February Skies: Spotting the Zodiacal Light
One of the more elusive members of our solar system to observe is the Zodiacal Light. Late February is a good time of year to try to spot this dust that lies in the plane of our solar system. This plane is also called the path of the ecliptic, and it’s where we find the planets as they journey around our sky. The reason February is a good time to spot the Zodiacal Light is that the ecliptic rises away from the horizon at a steep angle, allowing the light to rise up in a pyramidal shape. The thicker part of the Zodiacal Light will be near the horizon and the light will taper off as it climbs upward.
Look west an hour or two after dark on a moon-free night. There is no New Moon in February, but there is one on January 30 and March 1, which means both the beginning and end of February will have dark skies and will be a good time to search for the Zodiacal Light. Getting away from cities and light pollution is also essential.
With no New Moon in February, that means the Full Moon will fall midmonth, which it does on February 14, reaching 100-percent lit at 3:53 p.m. PST. This Valentine’s Full Moon will be accompanied by the star Regulus in Leo the Lion, just to the moon’s left. (Side note: As there is not always a New Moon in the short month of February, there is also occasionally no Full Moon. The next February without a Full Moon will be in 2018, which will give both January and March two Full Moons each, the second one in each of those months being a Blue Moon.)
The moon, which also travels the ecliptic, passes planets and a few bright stars every month. On February 1, just after sunset, the crescent moon will lie above Mercury. Neptune will be a bit more than three degrees to Mercury’s upper left, but the glow from twilight will make it impossible to spot this dim planet. On February 7 and 8, the moon comes close to Aldebaran, a reddish star in Taurus the Bull that is a part of the V-shaped cluster known as the Hyades. A couple nights later, on February 10, the moon will pair up with Jupiter. After the Full Moon, a waning moon will meet up with Mars and Spica later in the evening of February 18 and 19. Reddish Mars is on the left and bluish Spica (the brightest star in Virgo) is on the right. The moon will be above the pair on the 18th and below on the 19th. For early risers, catch the moon by brilliant Venus before dawn on February 26.
The best planetary observing in February, however, is Jupiter in the southeast as the sky grows dark, surrounded by the bright stars of winter. Jupiter lies in Gemini with its twin stars Castor and Pollux to Jupiter’s left. On Jupiter’s right is Orion, and below Jupiter are the bright stars Procyon in Canis Minor and Sirius in Canis Major. Above Jupiter find the star Capella in the constellation Auriga and to the upper right is Aldebaran in Taurus. Use binoculars or a telescope to focus in on Jupiter to examine its dark belts and light zones and the four Galilean moons that circle the planet, frequently passing in front of and behind Jupiter and trailing their shadows across its surface.
Image: This photograph of the Zodiacal Light was taken in August. Credit: Dominic Cantin/Wikimedia Commons
Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.