Sunrise and Sunset Times
Eastern Standard Time from the U.S. Naval Observatory
Sun rises at 7:10 a.m. and sets at 5:21 p.m. on the 1st
Sun rises at 6:36 a.m. and sets at 5:52 p.m. on the 28th
Moon’s Phases in February
New Moon on the 15th
No Full Moon this February!
Stars and Constellations
The stars and constellations of winter — and even a few holdovers from autumn — are out in force on sparkling clear February nights. The constellation Cassiopeia, which represents the throne of the queen of ancient Ethiopia, can be found high in the northwest, looking like a sideways letter W. Even higher in the northwest above Cassiopeia is Perseus, with its brightest stars, Mirfak and Algol, while nearly overhead on February evenings is Auriga, the charioteer, with its bright yellow star, Capella.
Just south of Auriga is Taurus the Bull, with its bright orange star, Aldebaran. Aldebaran is classed as a red giant star, and it stands in the foreground of a more distant loose cluster of stars: the Hyades. Further to the west of the Hyades is arguably the most famous star cluster of all, the compact Pleiades, looking like a miniature dipper. Note that once you have found Perseus, its brightest stars form a horn shape, which opens toward the nearby Pleiades cluster. Following Taurus to the east is Gemini and its two brightest stars, Pollux and Castor.
The most brilliant winter constellation of all, Orion the Hunter, now stands high in the south, dominating the midwinter night sky. Cutting across Orion’s middle is his belt, a very distinct line of three bluish-white stars, Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. Orion’s two brightest stars, Betelgeuse and Rigel, are classed as red and blue supergiants, respectively, and are among the most luminous stars in the sky. Betelgeuse is enormous, with a fuzzy diameter of around 800 solar diameters. Betelgeuse is quite similar in size, temperature and mass to another famous red supergiant, Antares, which lies in the summer constellation Scorpius in the opposite part of the sky. Both stars are destined to eventually end their lives violently in brilliant supernova explosions.
Just below and to the left of Orion is the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major.
And just a bit further to the east of Sirius is its neighbor Procyon in Canis Minor. Like Sirius, Procyon is a nearby star (about 8 and 11 light years away, respectively). The trio of Betelgeuse, Sirius and Procyon forms the Winter Triangle, which is high in the east-southeast after nightfall. Though not nearly as famous as its summer counterpart, the Winter Triangle is nevertheless easy to pick out since the stars are bright.
After about 8 p.m., you can spot some of the stars of spring mounting the sky in the east. In particular, Regulus in the constellation Leo lies low in the east/northeast. Looking a little further northward, you may spot the Big Dipper, which is part of the constellation Ursa Major, or Big Bear, rising in the north-northeast. These are sure celestial signs that spring will soon be upon us.
Naked-Eye Planets in the Evening and Morning Sky
Since last November, bright planets have been absent from the evening sky, but that begins to change this month. As February begins, Mercury is officially still in the morning sky but too close to the Sun to be visible. On the 17th, Mercury reaches superior conjunction with the Sun, then switches into the evening sky. By the 28th, Mercury is setting nearly an hour after the Sun, and by the middle of March, it will be setting about 1½ hours after sunset.
Venus reached superior conjunction with the Sun back on Jan. 9, and as February opens, it is still lost in the glow of evening twilight. Toward the end of February, Venus starts to become discernable above the southwestern horizon 20 to 30 minutes after sunset. Binoculars will help pick Venus out of the glow of dusk.
As February opens, Jupiter is rising above the eastern horizon at around 1:30 a.m. Jupiter resembles a brilliant cream-colored star in the constellation Libra and is brighter than any true star in the night sky, so it cannot be missed. By the end of February, Jupiter is rising before midnight at around 11:45 p.m.
Early last month, Jupiter and Mars passed close to each other (as viewed from Earth), but since then, Jupiter has pulled ahead of Mars. As February opens, Mars is rising in the southeast around 2:30 a.m., or an hour after the much brighter Jupiter. By the end of February, Mars rises a little earlier, at 2 a.m. Mars currently resembles only a modestly bright orange star, but as the distance between Mars and Earth shrinks over the next several months, Mars will continue to slowly brighten, reaching its greatest brilliance, exceeding that of Jupiter, at closest approach, which will occur this summer in late July.
Having experienced conjunction with the Sun back on Dec. 21, Saturn has moved into the morning sky and is easily spotted at dawn in the southeast. Saturn resembles a cream-colored star, similar to Jupiter but not nearly as bright. As February opens, Saturn is rising a few minutes before 5 a.m., or over two hours before sunrise, well before dawn twilight; by month’s end, it is rising at 3 a.m.
Information on lunar phases and rise/set times of Sun and planets is obtained from the U.S. Naval Observatory Data Services at usno.navy.mil/astronomy. Additional information comes from “The Astronomical Almanac (2016-2020)” by Richard J. Bartlett (Stars ‘n Stuff Publishing, 2015). For more information on the night sky, visit the Widener Observatory Stargazing website at widener.edu/stargazing. A set of free sky maps can be obtained at skymaps.com.