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Night sky, February 2021: What you can see this month [maps]

A clear night sky offers an ever-changing display of fascinating objects to see — stars, constellations, and bright planets, often the moon, and sometimes special events like meteor showers. Observing the night sky can be done with no special equipment, although a sky map can be very useful. Binoculars or a good beginner telescope will enhance some experiences and bring some otherwise invisible objects into view. You can also use astronomy apps and software to make your observing easier, and use our Satellite Tracker page powered by N2YO.com to find out when to see the International Space Station and other satellites. Below, find out what's up in the night sky tonight (Planets Visible Now, Moon Phases, Observing Highlights This Month) plus other resources (Skywatching Terms, Night Sky Observing Tips and Further Reading).

The night sky is more than just the moon and stars, if you know when and where to look. (Image credit: Karl Tate/SPACE.com)

Monthly skywatching information is provided to Space.com by Chris Vaughan of Starry Night Education, the leader in space science curriculum solutions. Follow Starry Night on Twitter @StarryNightEdu and Chris at @Astrogeoguy.

Editor's note: If you have an amazing skywatching photo you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, you can send images and comments in to spacephotos@futurenet.com.

Night Sky Guides:

Calendar of Observing Highlights

Monday, Feb. 1 — Orion Nebula (overnight)

(Image credit: Starry Night)

The sword of Orion, which covers an area of 1.5 by 1 degrees (about the end of your thumb held up at arm's length), descends from Orion's three-starred belt. The patch of light in the middle of the sword is the spectacular and bright nebula known as the Orion Nebula or Messier 42. While simple binoculars (red circle) will reveal the fuzzy nature of this object, medium-to-large aperture telescopes will show a complex pattern of veil-like gas and dark dust lanes. Adding an Oxygen-III or broadband nebula filter will reveal even more details. The nebula and the stars forming within it are approximately 1,350 light-years from the sun, in the Orion arm of our Milky Way galaxy. 

Thursday, Feb. 4 — Third Quarter Moon (at 17:37 GMT)

(Image credit: Starry Night)

When the moon reaches its third quarter phase at 17:37 GMT (or 12:37 p.m. EST) on Thursday, Feb. 4, it will rise in the middle of the night, and then remain visible in the southern sky all morning. At this phase the moon is illuminated on its western side, towards the pre-dawn Sun. Third quarter moons are positioned ahead of the Earth in our trip around the Sun. About 3½ hours later, Earth will occupy that same location in space. The week of moonless evening skies that follow third quarter will be ideal for observing deep sky targets. 

Saturday, Feb. 6 — Bright Venus passes Saturn (before sunrise)

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Over the upcoming week, Venus' motion sunward will carry it past Jupiter and Saturn, which are still embedded in the pre-dawn twilight following their solar conjunctions. On Saturday, Feb. 6, look just above the east-southeastern horizon before sunrise for the bright planet Venus positioned a short distance below (or 0.5 degrees to the celestial south of) much dimmer Saturn. Both planets will fit together in the field of view of binoculars or a backyard telescope (red circle) — but take care to put your optics away before the sun rises at about 7:30 a.m. local time. Observers living at southerly latitudes will see the planets much more easily, in a darker sky. Venus will be about twice as far from Saturn on the previous and following mornings. 

Wednesday, Feb. 10 — Old moon visits predawn planets (before sunrise)

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Shortly before sunrise in the east-southeastern sky on Wednesday, Feb. 10, observers at southerly latitudes can look for the slim crescent of the old moon sitting a palm's width to the right of the bright planet Venus. Much dimmer Jupiter will be positioned a finger's width to Venus' left, and Saturn will sit several finger widths above and between the moon and Venus. The entire grouping will fit within the 6 degrees-wide field of view of binoculars — but ensure that you put your optics away before the sun rises. Mercury will be positioned less than a fist's diameter to the left of Venus, too — but it will be difficult to see. 

