Feb 11

Sky Report: February 13-19

We’re used to seeing amazing photographs of comets in almost real-time on our computer screens, but long ago images appeared as drawings in books and flyers. This is from Mallet’s “Description de l’Univers de la Sphere”, 1685.

This is the last time I’ll mention Comet C/2022 E3 which is still visible to binoculars and telescopes in the evening sky. This week it moves southward through Taurus, passing just 1½° from Aldebaran and the Hyades Star Cluster on Valentine’s Day. It’ll remain visible for weeks and months to come, depending on your equipment and finding skills. It’ll be the brightest comet of 2023 unless a new one unexpectedly appears, so I hope you see it if you haven’t already. At least the moon is out of the way this week and next.

Three bright planets grace the early evening sky, and these are, from west to east, brilliant Venus, very bright Jupiter, and bright Mars. Venus and Jupiter are low in the west while Mars is very high in the south.

We’ll have these three planets to enjoy until Jupiter leaves us in only a month. Jupiter is leaving us now for the same reason Saturn left a few weeks ago and the same reasons we see different constellations each month. As the earth orbits the sun, the earth’s nighttime side faces a different part of the sky each month, and the constellations – and slow-moving outer planets – move 1/12th of 360°, or 30° to the west of where they were the month before. Venus and Mars are exceptions because their own faster motion eastward keeps them visible much longer. It’s hard to describe it with words but it’s trivially easy with a planetarium program.

So Jupiter sinks lower in the west night-by-night while Venus rises, and I encourage you to watch them nightly and estimate from your own observations when Venus will pass Jupiter. Venus is quickly narrowing the gap.

Turning to each, Venus sets 2¼ hours after the sun and then it can be awfully pretty as the sky darkens and colors fade from the sky. For people with telescopes, Neptune is ½° above Venus on the 14th and 2/3° below Venus on the 15th, but it will be difficult to see so faint a planet in twilight, if it’s even possible. Another challenge.

Jupiter is roughly 15° above Venus, but that number changes dramatically during the week – which is precisely why you want to watch the sky repeatedly to see and appreciate changes in the sky, rather than think of planetary conjunctions as a series of discreet events.

Mars is much fainter, and it’s almost lost among the many bright stars of the winter constellations, even though it’s brighter than almost all of them. Look for Mars nearly overhead as the stars appear and 9° above Aldebaran and the Hyades Star Cluster. Mars is slowly moving eastward toward the Bull’s horns. The bright white star above Mars is Capella, in the constellation Auriga, the Charioteer. (If the constellations were named today, would it be called “The Taxi Driver”?) Although made of bright stars Auriga gets little respect because it lies off the ecliptic and the moon and planets don’t pass near it.

The Sky Report is presented as a public service by the Stellar Vista Observatory, a non­profit organization based in Kanab, Utah, which provides opportunities for people to observe, appreciate, and comprehend our starry night sky. Additional information is at www.stellarvistaobservatory.org. Send questions and comments to John@StargazingAdventures.org.

Stellar Vista Observatory provides portable telescopes and tripod mounted binocular kits on loan for free to residents and visitors in Kane County. Enhance your enjoyment of the night sky! For details or to request a loan, visit https://stellarvistaobservatory.org/discover-the-night-sky/ or drop in to the Kane County Office of Tourism.

About the Author:

John Mosley was Program Supervisor of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles for 27 years and is the author of “Stargazing for Beginners” and “Stargazing with Binoculars and Telescopes”. He and his wife live in St. George where he continues to stargaze from his retirement home while serving on the advisory committee for Stellar Vista Observatory.

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