Skies for February through April 2022
One bright planet, Jupiter, visible briefly in the evening (soon to depart), along with a great many bright stars! In the morning, Venus is at its best and brightest for the year, and showing crescent phases (discovered by Galileo) within easy reach of binoculars and small telescopes. Faint Mars edges ever closer to Venus until mid-March. Mercury is visible all month to lower left of Venus, but binoculars and an unobstructed view toward ESE make it easier. Fainter Saturn, squeezing in at month’s end, will replace departing Mercury in March.
A ride on Spaceship Earth on the morning of Feb. 18 has the Sun on our left, Regulus on our right, the head of Scorpius almost straight ahead, and the Pleiades cluster directly behind. The North Ecliptic Pole, in Draco, directly “above” Earth’s orbit, is overhead. All aboard! Off we go, at 1/10,000 the speed of light. Venus is going even faster, so is pulling away from us, and will pass on the far side of the Sun in October 2022. Mars is going slower, so we’ll overtake it in December, and it’ll appear as a very bright star in Taurus then, and be visible all night!
February evening sky [see evening twilight map S202202P.pdf]: This month opens with only one bright planet, Jupiter, shining at mag. –2.1 and 14° up in west-southwest sky at dusk mid-twilight on Feb. 1, and dropping 5° lower each week at the same stage of twilight, about 40 minutes after sunset. Jupiter will be gone by the end of the third week, and even sooner if the San Jacinto Mountains block your view. Jupiter will be in conjunction with the Sun on March 5.
But there are plenty of bright stars! On our evening twilight map, use a pencil to connect the dots at the east (left) ends of these star trails, in clockwise order, beginning and ending with its brightest star: Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, Castor, Capella, Aldebaran, Rigel, and back to Sirius. When you do so, you will have drawn the location of the Winter Hexagon at evening mid-twilight on February 1. Its location on Feb. 28 can be drawn in by connecting the west (right) ends of the same trails, in the same order.
About 40 minutes after sunset, lie down on a chaise lounge, or on a flat surface, with your feet toward the south, and hold the chart above you, so that the directions, N, E, S, and W, on the chart, match up with the actual directions around you. Sirius, its southernmost star and the brightest in the entire sky, shines at mag. –1.5, but it is not as bright as Jupiter.
The Hexagon seems to have a seventh star, Castor, which actually doesn’t quite make the grade as a first-magnitude star, but we include it anyway, because it’s only 4.5° from his brighter twin, Pollux, in the constellation Gemini, and helps identify the pair.
Note the bright star Betelgeuse inside the Hexagon. It marks the brighter shoulder of Orion, and Rigel marks the brighter foot. Midway between them is a striking, nearly straight line of three stars not quite 3° long, marking Orion’s belt. They are second-magnitude stars, so are not plotted on the twilight chart. Extend the belt toward the southeast, and you’ll find Sirius, the Dog Star. Extend the belt in the opposite direction, bending north a bit, and you’ll find Aldebaran, eye of Taurus, the Bull, westernmost star of the Hexagon, and then go 14° beyond it, to the Pleiades or Seven Sisters star cluster, a beautiful target for binoculars. The Arabic name, Aldebaran, means “the Follower”, (of the Pleiades).
Next in brightness after Sirius in our February early evening sky is Capella, the “Mother Goat star”, and northernmost member of the Hexagon. From California, Capella passes 4° to 14° north of overhead. The Winter Hexagon is huge! The angular distance from Sirius to Capella is 66°, and the distances from Aldebaran, its westernmost member, across to the three stars on the eastern side, Sirius, Procyon, and Pollux, are 46°, 46°, and 45°, respectively! Quite a wide-angle view!
Follow the Moon nightly at dusk Feb 2-16. On Feb. 2, the easy, 5-percent crescent was 4° to Jupiter’s lower left. [See illustration for Feb. 2 on February Sky Calendar, SkyCalFeb2022Final.pdf.]