Thursday, Feb. 11 — Bright Venus passes Jupiter (before sunrise)

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Venus' closest approach to Jupiter will occur shortly before sunrise on Thursday, Feb. 11. Look just above the east-southeastern horizon before sunrise for the bright planet positioned just to the lower right (or 0.5 degrees to the celestial south of) one-sixth as bright Jupiter. Both planets will fit together in the field of view of binoculars or even a backyard telescope (red circle) — but take care to put your optics away before the sun rises. Faint Saturn will also sit a palm's width to Venus' upper right, and much fainter Mercury will be positioned a palm's width to Venus' upper left. Observers living at southerly latitudes will see all of those planets much more easily, in a darker sky. If Thursday is cloudy, look on Wednesday morning for Venus sitting to Jupiter's right, and on Friday morning for Venus to Jupiter's lower left. 

Thursday, Feb. 11 — New moon (at 19:05 GMT)

(Image credit: Starry Night)

At 19:05 GMT on Thursday, Feb. 11, the moon will officially reach its new moon phase. While new, the moon is travelling between Earth and the sun. Since sunlight can only reach the far side of the moon, and the moon is in the same region of the sky as the sun, the moon becomes completely hidden from view for about a day. After new moon Earth's celestial night-light will return to shine in the western evening sky.

Friday, Feb. 12 — Algol dims in brightness (at 7:25 p.m. EST)

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Algol, also designated Beta Persei, is among the most accessible variable stars for skywatchers. For ten hours once every 2 days, 20 hours, and 49 minutes, Algol's visual brightness dims and re-brightens noticeably. This happens because a companion star orbiting nearly edge-on to Earth crosses in front of the much brighter main star, reducing the total light output we receive. Algol normally shines at magnitude 2.1, similar to the nearby star Almach (aka Gamma Andromedae). While dimmed Algol's brightness of magnitude 3.4 is almost identical to Rho Persei (or Gorgonea Tertia or ρ Per), the star sitting just two finger widths to Algol's lower left (or 2.25 degrees to the celestial south). On Friday, Feb. 12 at 7:25 p.m. EST, Algol will be at minimum brightness while sitting high in the western sky. Five hours later Algol will return to its usual magnitude and will be positioned 22 degrees above the western horizon. 

Saturday, Feb. 13 — Appreciate the Pleiades (all night)

(Image credit: Starry Night)

At about 7:15 p.m. local time on mid-February evenings, the Pleiades open star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters and Messier 45, is positioned high in the southern sky. The rest of its home constellation Taurus, the Bull sits below the cluster. Visually, the cluster is composed of medium-bright, hot blue stars named Asterope, Merope, Electra, Maia, Taygeta, Celaeno, and Alcyone. In Greek mythology, those characters were the daughters of Atlas, and half sisters of the Hyades. They are indeed related — recently born of the same primordial gas cloud. To the naked eye, only six of the sister stars are usually apparent; their parents Atlas and Pleione are huddled together at the east end of the grouping. Under magnification, hundreds of stars appear. Not surprisingly, many cultures, including Aztec, Maori, Sioux, Hindu, and more, have noted this object and developed stories around it. In Japan, it is called Suburu, and forms the logo of the eponymous car maker. Due to its similar shape, the Pleiades are sometimes confused with the Little Dipper. 

Sunday, Feb. 14 — Sirius sparkles like a diamond (all night)

(Image credit: Starry Night)

In mid-February the night sky's brightest star, Sirius, or Alpha Canis Majoris, reaches its highest point over the southern horizon at around 9:30 p.m. local time. Sirius is a hot, white, A-class star located only 8.6 light-years from Earth — part of the reason for its brilliance. For mid-northern latitude observers, Sirius is always seen in the lower third of the sky, through a thicker blanket of refracting atmosphere. This causes the strong twinkling and flashes of color the Dog Star is known for. 

Wednesday, Feb. 17 — Crescent moon helps locate Uranus (evening)

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Although a nearby bright moon does magnitude 5.8 planet Uranus no favors, its monthly visits can help to show you where the distant planet is located. In the western sky on Wednesday, Feb. 17, the 33%-illuminated crescent moon will shine several finger widths to the upper left (or 4 degrees to the celestial southeast) of Uranus. Note Uranus' position about midway between the medium-bright stars Menkar (Alpha Ceti) and Sheratan (Beta Arietis) and seek out the blue-green planet with binoculars, or even your unaided eyes, on a subsequent moonless night. 

