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Looking Up

We have probably the best evening view of the planet Mercury this month, at least until June. The month be-gins with Mercury far below and a bit to the right of Ve-nus. Greatest separation from the Sun occurs on Febru-ary 10 when Mercury sets at the same time twilight ends, about 90 minutes after sunset. The point is, don’t wait on the sky to get dark as Mercury will be gone. By around February 22, Mercury will be tough to see as it heads back towards the Sun. Again, use Venus as your guide. Venus seems to get higher in the sky this month as is it bright-ens. It will also seem to move closer to due west with respect to the horizon. Telescop-ically, Venus will appear to get closer and closer to what we’d call a first quarter Moon shape as we go through the month.
The rest of the action is in the morning sky where you can find Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Mars leads the trio, rising just after 3:30am in mid-February. Look low in the southeast. Jupiter appears about an hour after that and Saturn not quite an hour after that. With Mars moving faster than the other two, it will catch and pass the two gas giant planets next month. The Moon creeps up on the three plan-ets on the 18th. In fact, look for the waning crescent Moon to “occult” (pass in front of) Mars at about 6am on the morning of the 18th (pictured). Check it out with binoculars. When the Moon occults a star, the star blinks out. This was one of the first bits of evidence for the Moon not having an at-mosphere (something we take for granted today). Mars, not appearing like a pin-point source, will fade out instead of blink out. The next day (morning of the 19th), the Moon is thinner and to the right of Jupiter and, early on the 20th, it is below and right of Saturn. The Moon will then pass through the new phase to be just left of Venus on the evening of the 27th. That will look cool! Photo-op! If you get a good photo, send it to me and we’ll publish it!
If you have those binoculars out, the Moon will clip the Hyades star cluster (marking the face of Taurus, the Bull) on the evening of February 3rd. The Hyades are an open cluster and the closest open cluster to us at 153 light years.
Have you seen Comet PanSTARRS T2 yet? It is hovering around the Double Cluster in Perseus at the beginning on the month, but will seem to turn northward to be near Epsilon Cassiopeia by early March. Comets can fluctuate in brightness so be alert. Who knows how bright it will be, but the predictions are that it will begin the month at magnitude 9.5 and it brightens to 8.8 by the end of the month. Report what you see!
Have you heard that Betelgeuse is fading as the shoulder of Orion the Hunter? Betelgeuse is a known variable star, so this could very well be the natural cycle of the star. Some claim the red giant star may be going supernova. It could happen! And then again, it could happen 100,000 years in the future, too! Might be good to keep an eye on Betelgeuse and compare its brightness to Rigel, to the lower right of the three belt stars.