Bright planets and bright stars light the evening sky.
The evening sky is peppered with bright lights. Betelgeuse, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, Capella, Aldebaran, Pollux and Castor all add lustre to a celestial scene that is already amply luminous with the planets Venus and Mars. Step outside roughly an hour after sunset and take in the view. The duo of Venus and Mars will be with us for a while yet, though both planets, along with the stars of winter, are gradually losing ground to advancing evening twilight. Venus is past its greatest elongation and peak brightness (barely), while Mars had its heyday back in May, 2016. Venus is a startlingly brilliant magnitude –4.8, while Mars, which sits 10 degrees east of the evening “star,” shines at magnitude 1.3. For telescope users, the planetary prize at the moment is Jupiter. It rises around 9 p.m., local time, and climbs to the meridian at 3:30 a.m. Jupiter is also a fine naked-eye sight, gleaming at magnitude –2.3, a little less than four degrees due north of first-magnitude Spica in Virgo. Shortly after Jupiter reaches its highest point in the predawn sky, Saturn rises in the east-southeast. By the time morning twilight begins, the 0.5-magnitude ringworld is only 16 degrees up―yet still worth a peek in any scope.
On both these dates, the crescent Moon lies roughly six degrees from Saturn. At dawn on the 20th, it’s above and to the right of Saturn. On the following morning, it’s to the left of the planet.
The Moon is new this morning at 9:58 a.m., EST.
At dusk this evening, Mars and Uranus have a close encounter when the red planet passes slightly more than ½ degree north of its distant cousin. The pair will be at their absolute closest at 6:58 p.m., EST. The contrasting colours of peachy orange Mars and cool-blue Uranus should appear striking in a small telescope at moderate magnification. One evening before and after this date, Mars will sit roughly twice as far from Uranus, though that’s still remarkably close. Of course, the apparent proximity of these two worlds is purely a line-of-sight illusion. In reality, Mars is 303,000 km from Earth while Uranus is about 10 times farther away. (For more on this conjunction, turn to page 31 of the January/February issue of SkyNews.)
If you have access to a sky free of light pollution, the February 24 – 26 weekend is a good one for sighting the elusive zodiacal light at nightfall. The pale glow of the zodiacal light arises from sunlight scattered by dust particles residing within the inner solar system. Look for an amorphous, cone-shaped luminance in the west as soon as twilight has ended. Usually, the zodiacal light is only about as bright as the winter Milky Way, which is why you’ll need a dark, clear sky to detect it.
You might find the zodiacal light easier to capture with a camera than your eyes. To try your hand at photographing the phenomenon, use a wide-angle lens (the widest you have), aim towards the west, and experiment until you find a combination of aperture, ISO, and exposure time that yields the best results. For the most natural colours, set your camera’s white-balance to “daylight.” And if you manage to get a good photo, please send us a copy.
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