Skywatcher's Guide: February and March 2021

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Stars and Constellations

In February, the center of the Milky Way is well below the horizon, but there is still a good portion of our galaxy we can see streaking high across the sky. The fall sky is still prominent in the west.  The "W" of Cassiopeia is high in the northwest. In the absence of the Big Dipper (part of our spring sky) Cassiopeia can be used to locate the north star: The top (open side) of the "W" faces to the north, so in that direction look for a star about the same brightness as the main stars in Casssiopeia, and that will most likely be Polaris.  The Big Dipper is beginning to come up again, but it is likely to be hidden behind trees and mountains along the horizon.  Next, the Great Square of Pegasus is getting low in the west.  Andromeda is just above that, with Perseus even higher, nearly in the middle of the sky.  Finally, the winter sky is now getting very high in the east.  Taurus the bull with the bright star Aldebaran is very high (near Perseus) along with the Pleiades (aka the seven sisters or Subaru) star cluster.  Auriga the charioteer with the bright star Capella is very high as well, slightly more to the northeast.  Gemini the twins is just below that in the east, and Canis Minor (the little dog) with the bright star Procyon is just below.  Orion the hunter is up in the southeast, with his easily recognizable belt, and Canis Major (the big dog) is just below.

In March, the winter portion of the Milky Way continues to streak across the sky.  The fall constellations are now getting low in the west, with Pegasus now partly below the horizon.  The winter constellations are now in the middle of the sky, and some of the spring constellations are beginning to come up.  Leo the lion is just above the horizon in the east, and the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) is now up in the northeast.

Interesting Stars Visible in February and March (during observatory hours)

Name / Designation Apparent Magnitude
(lower = brighter)
Distance
(light-years)
Notes
Sirius -1.44 8.6  
Arcturus -0.05 36.7  
Capella 0.08 42  
Rigel 0.18 770  
Procyon 0.4 11  
Betelgeuse 0.45 427  
Aldeberan 0.87 65  
Spica 0.98 262  
Pollux 1.16 38  
Markab 1.25 140  
Regulus 1.36 77 means "Little King"
Castor 1.58 52  
Polaris 1.97 431  
Alpheratz or Sirrah 2.07 97  
Mirach 2.07 199  
Algol 2.09 93 variable star
Denebola 2.14 36.2  
Almak 2.1 / 5.0 & 6.3 355  triple star system w/ 64 yr orbit
Eta Cassiopeiae 3.5 / 7.4 19 480 yr orbit

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Solar System

Mercury passes between us and the Sun in early February. Then it will appear in the morning sky later in the month and for much of March.

Venus is getting lower in the morning sky, and will be passing behind the Sun at the end of March.

Mars is moving a little further west each day, passing through Aries and Taurus.

Jupiter and Saturn will be appearing in the east just before sunrise.

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Calendar of Night Sky Events

Date Event
02/04/21 Last Quarter Moon.
02/06/21 Appulse of Venus and Saturn. — Separated by 0.4°.
02/08/21 Mercury at inferior conjunction. — Passing between us and the Sun.
02/11/21 Appulse of Venus and Jupiter. — Separated by 0.4°.
02/11/21 New Moon.
02/13/21 Appulse of Mercury and Venus. — Separated by 4.6°.
02/15/21 Appulse of Mercury and Jupiter. — Separated by 3.9°.
02/19/21 First Quarter Moon.
02/23/21 Appulse of Mercury and Saturn. — Separated by 4.1°.
02/27/21 Full Moon.
03/04/21 Appulse of Mercury and Jupiter. — Separated by 0.3°.
03/05/21 Last Quarter Moon.
03/06/21 Mercury at greatest western elongation. — Visible in the morning sky.
03/10/21 Neptune at conjunction. — Passing behind the Sun.
03/13/21 New Moon.
03/13/21 Appulse of Venus and Neptune. — Separated by 0.4°.
03/20/21 Earth at northward equinox. — Beginning of our Spring.
03/21/21 First Quarter Moon.
03/25/21 Venus at superior conjunction. — Passing behind the Sun.
03/28/21 Full Moon.
03/29/21 Appulse of Mercury and Neptune. — Separated by 1.3°.

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Deep Sky

The winter Milky Way is now prominent in the sky.  There are many spectacular deep sky objects we can see now.  Starting with open clusters, we first have the Pleiades (Seven Sisters, M45) nearly in the middle of the sky.  Next to that, the Hyades cluster (C41) makes up the face of Taurus the bull.  Also nearby, the constellation of Auriga contains M36, M37, and M38, which are visible with binoculars.  We also have Perseus's Double Cluster (C14) still fairly high in the northwest, and the Beehive (Praesepe, M44) up in the east.

