Jupiter, Mars and Saturn rule the morning sky.
Of the five naked-eye planets, only one is a rewarding sight in telescopes at present. Mercury and Venus are both lost in the Sun’s glare, though only temporarily. The solar system’s innermost world is in conjunction with the Sun on February 17, but will begin its most favourable evening apparition of 2018 at the end of the month. Around that same time, Venus becomes an easier naked-eye target. You might glimpse the magnitude –3.9 evening “star” as early as this week, but it’ll be difficult as Venus sets just half an hour after the Sun. You’ll need both an unobstructed west horizon and binoculars to spot it.
The remaining three naked-eye planets are all morning objects. First up is Jupiter, which rises around 1 a.m., local time, and gleams at magnitude –2.1. Big Jove is the prime telescopic planet this winter and you’ll likely get your best views of it around 6 a.m., when the gas giant is due south and highest. Morning twilight is also when Mars and Saturn are at their best. First-magnitude Mars sits a little more than five degrees north-northeast of its stellar twin, Antares—the star closely matches Mars’ hue and current brightness. Farthest east (and therefore, last to rise) is Saturn, which glows at magnitude 0.6—just slightly brighter than Mars. By 6 a.m., Saturn has an altitude of roughly 10 degrees, but the farther north you are, the lower Saturn is in the sky. The blurring effects of Earth’s atmosphere will make crisp views of the ringed planet all but impossible. Still, if you have your scope set up for Jupiter observing, you might as well swing over to Saturn for a look. You might luck out with unusually steady conditions.
The Moon is new today at 4:05 p.m., EST.
The February 16 – 18 weekend is moonfree and presents a sky rich with winter deep-sky treats, including the bright open cluster, M41 in Canis Major.
One of M41’s finest attributes is that it’s easy to find—all you have to do is locate the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius. Also known as the Dog Star and Alpha Canis Majoris, Sirius gleams brilliantly (magnitude –1.4) mostly thanks to its proximity to our solar system. Only 8.6 light years away, Sirius is the nearest star visible from Canadian latitudes, except of course for the Sun. The Dog Star is conspicuous also because it’s intrinsically luminous—much mor so than our Sun. Indeed, if the Sun were as distant as Sirius, our home star would shine a relatively unimpressive magnitude 2.
Centre Sirius in your binos or telescope, then dip four degrees south to bring M41 into view. If all the cluster members were gathered together in a single point, M41 would shine with the brightness of a 4th magnitude star, which means the stellar grouping should be dimly visible without optical aid under a dark, country sky. I find the cluster stands out reasonably well in binoculars even under relatively light-polluted skies, and it’s a lovely sight in a small scope used with modest magnification. That’s because M41 is roughly the same apparent size as the Moon, so too much power spoils the view by narrowing the field of view. Splashy open clusters like this one benefit from being framed by a generous amount of sky. I find a 1½- to 2-degree-wide field of view nearly ideal for M41. The cluster’s 20 brightest stars sparkle beautifully when presented this way.
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