Thursday, Feb. 18 — Moon meets Mars (evening)

(Image credit: Starry Night)

In the southwestern sky on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 18, the waxing, half-illuminated moon will be positioned several finger widths below (or 3.7 degrees to the celestial south) of Mars. The moon and the planet will appear together in the field of view of binoculars (red circle). By the time they set in the west shortly after midnight local time, the diurnal rotation of the sky will lift the moon to the planet's left. 

Friday, Feb. 19 — First quarter moon passes Taurus (at 18:47 GMT)

(Image credit: Starry Night)

When the moon completes the first quarter of its orbit around Earth at 1:47 p.m. EST (or 18:47 GMT) on Friday, Feb. 19, the relative positions of the Earth, sun, and moon will cause us to see it half-illuminated — on its eastern side. At first quarter, the moon always rises around noon and sets around midnight, so it is also visible in the afternoon daytime sky. The evenings surrounding first quarter are the best for seeing the lunar terrain when it is dramatically lit by low-angled sunlight. This first quarter phase will occur while the moon is passing several degrees to the right (celestial north) of the triangular face of Taurus, which is composed of the large Hyades star cluster and the bright foreground star Aldebaran. Look for the bright Pleiades star cluster to the moon's right. 

Saturday, Feb. 20 — The lunar straight wall (evening)

(Image credit: Starry Night)

On Saturday evening, Feb. 20, the pole-to-pole terminator boundary that divides the lit and dark hemispheres of the waxing gibbous moon will fall just to the left (or lunar west) of Rupes Recta, also known as the Lunar Straight Wall. This feature is very obvious in good binoculars and backyard telescopes. The rupes, Latin for "cliff", is a north-south-aligned fault scarp that extends for 65 miles (110 km) across the southeastern part of Mare Nubium — that's the large dark region in the lower third of the moon's Earth-facing hemisphere. The Straight Wall is always prominent a day or two after first quarter, and again just before third quarter. For reference, the Straight Wall is located due north of the prominent crater Tycho. 

Sunday, Feb. 21 — Moon in the Winter Hexagon (evening)

(Image credit: Starry Night)

The Winter Hexagon, also known as the Winter Football and Winter Circle, is an asterism composed of the brightest stars in the constellations of Canis Major, Orion, Taurus, Auriga, Gemini, and Canis Minor — specifically Sirius, Rigel, Aldebaran, Capella, Castor and Pollux, and Procyon. After dusk, the huge pattern will stand upright in the southeastern sky — extending from 30 degrees above the horizon to overhead. The Milky Way passes vertically through the asterism. The hexagon is visible during evenings from mid-November to spring every year. The waxing gibbous moon will travel through the asterism from Feb. 20 to Feb. 22 (red path with dates:time). 

Sunday, Feb. 21 — Bright moon crosses Messier 35 (overnight)

(Image credit: Starry Night)

On Sunday night, Feb. 21, the eastward orbital motion of the moon (green line) will carry it towards and across the large open star cluster known as Messier 35, or the Shoe-Buckle Cluster. After dusk on Sunday, the waxing gibbous moon will be positioned several finger widths to the lower right of the cluster. Hour by hour the moon will approach the cluster. By the time the moon sets after 3 a.m. local time, observers in the Eastern Time Zone will see the moon only a finger's width below the cluster. Observers farther west will see the moon pass across the cluster and leave it behind before moonset. To best see Messier 35's stars, hide the bright moon beyond the upper edge of your binoculars' field of view.

Tuesday, Feb. 23 — Mercury swings toward Saturn (predawn)

(Image credit: Starry Night)

On the mornings surrounding Tuesday, Feb. 23, the orbital motion of Mercury will bring it within several finger widths of Saturn. At closest approach on Tuesday, magnitude 0.5 Mercury will sit 4 degrees left (celestial northeast) of slightly dimmer Saturn. Use binoculars (red circle) to look for the two planets sitting just above the southeastern horizon after they rise at about 6 a.m. local time. Brighter Jupiter will rise about 20 minutes after them. 

