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February 2019 Skies

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February Skies

by Dick Cookman


Highlights: Comet Journal, Mars Landers, Meteor Showers, Planet Plotting, Who let the Groundhog out?, February Moon

Focus Constellations: Perseus, Auriga, Taurus, Orion, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Gemini. Cancer, Leo, Leo Minor, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Draco, Cepheus, Cassiopeia, Camelopardalis, Lynx

Comet Journal

C/2018 Y1 (Iwamoto) is a predawn comet at 7th magnitude in Virgo, slightly southwest of Spica. It is a fast moving comet (~150,000 mph) expected to reach perihelion south of western Virgo on Feb. 6th. It may be closest to Earth (28 million miles) in Leo on Feb. 11th & 12. It will move westward, paralleling the ecliptic during February, and will enter Auriga by month’s end. It is an unusual comet in that it has an orbital period of almost 1000 years and an aphelion distance approaching 200 AU’s, which is in between the Oort Cloud (10000+ AU’s) and Kuiper Belt (30 - 50 AU’s) the normal homes for longer period comets. The comet may be an Oort Cloud comet with an orbit gravitationally altered by previous encounters with other objects.

Comet 46P/Wirtanen (2018) is another 7th magnitude comet orbiting southeastward through western Ursa Major in February. It was a Christmas Comet which reached perihelion on Dec. 12th in Taurus and was closest to Earth on the 16th. It is a short period (5.5 years) comet and will rapidly dim to less than 10th magnitude in February as it retreats to the Asteroid Belt.

Mars Landers

Despite continuous intensive attempts by mission scientists to reestablish communication with Opportunity after the global dust storm on Mars during opposition last summer, no signal has been heard since Sol 5111 (June 10, 2018). On January 25, 2019, when the government shutdown ended, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab announced that it would be sending newly revised commands to the Opportunity rover in an attempt to compel to it contact Earth before onset of Martian winter.

New local dust storm activity near Opportunity - The Opportunity science team reported recently that there is an increase in local dust storm activity just south of the silent rover. Since contact was not established during the recent dust devil season, when dust devils may have cleared dust off of the solar panels, storm activity is another hurdle for the rover because dust storms tend to reduce the number of dust devils.

After arriving in Elysium Planitia on Mars on Nov. 26th, the InSight lander unfurled its solar panels and radio antennas. Preliminary deployment of the seismometer on the Martian surface was achieved on December 19th. Testing and adjustment of the installation is ongoing and the heat probe will be deployed in the near future. The Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE), which does not have its own separate instrument, is already using InSight's radio connection with Earth to collect preliminary data on the planet’s core.

On January 22 (Sol 2298), the Curiosity Rover moved for the first time since Dec. 13th. After drilling its 19th sample on Mars on Dec. 15th at “Rock Hall” in the Jura caprock on Vera Rubin Ridge, it embarked southward. The ridge, formerly known as Hematite Ridge due to the spectral signature determined from orbit, was the subject of the rovers activities for the last 17 months. The next destination is to study the clay-bearing unit, which sits in a trough adjacent to the ridge. Clay minerals in this unit may hold more clues about the ancient lakes that helped form the lower levels on Mount Sharp.

Meteor Showers

Feb. 8 Fri.: Alpha Centaurids. Peak 7 UT Active Jan 31-Feb 20. Radiant 210° -59°. ZHR ~6. 58 km/sec. Population index 2.0. 3 days after New Moon. Favorable. Progenitor comet: Comet 169P/NEAT

Feb. 25 Mon.: Delta Leonids. Peak 7 UT? Active Feb 15-Mar 10. Radiant 168° 16°. ZHR ~5. 60 km/sec. Population index 2.0. 1 day after Waning Gibbous Moon. Unfavorable. Progenitor comet: Tempel-Tuttle

Planet Plotting

Mercury (-1.3 to -0.1) in Capricornus, Aquarius, and Pisces in February appears low in the southwestern sky in the middle of the month after its Superior Conjunction with the Sun on January 29th and after passing within less than 1° of the .46 day old waxing crescent Moon at 3:00 AM EST on the 5th. It will then rise higher in the sky each evening until reaching maximum eastern elongation at 8:00PM EST on the 26th when it is 18° from the Sun. Mercury is 0.67°NNW of Neptune (+8.0) in Aquarius at 1:00AM EST on the 19th. Both planets are confined to the early evening sky. A very thin waxing crescent Moon is 0.23°SE of Mercury at 3:00AM EST on the 5th and 3.0°S, of Neptune at 1:00AM EST on the 7th.

Mars (0.9 to 1.3) joins Uranus (+5.9) in Pisces and Aries in the western evening western sky in February. Each sets well before midnight. Mars is 1.1°N of Uranus on the 13th. A large waxing crescent Moon is 6.0°S of Mars at 11:00AM EST on the 10th and 5.0°S of Uranus at 3:00PM EST.

