Morning planets and the crescent Moon put on a show.
This is a another week of five-planet-mornings, but sighting Mercury (usually the missing ingredient) gets a bit challenging by the weekend. On Monday it’s a shade more than four degrees up 45 minutes before sunrise. But by Sunday it has lost nearly two degrees of altitude. The other four planets fare much better though. Jupiter is edging farther and farther into the evening sky. The big planet rises shortly after 8:30 p.m., local time, and reaches the meridian at 3 a.m. Mars is next up, clearing the eastern horizon around 1:30 a.m., followed by Saturn which rises a little before 3:45 a.m. Venus, brightest of all, pops up just before 6 a.m. as astronomical dawn begins. The “morning star” is slowly losing ground to twilight, but will hang in for many more weeks.
This morning the waning crescent Moon cozies up to Saturn. Early risers on the West Coast will get to see them at their closest, with the lunar disc positioned less than 3½ degrees from the ringed planet.
In the dawn sky the razor-thin crescent Moon forms a triangle with Venus and Mercury. If you have wide-angle binoculars, you should be able to fit all three into a single view. Indeed, binoculars will be helpful for fishing Mercury out of brightening twilight. The celestial trio are low in the southeast and only a few degrees above the horizon, but if you manage to catch all three you’ll be treated to a pretty sight.
Today Mercury has its greatest elongation from the Sun (25.5 degrees), though this is largely an academic point. Owing to the ecliptic’s steep angle to the horizon at this time of year, the planet was actually higher in the sky a week ago.
The Moon is new today at 9:39 a.m., EST. Time to enjoy the winter constellations under moonless skies.
The evening sky is rich with deep-sky treasures over the February 5 – 7 weekend. But few objects are as splendid in binoculars as the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, in Taurus. Also known as Messier 45 (M45), the cluster looks like a miniature, short-handled version of the Big Dipper. The main “dipper” stars range in brightness from 2.8-magnitude Alcyone to 4.2-magnitude Merope. In addition to the group’s principal stars, one feature that always attracts my attention is the distinctive curving row of 7th- and 8th-magnitude stars below the tiny dipper’s stubby handle. And all this is set against an attractive smattering of faint stars scattered throughout the field. It’s a wonderful sight in any binoculars.
Under moonless conditions, such as those we enjoy this weekend, try to catch sight of the nebulosity near Merope. In my 10×50 binoculars under a dark country sky, this glow resembles a very faint, broad comet tail extending south from the star. A small, low-power scope also shows this feature well, though telescopes generally don’t have a wide-enough field of view to contain the entire Pleiades cluster. This is one object that binoculars really do show best.
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