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Don’t Miss: Shifting Planets and a Spiral Galaxy

Hubble Space Telescope image of the large “grand design” spiral galaxy M81. A spiral-shaped system of stars, dust, and gas clouds, the galaxy’s arms wind all the way down into the nucleus. Though the galaxy is located 11.6 million light-years away, the Hubble Space Telescope’s view is so sharp that it can resolve individual stars, along with open star clusters, globular star clusters, and even glowing regions of fluorescent gas. Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA). Acknowledgment: A. Zezas and J. Huchra (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

What are some skywatching highlights in February 2024?

VenusVenus, the second planet from the sun, is named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. After the moon, it is the second-brightest natural object in the night sky. Its rotation (243 Earth days) takes longer than its orbit of the Sun (224.7 Earth days). It is sometimes called Earth's "sister planet" because of their similar composition, size, mass, and proximity to the Sun. It has no natural satellites.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]” tabindex=”0″ role=”link”>Venus begins its exit from the morning sky, as MarsMars is the second smallest planet in our solar system and the fourth planet from the sun. It is a dusty, cold, desert world with a very thin atmosphere. Iron oxide is prevalent in Mars' surface resulting in its reddish color and its nickname "The Red Planet." Mars' name comes from the Roman god of war.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]” tabindex=”0″ role=”link”>Mars makes its comeback. Plus, now through May is a good time to observe spiral galaxy M81.

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What to Look for:

Shifting planets and a spiral galaxy

Venus is beginning its exit from morning skies this month, just as Mars returns to visibility. JupiterJupiter is the largest planet in the solar system and the fifth planet from the sun. It is a gas giant with a mass greater then all of the other planets combined. Its name comes from the Roman god Jupiter.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]” tabindex=”0″ role=”link”>Jupiter and the Moon make a cute couple on Valentine’s Day. And point your telescope near the Big Dipper to seek out M81, aka “Bode’s Galaxy.”

February skywatching highlights:

  • All month – Venus is still brilliant in the eastern sky before sunrise, but it’s sinking lower each day, so catch it while you can!
  • All month – Mars is starting to be visible in the predawn sky. It’s quite low, and not super bright yet, but watch it get higher and brighter over the next few months.
  • February 6 – Spot Venus together with a slim crescent Moon in the east this morning, just as the sky starts to brighten.
  • February 9 – New moon
  • February 14 – This evening, look for the crescent Moon very near to Jupiter, high in the southwest following sunset.
  • February 22-28 – This week, those with an unobstructed view toward the southeast horizon can look for a close approach of Mars and Venus as the pair are rising.
  • February 24 – Full moon
  • All month – Observing one of the most famous “faint fuzzies,” M81, is relatively easy over the next few months, through around May. The Big Dipper can help you locate this distant spiral galaxy, which you can see with a small telescope or even binoculars.
Sky Chart Venus Moon February 2024

Sky chart showing Venus with the Moon on the morning of February 6, 45 minutes before sunrise. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Video Transcript

What’s Up for February? Venus and Mars make quite the pair, Jupiter and the Moon are each other’s Valentine, and observing M81, aka “Bode’s Galaxy.”

Venus is still a brilliant beacon in the morning, rising in the couple of hours before the Sun. It has been steadily sinking lower in the sky for the past couple of months, though, and by the end of February it’s pretty much getting lost in the light of sunrise.

It will start making its return as an evening sight in July. You can catch the bright planet together with a slim crescent Moon on the morning of February 6th, just as the sky starts to brighten.

Next, Valentine’s Day brings a nice pairing to enjoy with someone special. That evening, look for the crescent Moon near Jupiter, high in the southwest following sunset. They’re just a couple of finger widths apart on the sky, meaning most binoculars will show them in the same field of view.

And speaking of the Moon, NASAEstablished in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent agency of the United States Federal Government that succeeded the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). It is responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. Its vision is "To discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity." Its core values are "safety, integrity, teamwork, excellence, and inclusion." NASA conducts research, develops technology and launches missions to explore and study Earth, the solar system, and the universe beyond. It also works to advance the state of knowledge in a wide range of scientific fields, including Earth and space science, planetary science, astrophysics, and heliophysics, and it collaborates with private companies and international partners to achieve its goals.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]” tabindex=”0″ role=”link”>NASA’s VIPER moon rover is planned to launch later this year, and you can send your name to the Moon along with it! Visit for details.

Sky Chart Jupiter Moon February 2024

Sky chart showing Jupiter and the Moon on the evening of February 14. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Returning to the inner planets, as Venus begins its exit, we find Mars returning to view. The Red Planet left the evening sky last September, passing through conjunction, where it was on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth, and thus not visible for a few months. It’s now just starting to be visible in the predawn sky. In February it’s quite low, and not super bright, but you can observe it brightening and rising ever earlier in the coming months. Those with an unobstructed view toward the southeast horizon can look for a close approach of Mars and Venus as the pair are rising during the last week of February.

February is a good time to view one of the famed “Messier objects” known as M81.

This is a spiral galaxy similar to our own Milky WayThe Milky Way is the galaxy that contains our Solar System and is part of the Local Group of galaxies. It is a barred spiral galaxy that contains an estimated 100-400 billion stars and has a diameter between 150,000 and 200,000 light-years. The name "Milky Way" comes from the appearance of the galaxy from Earth as a faint band of light that stretches across the night sky, resembling spilled milk.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]” tabindex=”0″ role=”link”>Milky Way, but just a bit smaller, and it’s one of the brightest galaxies in the night sky. It’s located about 11.8 million light years away from us, which means, if you’re able to observe it, those photons of light hitting your eye have been traveling through space for more than 11 million years to reach you.

Sky Chart M81 Big Dipper

Sky chart showing where M81 is located in the sky, with regard to the Big Dipper asterism. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It was discovered by astronomer Johann Bode in 1774, which is where it gets its other common name, “Bode’s Galaxy.” At the time, it was simply cataloged as a nebula or faint, fuzzy patch. It wouldn’t be until the work of Edwin Hubble in the 1920s that many such faint, fuzzy objects were understood to be self-contained galaxies of stars, outside the Milky Way and incredibly distant from us.

M81 is a bit too dim to see with the unaided eye, but it’s visible with binoculars or a small telescope, where it appears as a dim patch of light. With a 6-inch telescope you can resolve the galaxy’s bright core, and with an 8-inch telescope, you can begin to make out the spiral arms.

Locating M81 is not too difficult, with the Big Dipper (or the Plough) to guide you. Starting with the star on the end corner, called Dubhe, imagine a line twice the distance from the star on the opposite corner of the Dipper, Phecda. Pointing your telescope or binoculars in that area ought to put you pretty close to M81. You might also notice its

faint, fuzzy companion nearby, which is M82. This is another galaxy, but seen edge-on, and it gets its other common name, the “Cigar Galaxy,” from this appearance.

This pair of galaxies is “circumpolar” in the Northern Hemisphere, meaning they rotate around the north celestial pole and never set. (Unfortunately, this means they’re not really visible from the Southern Hemisphere.) Although it’s visible all year in the Northern Hemisphere, from about February through May, you’ll find M81 high in the northern sky in the first half of the night, making it easier to observe.

So grab your telescope, or find a local astronomy event with NASA’s Night Sky Network, and check out M81, Bode’s Galaxy, a distant cousin to our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

Here are the phases of the Moon for February.

Moon Phases February 2024

The phases of the Moon for February 2024. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Source: SciTechDaily