This is Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Friday, February 14, through Sunday, February 16, written by Sam Salem.
On Friday, Sun rises at 6:55am and sets at 5:25pm, waning gibbous Moon sets at 10:11am. Last-quarter Moon occurs on Saturday at 5:17pm. The Moon rises around 1:20am on Saturday night with the head of constellation Scorpius following up just below it. By the beginning of dawn Sunday they move higher in the south-southeast. Antares is the brightest star under the Moon and the last to fade out in the oncoming daylight.
Before sunrise on Sunday look for the lit side of the waning crescent Moon to point to a string of planets in the early morning sky. From top to bottom, these planets are Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The Moon rises first, followed by the red planet Mars, then Jupiter and then Saturn. Use binoculars to help you locate Saturn in the predawn sky. That bright star close to the Moon is Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion.
Venus gleams at magnitude –4.2 in the west-southwest within a half-hour after sunset. Venus doesn’t set until a bit after 8:30pm. In a telescope, Venus appears about two-thirds lit.
The open star clusters M46 and M47 reside about a degree apart in the northwestern corner of the constellation Puppis the Stern. The two lie about 12 degrees east-northeast of the sky’s brightest star, Sirius. The western cluster, M47, glows at 4th magnitude and appears as a fuzzy patch sprinkled with several pinpoint stars. Sixth-magnitude M46 shows up as a hazy collection of faint stars that is hard to resolve under most conditions. Although it contains nearly twice as many stars as M47, M46 appears fainter and fuzzier because it lies some three times farther from Earth.
The Solar Orbiter, developed jointly by NASA and the European Space Agency, rocketed into space Sunday night on an unprecedented mission to capture the first pictures of the Sun’s elusive poles. Solar Orbiter will maneuver into a unique out-of-plane orbit that will take it over both solar poles, never photographed before. Solar Orbiter will swing past Venus in December and again next year, and then past Earth, using the planets’ gravity to alter its path. Full science operations will begin in late 2021, with the first close solar encounter in 2022 and more every six months. At its closest approach, Solar Orbiter will come within 26 million miles of the Sun, well within the orbit of Mercury. The Sun’s poles are pockmarked with dark, constantly shifting coronal holes. They’re hubs for the Sun’s magnetic field, flipping polarity every 11 years. Solar Orbiter’s head-on views should finally yield a full 3-D view of the Sun. The mission will work in tandem with NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which is currently orbiting the Sun on a seven-year mission. The findings will help scientists better understand the Sun’s magnetic field and solar wind.