The Sky This Week from February 17 to 24

Monday, February 20

New Moon occurs at 2:06 A.M. EST, leaving the sky dark, moonless, and perfect for observing fainter phenomena like the zodiacal light, which is visible just after sunset at this time of year. If your observing site features a dark horizon, look west about an hour after sunset to see if you can spot this faint glow. It will appear as a soft, cone-shaped pillar of light stretching upward from the horizon and following the ecliptic upward through Pisces (near brightly shining Jupiter) and Aries above it, narrowing the farther up from the horizon you look. The zodiacal light will remain visible for another hour or so, setting alongside the stars in that region of the sky.

Also worth trying for tonight is Uranus, which lies in southern Aries — a region devoid of bright stars. The planet is a faint magnitude 5.8 — a real struggle with the naked eye from all but the darkest sites, but easy to pick up in binoculars. You can find it by first locating a triangle of stars comprising 5th-magnitude Sigma (σ), Pi, and Omicron (ο) Arietis. Tonight, Uranus lies nearly halfway along a line running from Sigma to Pi, showing off a 4″-wide disk that will appear like a “flat” star with a pale blue hue.

Sunrise: 6:46 A.M.
Sunset: 5:42 P.M.
Moonrise: 7:22 A.M.
Moonset: 6:20 P.M.
Moon Phase: New

Tuesday, February 21

The now-waxing Moon passes 2° south of Neptune at 1 P.M. EST. An hour after dark, our satellite is still nearly 10° high in the west, its eastern limb (west on the sky) now illuminated in the reverse of its appearance a few days ago. Neptune sits to the Moon’s lower right, just over 3° northwest of our satellite. The distant ice giant is visible only through binoculars or a small telescope, as it glows a faint magnitude 7.8.

Venus recently passed Neptune, coming close on the 14th and 15th. Now, Venus is nearly 8° to Neptune’s northeast as the former continues its fast slide along the ecliptic. It will soon mingle with Jupiter in an early March conjunction. The bright (still magnitude –3.9) terrestrial planet is roughly 87 percent lit and 12″ wide through your telescope. To the upper right of this scene is the Great Square of Pegasus, slowly setting as the Winged Horse dives down in the west. The magnitude 2.5 star Markab is closest to the horizon, while Alpheratz (magnitude 2.1) sits 20° above it. To the right is 2nd-magnitude Scheat; to the left is 3rd-magnitude Algenib.

Sunrise: 6:45 A.M.
Sunset: 5:43 P.M.
Moonrise: 7:51 A.M.
Moonset: 7:37 P.M.
Moon Phase: Waxing crescent (3%)

Wednesday, February 22

Continuing along the ecliptic, the Moon passes 2° south of Venus at 3 A.M. EST, then moves 1.2° south of Jupiter at 5 P.M. EST. An hour after sunset in the Midwest, the Moon sits just beside the solar system’s largest planet with less than 1.5° separating them. Jupiter lies within the bounds of Pisces, while our satellite is just over the border in Cetus.

Coming into view on the eastern limb of the Moon is the dark blotch of Mare Fecunditatis (the Sea of Fertility). See whether you can detect any features on the shadowed portion of Luna’s face, as earthshine — reflected sunlight bouncing off Earth — often lights up the regions of our satellite still in darkness.

After all light has left the sky, turn a telescope upward to the eastern edge of Pisces. There, you’ll find the grand design spiral M74, which glows at magnitude 9.4 some 1.3° northeast of Eta (η) Piscium. This gorgeous galaxy spans about 10′, which unfortunately lends it a low surface brightness. Take your time finding it and bump up your aperture as much as possible to see whether you can detect the faint spiral arms winding around its brighter core.

Sunrise: 6:44 A.M.
Sunset: 5:44 P.M.
Moonrise: 8:16 A.M.
Moonset: 8:50 P.M.
Moon Phase: Waxing crescent (9%)

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