read more

Evening planets in February 2015

Brilliant Venus in west at nightfall.

Fading Mars in west at nightfall.

Bright Jupiter in east at nightfall, then out all night

Morning planets in February 2015

Saturn visible in February predawn.

Mercury in east as dawn breaks.

Full moon plus Jupiter on February 3-4, 2015

Zodiacal light is glowing pyramid in west after dark.

Brilliant Venus in west at nightfall. Venus – brightest of all planets, and third-brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon – climbs out of the glare of evening twilight all through February 2015. It puts on a spectacular show with Mars this month! You won’t want to miss these two worlds as they edge closer on our sky’s dome for the first three weeks of February.

Meanwhile, day by day, Venus will be staying out longer after dark (but still following the sun beneath the horizon by early evening). In early February, this dazzling world sets about two hours after sunset at mid-northern latitudes. The queen planet’s visibility improves throughout February, setting about two and one-half hours after the sun by the month’s end.

Do not miss Venus and Mars on February 19, February 20 and February 21, as the slender waxing crescent moon returns to the evening sky, and moves up past two planets in the western twilight.

Find an unobstructed horizon in the direction of sunset, and bring along binoculars, if you have them, to enhance the view. It’ll be Venus’ and Mars’ closest conjunction on our sky’s dome until October 5, 2017. It’ll be spectacular! Unforgettable. Definitely photogenic, so snag your camera before going outside if you’re so inclined.

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Think photo opportunity! The thin waxing crescent moon joins up with the Venus and Mars on February 20

Think photo opportunity! The thin waxing crescent moon joins up with the Venus and Mars on February 20

Fading Mars in west at nightfall. Mars continues to fade in brightness, especially in contrast to its glory when Earth passed between the Red Planet and the sun last April. But you can easily see Mars still, as it comes into view as darkness falls throughout February, 2015. Venus will help guide your eye to Mars throughout the month. Both lie along the ecliptic, or sun’s path. Look for them on February 20 and February 21.

The red planet Mars is getting dimmer as it lags behind us in its larger and slower orbit, but is nonetheless visible to the unaided eye in a dark sky. This ruddy world still shines pretty much on par with the sky’s brightest stars, though it won’t look as bright set against the evening twilight as it would in a completely dark sky.

At mid-northern latitudes, Mars sets about three hours after the sun in early February. But like a fading ember, this world is slowly but surely disappearing into the glow of sunset as Earth races ahead of it in orbit.

By early March 2015, Mars will set about two hours after the sun and will be hard to view in the glare of the March evening twilight.

The moon appears above Jupiter as darkness falls on February 2, with Jupiter on February 3 and with the star Regulus on February 4. The sky chart is for North America. On these same dates in the world's Eastern Hemisphere - Europe, Africa and Asia - the moon will be somewhat offset toward the previous date. The green line depicts the ecliptic.

The moon appears above Jupiter as darkness falls on February 2, with Jupiter on February 3 and with the star Regulus on February 4. The sky chart is for North America. On these same dates in the world’s Eastern Hemisphere – Europe, Africa and Asia – the moon will be somewhat offset toward the previous date. The green line depicts the ecliptic.

Bright Jupiter in east at nightfall, then out all night At opposition to the sun on February 6, Jupiter enjoys its month of glory in February 2015. What is opposition? It simply means that Earth passes between Jupiter and the sun on this date, as we do every year. It means Jupiter is opposite the sun in our sky – at its best!

Around the time of opposition, Earth is closest to Jupiter. The distance between our two worlds is least. Jupiter, in turn, shines at its brightest and best in Earth’s nighttime sky – brighter than it will again until June 2019.

Once you see Jupiter over the eastern horizon at dusk or nightfall, it’s unmistakable. This world shines more brilliantly than any star. As evening falls, look for brilliant Venus in the west, then turn around to see Jupiter in the opposite direction: east. Jupiter is always the second-brightest planet after Venus. In February 2015, Venus sets in the west at early evening, leaving the king planet Jupiter to rule the night.

Watch the moon pass close to Jupiter on the evenings of February 2, February 3 and February 4.

If you have binoculars or a telescope, be sure to check out Jupiter’s four major moons, which look like pinpricks of light on or near the same plane. They are often called the Galilean moons to honor Galileo, who discovered these great Jovian moons in 1610. In their order from Jupiter, these moons are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

Click here for a Jupiter’s moons almanac, courtesy of Sky & Telescope.

Watch the moon slide down the ecliptic - the pathway of the moon and planets - in the predawn sky on Debruary 12, February 13 and February 14. Read more

Watch the moon slide down the ecliptic – the pathway of the moon and planets – in the predawn sky on February 12, February 13 and February 14. Read more

Saturn visible in February predawn. The golden planet Saturn rises in the southeast about two and one-half hours after midnight in early February and roughly one-half hour after midnight by the month’s end. Watch for the rather wide waning crescent moon to couple up with Saturn in the predawn hours on February 12 and February 13.

Binoculars don’t reveal Saturn’s gorgeous rings. For that, you need a small telescope.