Tuesday, Feb. 23 — Moon occults Kappa Geminorum (at 6:40 p.m. EST)

(Image credit: Starry Night)

On Tuesday evening, Feb. 23, observers in the eastern continental USA and Central America can watch the waxing gibbous moon occult the medium-bright star Kappa Geminorum (or κ Gem). Observers in Canada and South America will see the moon graze or closely miss the star. The dark leading edge of the moon will cover the star first, causing its point of light to wink out. The star will reappear from behind the bright eastern limb of the moon some time later. Ingress and egress times vary by latitude. Use Starry Night or another astronomy app to look up the times where you live. For Miami Kappa Geminorum will disappear at 6:42 p.m. EST, in a twilight sky, and re-appear at 8:05 p.m. Start watching a few minutes before the appointed times. The event will be observable in binoculars and backyard telescopes — but remember that a telescope (red circle) will likely invert and/or mirror the scene shown here.

Wednesday, Feb. 24 — Moon buzzes the Beehive (all night)

February 2021 night sky Moon buzzes the Beehive

(Image credit: Starry Night)

After dusk on Wednesday, Feb. 24, the nearly full moon will be positioned just two finger widths to the upper left (or 2 degrees to the celestial north) of the large open star cluster known as The Beehive (or Messier 44) in the constellation of Cancer. These encounters occur frequently because the cluster is located only one degree north of the ecliptic (green line). The moon and the cluster will both fit within the field of view of binoculars (red circle), but the moon's brilliance will mostly overwhelm the clusters' stars. To see more stars, try placing the moon just outside your optics' field of view. During the night, the diurnal rotation of the sky will shift the moon above the Beehive. 

Saturday, Feb. 27 — Full Snow Moon (at 8:17 GMT)

February 2021 night sky Full Snow Moon

(Image credit: Starry Night)

The February full moon, known as the Snow Moon or Hunger Moon, always shines in or near the stars of Leo. Since it's opposite the sun on this day of the lunar month, the moon is fully illuminated, and rises at sunset and sets at sunrise. When full, no shadows are cast by the lunar terrain — so all of the albedo variations are produced by the moon's geology. 

Planets

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Mercury will be visible low in the western post-sunset sky during the first few days of February, and then it will disappear from view until after inferior solar conjunction on Feb. 8. After Mercury enters the eastern pre-dawn sky around mid-February, the shallow morning ecliptic will keep the planet low in a twilit sky and difficult to see — except for observers at southerly latitudes, where Mercury will shine in a darker sky. Mid-northern latitude observers can look for the planet between about 6:15 and 6:30 a.m. local time during the rest of February. Viewed in a telescope during the month, Mercury will show a waxing, half-illuminated phase and an apparent disk diameter that shrinks to 8 arc-seconds by month-end. On the mornings surrounding Feb. 23, the orbital motion of Mercury will carry it above and between Jupiter and Saturn — but you will need a cloudless and unobstructed east-southeastern horizon to see those planets. 

(Image credit: Starry Night)

During February, magnitude -3.9 Venus will become progressively less visible over the southeastern horizon because its elongation from the sun will decrease from 13 degrees to just 6.5 degrees. On Feb. 6 and Feb. 11, Venus will pass half a degree south of Saturn and Jupiter respectively. On Feb. 10, observers at southerly latitudes can look for the slim crescent of the old moon sitting a palm's width to the right of Venus.

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Mars will continue to be conveniently positioned for observing high in the western sky on February evenings — but its apparent disk size will shrink from 7.8 to 6.3 arc-seconds and its visual magnitude will decrease from 0.46 to 0.93 — the latter comparable to nearby Aldebaran. On Feb. 23 Mars' eastward prograde motion along the ecliptic will carry it from Aries into Taurus, and the planet will end the month just a few degrees to the southwest of the Pleiades. On Feb. 18, the waxing, half-illuminated moon will be positioned several finger widths below (or 3.7 degrees to the celestial south) of Mars. 

