Some daily events in the changing sky for February 13 – 21.
Comet Lulin is once again in a dark, moonless sky starting late on the night of the 15th or 16th. Using binoculars or a telescope, look for it high around midnight or 1 a.m. The comet is moving rapidly westward across Virgo this week at about magnitude 5.5 or 6. Its peak brightness should come around February 24th. Full story and finder charts.
Friday, February 13
Saturday, February 14
Sunday, February 15
Monday, February 16
Tuesday, February 17
Wednesday, February 18
Thursday, February 19
Friday, February 20
Saturday, February 21
Want to become a better amateur astronomer? Learn your way around the constellations. They're the key to locating everything fainter and deeper to hunt with binoculars or a telescope. For an easy-to-use constellation guide covering the whole evening sky, use the big monthly map in each issue of Sky & Telescope, the essential magazine of astronomy. Or download our free Getting Started in Astronomy booklet (which only has bimonthly maps).
Once you get a telescope, to put it to good use you'll need a detailed, large-scale sky atlas (set of charts; the standards are Sky Atlas 2000.0 or the smaller Pocket Sky Atlas) and good deep-sky guidebooks (such as Sky Atlas 2000.0 Companion by Strong and Sinnott, the even more detailed Night Sky Observer's Guide by Kepple and Sanner, or the classic Burnham's Celestial Handbook). Read how to use them effectively.
Can a computerized telescope take their place? As Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer say in their Backyard Astronomer's Guide, "A full appreciation of the universe cannot come without developing the skills to find things in the sky and understanding how the sky works. This knowledge comes only by spending time under the stars with star maps in hand and a curious mind." Without these, they note, "the sky never becomes a friendly place."
More beginners' tips: "How to Start Right in Astronomy".
This Week's Planet Roundup
Jupiter, Mercury, and Mars (magnitudes –1.9, 0.0, and +1.2, respectively), are low in the glow of sunrise, where they're changing configuration daily. They start the week with Jupiter and tiny Mars close together well to Mercury's lower left; Mercury moves in on them day by day. Bring binoculars and look just above the east-southeast horizon about 30 minutes before sunup.
(Find your local sunrise time by making sure you've put your location into our online almanac, and make sure the Daylight Saving Time box is unchecked.)
Venus (magnitude –4.8, in Pisces) is the dazzling "Evening Star" high in the west during and after twilight. It's at its peak brightness now, and it doesn't set until about 9 p.m. In a telescope Venus is a thick crescent (31% sunlit) about 37 arcseconds from cusp to cusp. Telescopically, Venus is best seen in bright twilight or even broad daylight; it's less glary against a bright sky, and it's usually higher.
Ceres (magnitude 6.9, in Leo), is having its best apparition of our lifetime. This "dwarf planet," the largest of the main-belt asteroids, will be at opposition next week. See the article and chart in the March Sky & Telescope, page 60.
Saturn (magnitude +0.6) remains near the hind foot of Leo, the 4th-magnitude star Sigma Leonis. Saturn rises around 7 p.m., shines well up in the east by 9 or 10, and is highest in the south around 1 a.m. Don't confuse it with similarly-bright Regulus 20° (two fist-widths at arm's length) to its upper right after they rise, and more directly to its right in the early-morning hours.
Notice that Saturn is pale yellow and shines with a steady light, while Regulus is white with a touch of blue and (unless the air is very steady) twinkles slightly.
This week Saturn's rings are 1.8° from edge on. The rings will gradually open to 4° by late May, then will close to exactly edge-on early next September — when, unfortunately, Saturn will be out of sight practically in conjunction with the Sun.
Uranus and Neptune are lost behind the glow of the Sun.
Pluto is low in the southeast before dawn.
All descriptions that relate to your horizon or zenith — including the words up, down, right, and left — are written for the world's mid-northern latitudes. Descriptions that also depend on longitude (mainly Moon positions) are for North America. Eastern Standard Time (EST) equals Universal Time (known as UT, UTC, or GMT) minus 5 hours.
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