Some daily events in the changing sky for February 20 28.
Comet Lulin this week is at its brightest and closest to Earth right when the sky is conveniently moonless. Use binoculars or a telescope to look for it once it's well up in late evening. The comet is glowing at about magnitude 5.6 as it moves rapidly westward across Virgo.
In recent days the comet's dust-spike antitail has grown longer and stronger, completely outclassing its "true" tail, which points properly away from the Sun like a comet's tail should.
On Monday night, February 23rd, the comet passes 2° south-southwest of Saturn.
Lulin’s closest approach to Earth, 0.41 a.u. (61 million km), occurs on February 24th.
On the night of February 25th the comet goes through opposition, nearly 180° from the Sun in our sky. Will there be an "opposition effect" brightening of its dusty coma and dust tail?
Friday, February 20
Saturday, February 21
Good luck on this one. To catch these events at their peaks you'll have to be located where Jupiter isn't too low but morning twilight isn't yet too bright. Elsewhere in the Americas, however, you can still try for them off-peak. The farther south you are the better.
Sunday, February 22
High above Venus is the little constellation Aries.
Monday, February 23
Tuesday, February 24
Wednesday, February 25
Thursday, February 26
Friday, February 27
Even in broad daylight this afternoon, the Moon provides an easy landmark for spotting Venus through the bright blue sky. They're only 2° apart in late afternoon as seen from North America, with Venus to the Moon's upper right; see the illustration in the February Sky & Telescope, page 47.
Saturday, February 28
Want to become a better amateur astronomer? Learn your way around the constellations. They're the key to locating everything fainter and deeper to hunt with binoculars or a telescope. For an easy-to-use constellation guide covering the whole evening sky, use the big monthly map in each issue of Sky & Telescope, the essential magazine of astronomy. Or download our free Getting Started in Astronomy booklet (which only has bimonthly maps).
Once you get a telescope, to put it to good use you'll need a detailed, large-scale sky atlas (set of charts; the standards are Sky Atlas 2000.0 or the smaller Pocket Sky Atlas) and good deep-sky guidebooks (such as Sky Atlas 2000.0 Companion by Strong and Sinnott, the even more detailed Night Sky Observer's Guide by Kepple and Sanner, or the classic Burnham's Celestial Handbook). Read how to use them effectively.
Can a computerized telescope take their place? As Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer say in their Backyard Astronomer's Guide, "A full appreciation of the universe cannot come without developing the skills to find things in the sky and understanding how the sky works. This knowledge comes only by spending time under the stars with star maps in hand and a curious mind." Without these, they note, "the sky never becomes a friendly place."
More beginners' tips: "How to Start Right in Astronomy".
This Week's Planet Roundup
Jupiter, Mercury, and Mars (magnitudes 2.0, 0.1, and +1.2, respectively) remain very low in the glow of sunrise, where they're changing configuration daily. See the sky scenes above. Mars is very faint and may require binoculars.
The thin waning crescent Moon joins them on Sunday morning the 22nd. Then on Tuesday morning the 24th, Jupiter and less-bright Mercury have a conjunction just 0.7° apart.
Bring binoculars, and look just above the east-southeast horizon about 30 minutes before sunup. Find your local sunrise time by making sure you've put your location into our online almanac, and make sure the Daylight Saving Time box is unchecked.
Venus (magnitude 4.8, in central Pisces) is the dazzling "Evening Star" high in the west during and after twilight. It's still at its peak brightness, nor does it set until about 9 p.m. In a telescope Venus is a rapidly waning crescent (about 24% sunlit) some 42 arcseconds from cusp to cusp. Telescopically, Venus is best seen in bright twilight or even broad daylight; it's less glary against a bright sky, and it's higher.
Ceres (magnitude 6.9, in Leo), is having its best apparition of our lifetimes! This "dwarf planet," the largest of the main-belt asteroids, is at opposition on February 25th. See the article and finder chart in the March Sky & Telescope, page 60, or online.
Ceres, with a diameter of 950 kilometers (590 miles), is estimated to contain a third of the mass of the asteroid belt even though the main belt is believed to contain a million objects larger than 1 kilometer across.
Saturn (magnitude +0.6, near the hind foot of Leo) rises in twilight, shines well up in the east by 9 or 10, and is highest in the south around midnight or 1 a.m. Don't confuse Saturn with similarly-bright Regulus 20° (two fist-widths at arm's length) to its upper right after they rise, and more directly to its right after midnight.
This week Saturn's rings are 2° from edge on. The rings will gradually open to 4° by late May, then will close to exactly edge-on next September 4th when, unfortunately, Saturn will be out of sight practically in conjunction with the Sun.
Uranus and Neptune are lost behind the glow of the Sun.
Pluto is low in the southeast before dawn.
All descriptions that relate to your horizon or zenith including the words up, down, right, and left are written for the world's mid-northern latitudes. Descriptions that also depend on longitude (mainly Moon positions) are for North America. Eastern Standard Time (EST) equals Universal Time (known as UT, UTC, or GMT) minus 5 hours.
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