Saturn’s rings are inclined at about 25o from edge-on in February 2015, exhibiting their northern face. Several years from now, in October 2017, the rings will open most widely, displaying a maximum inclination of 27o. As with so much in space (and on Earth), the appearance of Saturn’s rings from Earth is cyclical. In the year 2025, the rings will appear edge-on as seen from Earth. After that, we’ll begin to see the south side of Saturn’s rings, to increase to a maximum inclination of 27o by May 2032.

It'll be a big challenge, especially at northerly latitudes, to catch the moon and Mercury before sunrise on February 17. This chart is for mid-northern North American latitudes. Mercury will be much easier to view from more southerly latitudes. Read more.

It’ll be a big challenge, especially at northerly latitudes, to catch the moon and Mercury before sunrise on February 17. This chart is for mid-northern North American latitudes. Mercury will be much easier to view from more southerly latitudes. Read more.

Mercury in east as dawn breaks. Mercury is our solar system’s innermost planet and always stays near the sun in our sky. As seen from the Southern Hemisphere, February 2015 presents a particularly grand month for catching Mercury in the morning sky. We at northerly latitudes aren’t so lucky but we can always rely on a pair of binoculars to view the innermost planet before sunrise this month.

At mid-southern latitudes, this world rises about one hour before the sun at the end of the first week of February. But by the time that the waning crescent moon couples up with Mercury on February 16 and February 17, Mercury will rise almost two hours before sunrise at temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere.

And – for those in the Southern Hemisphere – when Mercury reaches its greatest elongation from the sun on February 24, it’ll be rising better than two hours before sunrise. So you catch our drift here. From the Southern Hemisphere, Mercury puts on a super-great show in the morning sky from mid-February to mid-March 2015.

Don’t miss out if you live in the Southern Hemisphere because this is about as good as it gets for viewing Mercury in the predawn/dawn sky!

Distances of the planets from the sun

What do we mean by visible planet? By visible planet, we mean any solar system planet that is easily visible without an optical aid and that has been watched by our ancestors since time immemorial. In their outward order from the sun, the five visible planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These planets are visible in our sky because their disks reflect sunlight, and these relatively nearby worlds tend to shine with a steadier light than the distant, twinkling stars. They tend to be bright! You can spot them, and come to know them as faithful friends, if you try.

Bottom line: All five visible planets can be seen in February! In February 2015 Venus and Mars light up the early evening hours; Jupiter is out from dusk until dawn; Saturn is found before dawn and Mercury just before sunrise.

View larger.| See the little white dot of the planet Venus in the upper right of this photo?  It'll be back to your evening sky in early December.  Helio de Carvalho Vital captured this image on November 18, 2014 from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  He wrote,

View larger.| Venus near the setting sun on November 18, 2014 by Helio de Carvalho Vital in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He wrote, “I managed to capture Venus as it is starting its return to dusk, despite the fact that it is still at a mere 6.2° distance from the sun. The photos show it a few minutes before setting behind the northern side of the 1,021-meter high Tijuca Peak, located some 6.5 km away. It was deeply immersed in the intense glare of the sun, that would set some 13 minutes later.”

Lunar eclipse on the night of October 8, 2014.  The object to the left is the planet Uranus!  This beautiful photo is by Janey Wing Kenyon of Story, Wyoming.

Lunar eclipse on the night of October 8, 2014. The object to the left is the planet Uranus! This beautiful photo is by Janey Wing Kenyon of Story, Wyoming.

Debra Fryar in Calobreves, Texas captured this photo of the moon and Jupiter on May 31, 2014.  Jupiter was close to the twilight then.  In early July, Jupiter will be even closer to the twilight, about to disappear in the sun's glare.

Debra Fryar in Calobreves, Texas captured this photo of the moon and Jupiter on May 31, 2014. Jupiter was close to the twilight then.

Jupiter and its four major moons as seen through a 10

With only a modest backyard telescope, you can easily see Jupiter’s four largest moons. Here they are through a 10″ (25 cm) Meade LX200 telescope. Image credit: Jan Sandberg

Jupiter was rivaling the streetlights on December 29, 2013, when Mohamed Laaifat Photographies captured this photo in Normandy, France.

Jupiter was rivaling the streetlights, when Mohamed Laaifat Photographies captured this photo in Normandy, France. Visit his page on Facebook.

Venus on Dec. 26 by Danny Crocker-Jensen

Venus by Danny Crocker-Jensen

These are called star trails. It’s a long-exposure photo, which shows you how Earth is turning under the stars. The brightest object here is Jupiter, which is the second-brightest planet, after Venus. This awesome photo by EarthSky Facebook friend Mohamed Laaifat in Normandy, France. Thank you, Mohamed.

View larger. | Mercury, Venus and Jupiter seen when evening fell in Hong Kong earlier today - June 1, 2013 - by EarthSky Facebook friend Matthew Chin.  Awesome shot, Matthew!

View larger. | Mercury, Venus and Jupiter seen when evening fell in Hong Kong on June 1, 2013. Photo by EarthSky Facebook friend Matthew Chin. Awesome shot, Matthew!

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