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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.