Venus – the brightest planet – blazes mightily in the western sky after sunset. It’s the only bright planet to light up these February evenings all month long; from northerly latitudes, you might glimpse Mercury beneath Venus, for a week or two. Given clear skies, it’ll be hard to miss Venus, the third-brightest celestial body to light up the heavens, after the sun and moon. Some sharp-sighted people can even see Venus in a daytime sky.
At mid-northern latitudes, Venus sets about 3 1/3 hours after sunset at the beginning of the month, and about 3 3/4 hours after sundown by the month’s end. At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Venus sets roughly 2 hours after sunset all month long.
Look for the moon in the vicinity of Venus for several days, centered on or near February 27, 2020.
Mercury puts on a good evening showing at northerly latitudes. Look first for dazzling Venus and then seek for Mercury near the sunset point on the horizon as dusk slides into darkness. At the beginning of the month, at mid-northern latitudes, Mercury sets about 1 1/4 hours after sunset. At Mercury’s greatest elongation on February 10, 2020, from mid-northern latitudes, Mercury sets about 1 1/2 hours after the sun. From temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Mercury sets about 3/4 hour after sunset at the beginning of the month. At its greatest elongation on February 10, Mercury still sets about 3/4 hour after the sun.
Although this evening apparition of Mercury favors the Northern Hemisphere, the Southern Hemisphere will enjoy the advantage when Mercury becomes a morning object in March and April 2020. Mercury officially transitions out of the evening sky and into the morning sky on February 26, 2020.
Mars is the first bright planet to rise into the morning sky throughout February 2020, followed by Jupiter and then Saturn. At mid-northern latitudes, Mars rises about 3 hours before the sun throughout February. At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Mars comes up about 4 hours before sunrise in early February, and nearly 5 hours before the sun at the month’s end.
Let the waning crescent moon help guide your eye to Mars for several mornings, starting on or near February 16.
Mars was in conjunction with the sun – or almost behind the sun as seen from Earth – on September 2, 2019. It remains far across the solar system from us, with Earth speeding around in its orbit, trying to catch Mars again. It’ll be some months before we catch Mars, the swiftest-moving superior planet. And so it is, always, for Mars, which alternates years appearing bright in our sky, or faint. 2019 was a dull year, but 2020 will be an exciting one, for Mars! The excitement will build slowly, though. January, February, March 2020 … you’ll still find Mars doing nothing much, rather low in the east before dawn. We’ll be rushing along in our smaller, faster orbit, trying to catch up with Mars. As northern summer 2020 approaches, Mars will begin to change. It’ll begin to brighten more dramatically as, finally, Earth begins to close in on Mars. The red planet will appear brightest in our sky – very bright indeed and fiery red – around the time of its opposition – when Earth passes between Mars and the sun – on October 13, 2020.
Jupiter – the second-brightest planet – is a morning planet all month long. At mid-northern latitudes, Jupiter rises about 1 1/2 hours before the sun in early February, and about 2 1/2 hours before the sun by the month’s end. At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Jupiter rises about 2 1/4 hours before the sun in early February, and about 4 hours before the sun by the month’s end.
Before sunrise on or near February 19, let the slender waning crescent moon help guide you to Jupiter.
Watch for Jupiter to become quite prominent in the morning sky in February 2020. On March 20, 2020, Jupiter and Mars will have a dazzling planetary conjunction in the predawn sky.
Saturn is more easily viewed from the Southern Hemisphere. From temperate latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, Saturn sits deeply in the glare of the sunrise in early February, when you may need binoculars to see it. The trick to locating Saturn, in either the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, is to find Mars and Jupiter first. Once you’ve done that, draw an imaginary line from Mars through Jupiter to locate Saturn near the horizon. From mid-northern latitudes, Saturn rises about 3/4 hour before the sun at the beginning of the month, and about 2 hours before sunrise by the month’s end. From temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Saturn rises about 1 1/4 hours before sunrise in early February and about 3 1/3 hours before sunrise by the month’s end.
Watch for the waning crescent moon to swing close to Saturn on or near February 20.
What do we mean by bright planet? By bright 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 bright planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These planets actually do appear bright in our sky. They are typically as bright as – or brighter than – the brightest stars. Plus, these relatively nearby worlds tend to shine with a steadier light than the distant, twinkling stars. You can spot them, and come to know them as faithful friends, if you try.
Bottom line: In February 2020, Venus lights up the west after sunset, with Mercury beneath Venus at dusk for a few weeks. Before sunrise, you’ll find a string of planets in the east: Mars at top, Saturn at bottom, and very bright Jupiter in between.
Bruce McClure has served as lead writer for EarthSky's popular Tonight pages since 2004. He's a sundial aficionado, whose love for the heavens has taken him to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and sailing in the North Atlantic, where he earned his celestial navigation certificate through the School of Ocean Sailing and Navigation. He also writes and hosts public astronomy programs and planetarium programs in and around his home in upstate New York.