This is not a good time of year to see globular clusters, as most of them are concentrated in the summer sky.  The brightest one we can see now is M79 below Orion in Lepus the hare, but it is nearly 8th magnitude.

For nebulae, we have the spectacular Orion Nebula (M42) now prominent in the south. This is the closest star-forming region to our solar system.  We also have some good planetary nebulae, which come from dying stars.  The Blue Snowball (C22) in Andromeda is towards the west, the Eskimo (C39) in Gemini is high in the east, and the Owl (M97) in Ursa Major is low in the northeast.

And now the galaxies:  Our neighbor the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is now heading towards the west and is visible on dark nights with the naked eye.  Also nearby is the Triangulum Galaxy (M33), visible with binoculars.  In Ursa Major to the northeast we have Bode's Galaxy (M81) and the Cigar Galaxy (M82), close enough to be seen together in a low-power telescope.

Interesting Deep Sky Objects to Observe during February and March (during observatory hours)

Designation Name Apparent Magnitude Apparent Size Distance
(light-years)
Type
Messier 45 Pleiades 1.6 110' 440 open cluster
Messier 31 Andromeda Galaxy 3.4 3° x 1° 2,900,000 spiral galaxy
Messier 44 Beehive Cluster 3.7 95' 577 open cluster
Messier 42 Orion Nebula 4 85' x 60' 1400-1600 diffuse nebula
Messier 33 Triangulum Galaxy 5.7 67' x 42' 3,000,000 spiral galaxy
Messier 3 (in Canes Venatici) 6.2 18' 34,000 globular cluster
Messier 81 Bode's Galaxy 8.5 21' 1,200,000 spiral galaxy
NGC 3242 Ghost of Jupiter 8.6 25" 1400 planetary nebula
Messier 82 Cigar Galaxy 9.5 14' 1,200,000 galaxy

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Frequently Asked Questions

What's happening in space this year?

There are several exciting space-related things to look forward to here in 2021.  First, in February, there are three spacecraft that are arriving at Mars.  The Emirati Hope orbiter, the Chinese Tianwen-1 orbiter, and NASA's Perseverance Rover.  At some point after landing, Perseverance will deploy a small helicopter named Ingenuity to help it scout out potential targets.  Also, Tianwen-1 is scheduled to deploy a lander and rover to the surface in April.

Later in the year, the Moon gets some attention with at least four missions scheduled to visit.  First is a private lander called Peregrine in July.  Next is the Russian lander Luna 25 and another private lander called Nova-C in October.  Then in November we have NASA's Artemis 1 orbiter.  Other possible launches (dates not yet set) are NASA's CAPSTONE orbiter, the Indian Chandrayaan-3 lander, and the private ALINA lander.  Several of these landing modules include rovers as well.

Another exciting event we've been waiting for for many years now is the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for October this year.  This will give us the sharpest images yet of galaxies, nebulae, exoplanets, and who knows what else.

As far as things you can see from your backyard, we have a few events to look forward to this year.  There are two lunar eclipses visible from Tucson this year.  First is a total eclipse in May and then a partial (but almost total) eclipse in November.  For meteor showers, the best one will be the Perseids in August.  This shower has a high output of meteors, and there won't be much moonlight to interfere.

Finally, there are a few special anniversaries I'd like to mention.  Celebrating their 50th anniversaries are the Apollo 14 and Apollo 15 moon landings, Salyut-1 (the first space station), Mariner 9 (the first spacecraft to orbit another planet — Mars), Mars 2 and Mars 3 (respectively the first spacecraft to touch Mars and to achieve soft landing there).  Then a big 75th anniversary is the first photo of Earth taken from space by the Hermes project missile 13.  Finally, a shout out to Johannes Kepler, who celebrates his 450th birthday this year!

If you have any questions you'd like me to answer in the next issue of SWG, please let me know.  I'm also happy to take suggestions or comments, and also pictures if you'd like to send them.  Happy viewing!

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Bibliography

  • Cornelius, Geoffrey. The Starlore Handbook: an Essential Guide to the Night Sky. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle, 1997. Print.
  • Ottewell, Guy. Astronomical Calendar 2012. Raynham, Mass: Universal Workshop, 2011. Print.
  • Ottewell, Guy. Astronomical Calendar 2013. Raynham, Mass: Universal Workshop, 2012. Print.
  • Ottewell, Guy. The Astronomical Companion. 2nd ed. Raynham, Mass: Universal Workshop, 2010. Print.
  • Astronomy Magazine. February 2013. Volume 41, No 2.
  • Astronomy Magazine. February 2013. Volume 41, No 3.
  • Sky & Telescope. February 2013. Volume 125, No 2.
  • Sky & Telescope. March 2013. Volume 125, No 3.

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Date of publication:
2021