What's Up - February 2017
This month watch bright Venus, Mars and Uranus, comets and Vesta, Plus the sunset glow of dust in our solar system.
What's Up for February? Use Venus and Mars to find the Zodiacal Light, plus two comets and the brightest asteroid.
Hello and welcome. I'm Jane Houston Jones from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
On February first the crescent moon joins the planets Venus, Mars and Uranus in the southwest sky just after sunset. If you've been watching Venus the past few months you can't help but notice it's the brightest object in the sky (except for the moon, of course). Through a telescope, you are in for a real treat. As Venus' illuminated crescent phase will thin, its apparent diameter increases. And Venus remains the same brightness all month long.
Just above Venus is Mars, posing with Uranus this month. Mars appears significantly brighter than Uranus, but you should still be able to see both in binoculars, though a telescope will reveal more detail.
Meteors are caused when dust particles from comets and asteroids burn up in Earth's atmosphere. February isn't a great meteor shower month, but you might see a different kind of dust particles called the Zodiacal Light. The Zodiacal light is a triangular glow caused when sunlight reflects off dust particles in the plane of our solar system. Use Venus and Mars as signposts to the cone-shaped glow on the western horizon at sunset in late February and March.
Comet 45P, visible after sunset over the last two months-through both binoculars and telescopes-makes its closest approach to Earth on February 11, when it will be 0.08 Astronomical Units (7.4 million miles) from Earth. It'll be visible in the morning sky in the constellation Hercules. The comet then passes through the constellations Corona Borealis (the Northern Crown), Boötes (the Herdsman), Canes Venatici (Boötes' hunting dogs) and Ursa Major. Then on to Leo by the end of February. It moves swiftly -- 9 degrees each day! It will return again in 2022.
The second of several comets visible this year through binoculars or telescopes, Comet 2P Encke, returns to our view after a 3.3 year orbit around the sun. You can find it in the constellation Pisces. And you should be able to see it through binoculars all month long.
Finally, the brightest asteroid, Vesta, continues to be visible near the stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini. I found it easily a few weeks ago in my own telescope!
You can catch up on solar system missions and all of NASA's missions at www.nasa.gov That's all for this month. I'm Jane Houston Jones.