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February Skies: Winter brings three bright planets

Friday - 2/11/2011, 12:25pm  ET

Greg Redfern, wtop.com

In early February we mark the halfway point for this interesting winter. We have had some really clear nights as well as cloudy ones -- not to mention foul weather! There are some great sky sights to see this month as three bright planets will be visible.

Be sure to join me and other astronomers at George Mason University Observatory on Feb. 9 at 6:30 p.m. and on Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. to check out the skies. Check here for more details.

Skywatching Highlights

Mercury is too difficult to see this month.

Brilliant Venus continues to grace the dark morning sky in the southeast, rising about two hours before dawn as the month begins. On Feb. 28, a thin crescent moon will be to the upper right of Venus. If you have binoculars it would be worth looking at Venus and the surrounding starfields throughout the month as the planet is in the constellation of Sagittarius - a very star-rich region of the sky.

Mars cannot be seen this month.

Bright Jupiter is in the west at sunset and remains visible until about 9:30 p.m. as the month begins but sets by 8:00 p.m. by month's end. The moon passes to the right of Jupiter on Feb. 6. If you have binoculars or a telescope you can watch the four main moons of Jupiter change their position night after night.

Saturn rises in the eastern sky at 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 1 and at 8:30 p.m. by month's end. The moon passes below Saturn on Feb. 20 and forms a triangle with the bright star Spica to the upper left. If you have a telescope, be sure to check out the ringed planet as a large storm continues to rage high in Saturn's clouds.

The new moon is Feb. 2. The first-quarter moon is Feb. 11, and this month's full moon occurs Feb. 18. This month's full moon is called the "Full Snow Moon" in recognition of the heaviest snowfall of the winter months. Last-quarter moon is Feb. 24. On Feb. 25, the bright orange star Antares will be to the right of the moon.

Here are our down to Earth events for this month:

  • Open House at the Department of Astronomy at the University of Maryland, College Park Campus Observatory, will be at 8 p.m. on Feb. 5 and Feb. 20.

  • The National Capital Astronomers has its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 12 at the University of Maryland, College Park Campus Observatory. The speaker is Dr. Brian Jackson (GSFC) on "From Extrasolar Gas Giant to Hot, Rocky Planet."

  • The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club will meet at 7 p.m. Feb. 13 at George Mason University. The speaker is Tom Hill, discussing the importance of space exploration to our future and what can be done to improve upon the last 50 years of progress in America.

  • The TriState Astronomers General Meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Feb. 16 at the William Brish Planetarium on Commonwealth Avenue in Hagerstown, Md.

  • Space Shuttle Discovery is scheduled to launch on her last mission Feb. 24. STS-133 will take supplies to the International Space Station. You can follow developments here.

Got a Topic That Interests You? I literally have a whole universe of topics to select from for my column. But I'm interested in hearing from WTOP readers about what interests them. Feel free to contact me at skyguyinva@gmail.com with your suggestions and comments.

(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)