The Sky Above You – February 2021
By Duncan Lunan
The Moon will be New on February 11th, and it will be Full on February 27th.
The planet Mercury is low in the west at the beginning of the month, setting about 6 p.m.. After passing between us and the Sun, at inferior conjunction on the 8th, it reappears in the morning sky in mid-February, with Saturn to the right and Jupiter below to the left, rising around 6 a.m. by the end of February.
Venus is not visible in February. Venus is near Saturn on the 6th, but both are too near the Sun to be visible. The Moon is near both and also Jupiter on the 10th and 11th, still invisible in predawn twilight.
Mars sets about 1.15 a.m. in February, growing fainter as it moves from Aries into Taurus on the 24th-25th. On 18th February the crescent Moon passes Mars and the Pleiades, lying between the Pleiades and the Hyades open clusters the following night, and Mars will be three degrees below the Pleiades by the end of the month.
Three more space probes are due to reach Mars in February, to add to the small fleet already there. The USA’s Perseverance lander is aiming for the crater Jezero, which shows extensive signs of ancient flooding; it will test a small helicopter, the first flying machine in the atmosphere of Mars, and will begin collecting samples for retrieval by a later probe. China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter will also set down a lander, and Hope, the first interplanetary spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates, will study the atmosphere from orbit.
Jupiter and Saturn are both in Capricornus, rising at 6.00 a.m. along with Mercury as above. Just before the New Moon it will pass Jupiter and Mercury on the 11th.
Uranus in Aries sets around midnight in February, near the Moon on the 17th.
Neptune in Aquarius sets about 7.30 p.m., passed by the Moon on the 13th.
For many years of this column, one of its major sources has been the annual Guide to the Night Sky by Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest, published by Collins. I’ve known Heather since the late 1980s, during which time she has been a star of ITV astronomy and space programmes and she and Nigel have written a wide range of books. Sad to say, the last entry in the 2021 Guide records Heather’s death in February 2020, a year ago, so perhaps it’s appropriate to mention it here.
Meanwhile my space travel stories, old and new, have now been collected and published by Other Side Books as From the Moon to the Stars, relating to the Moon and Project Apollo, and The Other Side of the Interface, with a wider scope. Both have illustrations by Sydney Jordan, and are available through Amazon or through bookshops. Details of them and my other books are on my website, www.duncanlunan.com.
The Sky Above You
By Duncan Lunan
About this Column
I began writing this column in early 1983 at the suggestion of the late Chris Boyce. At that time the Post Office would allow 1000 free mailings to start a new business, just under the number of small press newspapers in the UK at the time. I printed a flyer with the help of John Braithwaite (of Braithwaite Telescopes) offering a three-part column for £5, with the sky this month, a series of articles for beginners, and a monthly news feature. The column ran from May 1983 to May 1993 in various newspapers and magazines, but never in more than five outlets at a time, although every one of those 1000-plus papers would have included an astrology column. Since then it’s appeared sporadically in a range of publications including The Southsider in Glasgow and the Dalyan Courier in Turkey, but most often, normally three times per year, in Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos from the first issue in March 2003 until the last in January 2018. It continues to appear monthly in Troon's Going Out and Orkney News. Enquries from other outlets welcomed!
The monthly maps for the column were drawn for me by Jim Barker, based on similar, uncredited ones in Dr. Leon Hausman’s “Astronomy Handbook” (Fawcett Publications, 1956). Jim had to redraw or elongate several of them because they were drawn for mid-US latitudes, about 40 degrees North, making them usable over most of the northern hemisphere. The biggest change needed was in November when only Dubhe, Merak and Megrez of the Big Dipper, as the US version called it, were visible at that latitude. In the UK, all the stars of the Plough are circumpolar, always above the horizon. We decided to keep an insert in the January map showing the position of M42, the Great Nebula in the Sword of Orion, and for that reason, to stick with the set time of 9 p.m., (10 p.m. BST in summer), although in Scotland the sky isn’t dark then during June and July.
To use the maps in theory you should hold them overhead, aligning the North edge to true north, marked by Polaris and indicated by Dubhe and Merak, the Pointers. It’s more practical to hold the map in front of you when looking south and then rotate it as you face east, south and west. Some readers are confused because east is on the left, opposite to terrestrial maps, but that’s because they’re the other way up. When you’re facing south and looking at the sky, east is on your left.
The star patterns are the same for each month of each year, and only the positions of the planets change. (“Astronomy Handbook” accidentally shows Saturn in Virgo during May, showing that the maps weren’t originally drawn for the Hausman book.) Consequently regular readers for a year will by then have built up a complete set of twelve.