Watch the waxing gibbous Moon hop through the stars of Taurus, the Bull during Feb. 8-10, as illustrated on Sky Calendar. On Feb. 8 the 55-percent Moon is about 6° from the Pleiades. On the next evening, the 64-percent Moon is about 6°-7° NW of Aldebaran, and on Feb. 10, the 73-percent Moon is within 5° SE of 1.7-mag. Elnath, the tip of the northern horn.
On Feb. 13, the 93-percent Moon is within 4° SE of Pollux, the brighter of the “Twin” stars of Gemini.
On Feb. 16, the Moon, 100 percent illuminated and just past Full, is within 6° lower left of Regulus, heart of Leo, the Lion.
This star follows the Winter Hexagon across the night sky. Regulus rises north of east into early evening view during February. Our home planet passes between the Sun and Regulus each year around Feb. 18, when the star appears at opposition, 180° from the Sun, and is above the horizon all night. You’ll find Regulus also on the morning map, low in the western sky.
Now turn to the morning twilight sky map for February [see map S202202A.pdf]. For the next several months, the morning sky is where the action will be, with many striking planet pairings and gatherings of Moon and planets.
Just four to five weeks after its inferior conjunction, or passage nearly between Earth and Sun on January 8, Venus attains a spectacular peak brilliance of mag. –4.9 during Feb. 5-14, rises in a dark sky all month, as much as 2.6 hours before sunrise, and attains its highest position in morning twilight around Feb. 20.
Venus is worthy of several closeup looks with optical aid this month, while it’s still quite near to Earth. The planet’s crescent phase is easily resolved with a small telescope or even a pair of 7-power binoculars. Simply find Venus when it’s easy to spot in the east-southeast before dawn, and, to eliminate the planet’s glare against a dark sky, keep track of it as the sky brightens with the approach of sunrise. Hold the binoculars steady by leaning against a sturdy object, or resting your elbows on a railing or car top. During February, Venus’ crescent fattens from 16 percent to 38 percent full, while shrinking in size from 49 to 32 arcseconds tip-to-tip as Venus races away from Earth. Don’t miss it! The windows for observing the crescent Venus last for several weeks centered on the date of Venus’ passages between Earth and Sun, which occur at intervals of nearly 19.2 months. The next chance will occur around the inferior conjunction of August 2023.
Ranking next in brightness after Venus in February’s morning sky are two zero-magnitude stars: Golden Arcturus high in the southwest, and blue-white Vega high in the east-northeast. Except for its low altitude and consequent dimming by our atmosphere, Mercury might have competed with these stars after its brightening during the first week.
Mars glows dimly at mag. +1.4 to +1.3 this month, six magnitudes fainter than Venus, by a factor of 250. Venus rounding the Sun while moving away from us with Mars in the background makes the two planets appear close together in our sky for an extended time. Mars appears to the lower right of Venus, by 9° on Feb. 1, by 7° on Feb. 9, by 6° on Feb. 19, and by 5° on March 1. They’ll appear closest, 3.9° apart, in mid-March.
Mercury, emerging from its inferior conjunction of Jan. 23, begins at mag. +1.0 on Feb. 1, and brightens to +0.5 by Feb. 4, to 0.0 on Feb. 11, and to –0.1 on Feb. 18 through early March. Mercury climbs highest for this apparition, but only 8° up in mid-twilight from southern California, around Feb. 10, and reaches greatest elongation from the Sun, 26°, on Feb. 16. Binoculars will come in handy to spot the innermost planet during this moderately unfavorable appearance. Find it to lower left of Venus, by 14° on Feb. 1, 13° during Feb. 3-9. On Feb. 12, Mercury is 14° lower left of the Venus-Mars pair, then 6.6° apart, and forms an isosceles triangle. [See illustrations from Sky Calendar for Feb. 12 and Feb. 19.]
Follow the Moon in the morning sky during Feb. 15-28. On Feb. 16, the Full Moon appears 6° upper right of Regulus. On Feb. 18, as the Earth passes between Regulus and the Sun, our Spaceship Earth is heading in a direction 3° west of the head of Scorpius, a vertical line of stars to the right of the red supergiant star Antares in the southern morning sky, and directly away from a spot 4° south of the Pleiades high in the evening sky.
