Mercury Meets Mars
By Calvin L. Chrisman
As we discussed last month, Comet PanSTARRS is expected in our western sky in March. At this writing, there is still much uncertainty about how bright and visible it will be. It appears that this may be its first pass ever of the Sun and that its gasses may “cook off” considerably before it gets closer. This would make it less bright than earlier hopes, but it could still be visible with the aid of binoculars. Stay tuned for more next month.
Regardless of what the comet ends up doing, there is much to see during February. For satellite watchers, there will be two highly visible passes of the International Space Station on the evenings of Friday, the 8th and Saturday the 9th. If it is clear, on Friday night at 7:45 p.m. look to the west-northwest for the ISS. It will move toward the northwest over a period of about three minutes fading at about 7:48 as it moves into the Earth’s shadow about 35 degrees above the horizon. The Saturday pass will begin at 6:54 p.m. in the southwest passing almost directly overhead and ending six minutes later in the northeast. Both will be very bright.
On the planetary front, several things will be happening. During the first half of February, the two smallest planets, Mercury and Mars, meet in the western sky shortly after sunset. Mars will be fairly faint and can be seen better with binoculars (good practice if you plan to hunt in the same part of the sky for Comet PanSTARRS in March). Look for this pair about 45 minutes after sunset (go out at 6:45 – 7:00). Mercury will be much brighter, reaching its greatest distance from the Sun on February 16th. It will be easily visible to the naked eye and will serve as a landmark to find Mars between it and the horizon.
Jupiter continues to shine bright and beautiful in the south starting in evening twilight as it passes through the Pleiades and moves toward red Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the bull. By the end of the month, Jupiter will set by 1:00 a.m. During the month of February, Saturn will again be visible in our early morning skies rising by 2:00 a.m. at the beginning of the month and near midnight by month’s end. It will be well worth a look before dawn. If you have access to a telescope, Saturn’s rings are tilted over 19 degrees from edge-on and so will be highly visible. You may be able to see the planets shadow on the rings.
A final sight to watch will occur on the evening of the 28th of February around 11:00 p.m. look toward the east-southeast for the waning gibbous moon. It will pass extremely close to the bright blue star Spica. This should be a very special sight. For observers in Central and South America, the Moon will actually occult (pass in front of and cover up) the star.