In February, Saturn (+0.6) in Sagittarius, Jupiter (-1.7) in Ophiuchus, and crescent Venus (-4.1 to -4.0) in Sagittarius are morning planets. The ancient Greeks knew Venus in the morning sky as “Phosphorus” (Roman - Lucifer) and referred to it as “Hesperus” (Roman - Vesper) when in the evening sky. Venus is brightest on the 1st and dims during the month. Its crescent thickens as the planet orbits farther from Earth and approaches its 1st quarter phase. Venus is 1.1°N of Saturn (+0.6) in Sagittarius at 8:00AM EST on the 18th and the waning crescent Moon will be 0.6°N of the ringed planet at 2:00 EST on the 2nd.

Jupiter (-1.7 to -1.9) in Ophiuchus rises at 4:00AM EST ON THE 1st and 2:30AM EST on the 28th. It will progressively brighten and appear larger in telescopes as Earth orbits closer to the giant planet until its June opposition. The waning gibbous Moon is 2.0°S of Jupiter at 9:00AM EST on the 27th.

PlanetConstellation(s)MagnitudePlanet PassagesTime, Date
SunCapricornus, Aquarius-26.8New Moon8:28PM EST, 1/5
MercuryCapricornus-1.3 to -0.1Neptune, 0.67°NNW
Max. Eastern Elongation
1:00AM EST, 2/19
8:00PM EST,2/26
VenusSagittarius-4.1 to -4.4Saturn, 1.1°S8:00AM EST, 2/18
MarsPisces+0.9 to +1.2Uranus, 1.1°S3:00PM EST, 2/13
JupiterOphiuchus-1.6 to -1.7  
SaturnSagittarius+0.6Venus, 1.1°N8:00AM EST, 2/18
UranusPisces+5.9Mars, 1.1°N3:00PM EST, 2/13
NeptuneAquarius+8.0Mercury, 0.67°NNW1:00AM EST, 2/19

Who let the Groundhog out?

Groundhog Day on February 2nd is also celebrated as Candlemas, a Christian successor to Brigid's Day, a Gaelic traditional festival marking the beginning of spring. It is a cross-quarter day, halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox. According to Wikipedia it is: The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus and the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary,...In accordance with Leviticus 12: a woman was to be presented for purification by sacrifice 33 days after a boy's circumcision. It falls on February 2, which is traditionally the 40th day of the Christmas–Epiphany season.

In 1723, the Delaware Indians settled Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a campsite halfway between the Allegheny and the Susquehanna Rivers. The Delawares considered groundhogs honorable ancestors. According to creation beliefs of the Delaware Indians, their forebears began life as animals in "Mother Earth", emerging centuries later to hunt and live as men.

The name Punxsutawney comes from the Indian name for the location "ponksad-uteney" which means "the town of the sandflies." “Woodchuck” is from the Indian legend of "Wojak, a groundhog" considered to be their ancestral grandfather.

When German settlers arrived in the 1700s, they combined the Delaware reverence for the groundhog with their European tradition that if the weather was fair on February 2nd, halfway between Winter and Spring, the second half of Winter would be stormy and cold for six more weeks.

February Moon

The New Moon of February on the 4th at 4:04PM EST. It is the beginning of Lunation 1189 which ends 29.81 days later with the New Moon of March on the 6th at 11:04AM EST.

The Full Moon on the 19th is at 10:54AM EST. The February Moon is known as the “Snow Moon” or “Hunger Moon”. Since the Full Moon is almost 7 hours after perigee, when the Earth and Moon are closest, the Full Moon appears larger than normal producing a “supermoon” for the second month in a row! Colonial Americans called the February Moon the “Trapper’s Moon” and Celts called it the “Moon of Ice”. It was the “Storm Moon” in Medieval England. Chinese refer to it as the “Budding Moon”, but based on the recent weather, I think the Celts and English were much more accurate than the Chinese. Anishinaabe (Odawa and Ojibwe) people recognize it as “Namebini-giizis” (Sucker Moon) in the western dialect and Mkwa-giizis (Bear Moon) in the eastern dialect.

Lunar Apogee (maximum orbital distance) occurs on the 8th at 4:29AM EST when the Moon is at 252,622 miles (63.74 Earth radii). Perigee occurs on the 19th at 4:03AM EST when the Moon is at a distance of 222,681 miles (55.94 Earth radii).

PlanetConstellationMagnitudeMoon PassageMoon PhaseMoon Age
SunCapricornus-26.84:04PM EST, 2/4New0 days
MercuryCapricornus-1.30.23°N, 3:00AM EST, 2/5Waxing Crescent0.46 days
VenusSagittarius-4.3No Moon Passage  
MarsPisces+1.06.0°S, 11:00AM EST, 2/10Waxing Crescent5.79 days
JupiterOphiuchus-1.92.0°S, 9:00AM EST, 2/27Waning Gibbous22.71 days
SaturnSagittarius+0.60.6°N, 2:00AM EST, 2/2Waning Crescent27.23 days
UranusAries+5.95.0°S, 3:00PM EST, 2/10Waxing Crescent5.96 days
NeptuneAquarius+8.03.0°S, 1:00AM EST, 2/7Waxing Crescent1.37 days


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