On Feb. 20 and 21, the waning gibbous Moon visits widely upper right and upper left of Spica. On Feb. 24, the 43-percent fat crescent Moon is 5° upper left of Antares.
On Feb. 27, the 13-percent crescent visits 10° lower right of Venus and 5° below Mars. Binoculars will be required to spot +0.8-mag. Saturn 4.0° lower left of Mercury. [See illustrations on Sky Calendar for Feb. 27 and 28.]
On the next morning, Feb. 28, the 6-percent crescent is very low, 19° lower left of Venus and 6° lower right of Mercury. Mars is 5.1° lower right of Venus. Saturn rises 3-4 minutes earlier each day and gets easier to see, while Mercury rises ever closer to the time of sunrise. This morning, Saturn appears within 2.8° lower left of Mercury. On March 2, Saturn will appear within 0.7° upper left of Mercury as the brighter planet passes south of it.
March and April 2022
Note to teachers: I am curious to know whether some teachers and students get out to observe morning sky events. The next few months will be rich with predawn planets. I would be happy to receive your comments submitted in the space provided at the end of this column. They may help me decide how much detail to include about future morning sky events.
Here is a selection of events for March and April, and a few for May and June, 2022:
Bright Venus and faint Mars linger close together throughout March. They’re 5.0° apart on March 1, within 4° on March 12-19, widening to 6° by March 31. [See morning twilight chart for March, S202203A.pdf, and March Sky Calendar, SkyCalMar2022Final.pdf.] Telescopes show Venus close to half full when it reaches greatest elongation, 47° west of the Sun, on March 20.
Follow the Moon in morning twilight from March 16 or 17 through March 29. After passing Full on March 18, the waning gibbous Moon appears 5° from Spica on March 20, and passes just 2° north of Antares, heart of the Scorpion, on March 23. The crescent Moon will appear 5° to 7° below a compact gathering of Venus, Mars, and Saturn 5.3° wide on the morning of March 28.
Mars and Saturn will form a close pair 0.4° apart, some 7.5° to the upper right of Venus, on April 5. [See morning twilight chart for April, S202204A.pdf, and April Sky Calendar, SkyCalApr2022Final.pdf.] Jupiter, then rising in east three times as far to the lower left of Venus, brings the tally of easily visible morning planets to four, spanning 30°. Follow the Moon in morning twilight during April 15-28. On the morning of April 16, the Full Moon appears 4° from Spica. On the 19th, the waning gibbous Moon appears 5° from Antares.
On the morning of Sunday, April 24, the fat crescent Moon is poised to the right of a lineup of four planets, Jupiter-Venus-Mars-Saturn, with Moon just 8° from Saturn, and Jupiter at the lower left end of the lineup, within 6° lower left of Venus. Watch for changes every morning during the last week of April!
Venus and Jupiter will appear closer to each other daily until their brilliant close pairing 0.4° apart on Saturday morning, April 30. Before then, on Wednesday, April 27, a waning crescent Moon passes 4° to 6° below the Venus-Jupiter pair, just 3° apart that morning. Spectacular!
On Thursday, April 28, the last old Moon will rise in east, less than an hour before sunrise. Look 14° lower left of Jupiter, which will then be 2.2° to the lower left of brighter Venus. Only two days to go until the conjunction of the two brightest planets!
Nearly a month later, Mars will overtake Jupiter, passing within 1° May 28-30.
Mercury will appear low in ENE morning twilight by mid-June. Then all five bright planets will be arranged in their actual order of distance from the Sun, in a long arc across the sky, spanning 95° on June 14, to 120° on July 2. The two telescopic planets, Uranus and Neptune, discovered in 1781 and 1846 respectively, will also be visible, with optical aid, before twilight begins.
During these months, the evening sky, though mostly without planets, has plenty of attractions. In early March, Orion is well up in south at dusk, and begins his slide toward the west. [See evening twilight chart for March, S202203P.pdf.] The Winter Hexagon, described above, stretches from Sirius in the southern sky to Capella north of overhead, and surrounds the overhead point for much of the month.