February 2021 night sky jupiter

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Following its conjunction with the sun at the end of January, magnitude -1.9 Jupiter will enter the eastern pre-dawn sky in February — but the shallow morning ecliptic will keep the planet embedded in morning twilight all month long. Jupiter will be accompanied by fainter Saturn sitting 8 degrees to its west — and by Venus, which will pass half a degree to the south of Jupiter on Feb. 11. On the mornings surrounding Feb. 23, the orbital motion of Mercury will carry it above and between Jupiter and Saturn. 

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Having been in conjunction with the sun on January 24, magnitude 0.65 Saturn will enter the eastern pre-dawn sky in February. The shallow morning ecliptic will keep Saturn low all month long, but the ringed planet will begin to shine among the stars of western Capricornus during the second half of the month. All month long brighter Jupiter will be positioned to Saturn's east and will slowly be increasing its distance from Saturn. Bright Venus will pass half a degree south of Saturn on Feb. 6, but the ringed planet will be too faint to see with unaided eyes. On the mornings surrounding Feb. 23, the orbital motion of Mercury will place it above and between Saturn and Jupiter. 

night sky January 2021 uranus

(Image credit: Starry Night)

During February magnitude 5.75 Uranus will be slowly traveling eastward through the stars of southwestern Aries. It will be descending the western sky after dusk — making the blue-green planet an early evening target only. Telescope views of the planet will show a tiny 3.7 arc-seconds wide disk. On Feb. 17, the waxing crescent moon will shine 4 degrees to the southeast of Uranus. Note Uranus' position about midway between the medium-bright stars Menkar (Alpha Ceti) and Sheratan (Beta Arietis) and search for it with binoculars, or even your unaided eyes, on a subsequent moonless night. 

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Distant blue Neptune will be moving slowly eastward through the stars of eastern Aquarius during February — but the magnitude 8 planet will be too faint and too low in the western sky for observing after the opening days of February. 

Skywatching Terms

Gibbous: Used to describe a planet or moon that is more than 50% illuminated.

Asterism: A noteworthy or striking pattern of stars within a larger constellation.

Degrees (measuring the sky): The sky is 360 degrees all the way around, which means roughly 180 degrees from horizon to horizon. It's easy to measure distances between objects: Your fist on an outstretched arm covers about 10 degrees of sky, while a finger covers about one degree.

Visual Magnitude: This is the astronomer's scale for measuring the brightness of objects in the sky. The dimmest object visible in the night sky under perfectly dark conditions is about magnitude 6.5. Brighter stars are magnitude 2 or 1. The brightest objects get negative numbers. Venus can be as bright as magnitude minus 4.9. The full moon is minus 12.7 and the sun is minus 26.8.

Terminator: The boundary on the moon between sunlight and shadow.

Zenith: The point in the sky directly overhead.
 

Night Sky Observing Tips

Adjust to the dark: If you wish to observe faint objects, such as meteors or dim stars, give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the darkness.

Light Pollution: Even from a big city, one can see the moon, a handful of bright stars and sometimes the brightest planets. But to fully enjoy the heavens — especially a meteor shower, the constellations, or to see the amazing swath across the sky that represents our view toward the center of the Milky Way Galaxy — rural areas are best for night sky viewing. If you're stuck in a city or suburban area, a building can be used to block ambient light (or moonlight) to help reveal fainter objects. If you're in the suburbs, simply turning off outdoor lights can help.

Prepare for skywatching: If you plan to be out for more than a few minutes, and it's not a warm summer evening, dress warmer than you think necessary. An hour of observing a winter meteor shower can chill you to the bone. A blanket or lounge chair will prove much more comfortable than standing or sitting in a chair and craning your neck to see overhead.

Daytime skywatching: When Venus is visible (that is, not in front of or behind the sun) it can often be spotted during the day. But you'll need to know where to look. A sky map is helpful. When the sun has large sunspots, they can be seen without a telescope. However, it's unsafe to look at the sun without protective eyewear. See our video on how to safely observe the sun, or our safe sunwatching infographic.

Further Reading

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