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Mercury, Jupiter, and Solar System Rubble

February Orion Taurus Jupiter ChumackThe always-tricky-to-catch Mercury creeps up into the evening sky in February. It will remain low to the horizon, fighting against the glow of sunset for most of the month. Mercury and Mars lie less than a degree apart after sunset on February 8. A flat, unobstructed western horizon will be needed to see them, along with an absence of light pollution.

On February 11 you can try to spot the 4-percent-lit moon, just a day past new, setting in the west after the sun. Mercury, at magnitude -0.9, will be below the moon and an even dimmer Mars will be below that. The weekend of February 16 and 17 brings Mercury highest into the sky but it will already be dimming, down to magnitude -0.3, and will grow darker on succeeding evenings as it falls back toward the horizon.

For an easy planet to bag in February, Jupiter will be shining brightly among the stars of Taurus. On February 17 and 18 a first quarter moon lies on one side and then the other of the giant planet. Take some time with binoculars to explore Jupiter and its moons, our moon, and the nearby cluster of the Pleiades. All three objects are some of the best targets for binoculars and are a great way to bring new observers into the hobby. Ask a new observer how many stars they can count in the fuzzy Pleiades cluster with their eyes alone and then show them the dozens more that pop into view through binoculars.

February’s full moon reaches its peak at 12:26 p.m. PST on February 25. The moon will be just below Leo the Lion as the sky gets dark. Late on February 28, look for the 87-percent-lit moon rising in Virgo in the east, and the constellation’s brightest star, Spica, about 1 degree away from the moon.

Small solar system objects seem to be flinging themselves in our direction lately, begging for attention. The asteroid that will make its close approach to Earth on February 15 at around 11:30 p.m. PST is named Asteroid 2012 DA14. At only 45 meters across, it’s not going to be a good observing target for the amateur astronomer.

However, another object headed our way, Comet 2011 L4 (PANSTARRS), will pass close to the sun in March and is brightening every day. Making its closest encounter past Earth on March 5 and its closest encounter past the sun on March 10, the comet could become bright enough to rival the brightest stars in the sky. Comet PANSTARRS will be in the west after sunset passing from Cetus into Pisces. On March 12 the comet will appear to swing past Uranus, an opportunity to catch that distant planet in binoculars. More precise information on the comet’s brightness will be available closer to March.

Photo by John Chumack. Peering out the observatory window, Orion lies below Jupiter in Taurus. The Hyades cluster is below Jupiter and the Pleiades cluster floats above.

HS_KellyWhittKelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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