All month: Stars of the evening sky are great in winter, bright and sparkling and spread across the vault above us each clear night. But this year, evening planets - the frosting on the celestial cake - are entirely missing. All of the planets - all of them, the visible as well as those too faint and far away - are morning stars. But the evening's loss is the morning's gain, and it's worth staying up for or getting up to see the planets in our sky after midnight through dawn.
The stars of the morning this month are Mars and Saturn. Mars is brightening from its normal obscurity as it approaches the opposition of May 11, and it will brighten spectacularly in the months ahead. All month long, Mars and Saturn are close to each other in the constellation Libra, where you can see them from shortly after midnight till dawn. If you look at them regularly through the month, you will see Mars approaches Saturn from the west, passes it on Feb. 15, and then moves east of it. And you will also see the great show they put on with the moon on Feb. 22 and 23, weather permitting.
Jupiter is no slouch as a morning star. Though rising later, several hours after midnight, it is high and brilliant in the southeast before dawn. And you are sure to catch a glimpse of Venus, brighter still, low in the east for a short while before the brightening twilight fades it. (The events described below occur in local time, unless otherwise indicated.)
Feb. 1: New moon, at 6:46 p.m., Eastern standard time, is in Capricorn, but we probably can't see the early crescent until Saturday evening.
Feb. 4: The moon is at apogee, farthest from Earth today. Tonight's slim, low crescent in the southeast at sundown is in Aquarius.
Feb. 5: The waxing crescent moon is fatter tonight, higher toward the south in evening twilight, setting about 9 p.m. It's located just south of the vernal equinox, the point in the sky where the sun will be on the first day of spring, six weeks from now.
Feb. 9: First quarter moon, at 11 p.m. EST, is in Aries, the Ram, whose two brightest stars, Hamal and Sheratan, are to the moon's right and lower.
Feb. 14: The fat, gibbous moon is in Cancer, but the two bright stars above it are Pollux and Castor, in Gemini.
Feb. 15: Morning sky-watchers have been seeing two bright planets draw slowly together among the stars of Libra to the east (left) of Spica, Virgo's brightest star. Mars is the slightly brighter of the two, yellowish in color; the other is Saturn. Mars passes Saturn tonight, from right to left, and moves to Saturn's east.
Feb. 16: Full moon, at 7:41 p.m. EST, is in Leo, above its bright star Regulus. Leo is a spring star group. It will rise in late evening twilight tonight, but in another two months it will be well up in the east after sundown. The brightness of the full moon may make it difficult to see the circular group of stars above the moon that forms the lion's head, the triangle of stars to the moon's left marking Leo's hind quarters and tail. Perigee moon occurs just eight hours after the moon is full.
Feb. 18: Tonight's moon is in Virgo, just above the autumnal equinox, halfway around the sky from the vernal equinox. Look to the left of the moon after midnight to find Spica and farther left to Saturn and Mars close together. The moon will be closer to Spica tomorrow night, and above the star on Monday.
Feb. 22-23: Make an effort to see the moon, Mars, and Saturn in the morning sky on either or both dates, any time from about an hour past midnight until dawn. On the 22nd the moon will be very close to the right (west) of the two bright planets, much closer to them by dawn. On the 23rd, it will be to the planets' left and moving away from them. The moon actually passes between Saturn and Mars during the morning of the 22nd, below Saturn at about 4 a.m., and above Mars at about 9 a.m. EST. The planets are so close that the moon covers both of them in passing by, but neither occultation can be seen from locations in North America.
Feb. 23: The moon is at last quarter phase at 12 minutes past noon EST, but it doesn't rise again until after 1 a.m. Friday morning.
Feb. 25: Saturn has been moving slowly to the left through Libra, but its easterly motion ends today and then reverses. The planet will be moving to the right, toward Spica, for the next five months, its retrograde (westerly) motion.
Feb. 26: The moon passes Jupiter at about 3 a.m. By now a slender waning crescent, the moon rises about 3:30 a.m. below Jupiter, and moves up the sky with the very bright planet until both disappear at dawn.
Feb. 28: Probably your last chance to see the morning moon before it disappears as the next new moon. It passes Venus late today at about 10 o'clock EST. Both Venus and the crescent moon rise before sunrise on Wednesday the 29th (leap day), but they will come up quite late in the brightening dawn.