Follow the Moon at dusk, from a thin crescent low in west on March 2 until Full low in east on March 17. [See March Sky Calendar, SkyCalMar2022Final.pdf.] Watch the Moon move through Taurus March 8-10, from between the Pleiades and Aldebaran on March 8, to near the horns on March 10. On March 12, the waxing gibbous Moon appears near Pollux and Castor, the bright stars of Gemini, the Twins, and on March 15, a few degrees north of Regulus, heart of Leo, the Lion.
In April 2022, the Hexagon moves over to the western sky at dusk, while golden Arcturus climbs in ENE to E, with blue-white Spica 33° to its lower right. [See evening twilight chart for April, S202204P.pdf.] Spica reaches opposition on April 13, while Mercury begins its best apparition of the year, and climbs to its highest in WNW before month’s end.
Follow the Moon at dusk from a thin crescent low, just north of west, on April 2, to Full, south of east, on April 16. Watch the Moon pass within 4° S of the Pleiades on April 4, and 7 degrees N of Aldebaran on Apr. 5. [See April Sky Calendar, SkyCalApr2022Final.pdf.]
On Friday afternoon, April 8, the Moon has nearly reached First Quarter phase, half full and 90 degrees east of the Sun. If the sky is clear and blue, and not hazy before end of school that day, look at the Moon through a polarizing filter, rotate the filter, and notice how the sky alternates between light blue and dark blue, improving the contrast between Moon and sky when the sky is darkened. If you wear polarized sunglasses, face the half moon and orient your head so that sunlight “goes in one ear and out the other” (with your right ear exposed toward the Sun), and, still while facing the Moon, tilt your head until sunlight falls directly on the top of your head, and notice the change in the brightness of the blue sky around the Moon! Light scattered by molecules of O2 and N2 and other simple molecular constituents of our atmosphere is most strongly polarized 90° from the Sun.
If you observe the “half Moon” through a telescope with a low-power eyepiece fitted with a single polarizing filter, you can rotate the eyepiece to darken the daytime sky to improve contrast, and observe the Moon’s craters and other surface features in the daytime! This works well when the Moon is within a day or two of First or Last Quarter phase, when the Moon is half full and in a clear sky 90° from the Sun, but not at all when the Moon is a thin crescent or close to Full, or when the sky is hazy or when the Moon is very low in the sky.
That evening and the next (April 8 and 9), find the “Twin” stars Pollux and Castor near the Moon. On the evenings of April 11 and 12, the Moon hopscotches past Regulus, in Leo, and on April 15 and 16, past Spica, in Virgo. On April 13, as Earth passes between Spica and the Sun, the star appears at opposition and is visible all night.
In May, a young crescent Moon appears near Mercury at dusk on May 1 and 2. The innermost planet dims to mag. +1.0 by May 3, and quickly fades from view a few days later. Also departing in May, in order of disappearance below the western horizon, are Rigel, Aldebaran, Sirius, and Betelgeuse. Mark your calendar to watch the Full Moon on the evening of Sunday, May 15. The Moon will already be in partial eclipse as it rises around sunset that evening, and will undergo total eclipse for 85 minutes beginning at 8:29 p.m. PDT. The next total lunar eclipse will be a very early-morning event on November 8, so don’t miss the May 15 eclipse, at a convenient, family-friendly time.
Illustrations of most of the events described above appear on the Abrams Planetarium monthly Sky Calendar. Subscribers receive quarterly mailings, consisting of three monthly issues. Each calendar has a map of the evening sky printed on the reverse, more detailed than the twilight charts in this article. To subscribe for $12 per year or to view a sample copy, visit www.abramsplanetarium.org/skycalendar/
Here are monthly evening and morning mid-twilight sky maps for February through April 2022. Use them to follow seasonal changes in positions of bright stars, and wanderings of the planets.
THE SKY AT DUSK THE SKY AT DAWN
Here are the Sky Calendar and Evening Skies for April 2022.
SKY CALENDAR EVENING SKIES (constellation map)