Look Up At The Night Sky (February 2021)

There's a lot happening in the sky this month that you won't want to miss, including a full Moon and many exciting planetary pairings. Mark your calendars.

Here is our February listing of stargazing, planet watching events to look for during the cold nights (and mornings) of February. Bundle up!

Take note that we sometimes will use angular degrees to define the separation between two objects, such as (for example) a bright planet and the moon. The width of your clenched fist, held at arm’s length, measures roughly 10°.

When we speak of magnitude, we are referring to the brightness of an object, the lower the figure of magnitude, the brighter the object. The brightest stars are zero and first magnitude. Under a dark, clear sky, the faintest objects that you can see with just your eyes are fifth or sixth magnitude. Objects with negative magnitudes are the brightest. Sirius, the brightest star, is -1.4. Venus can get as bright as -4.8. A Full Moon is -12.7 and the Sun is a blindingly bright -26.7!

All times are listed as Eastern Time for the Northern Hemisphere.

February 1—Try to catch a glimpse of Venus, which is visible for only the first few days of the month, very low above the east-southeastern horizon before sunrise. But hurry—it soon disappears into the Sun’s glare on its way to superior conjunction (when a planet lines up with the Earth and the Sun but is on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth) on March 26th.

Illustration of a superior conjunction.
Superior Conjunction. Image by Cosmos.

February 3-13—One astronomical term which is rarely used anymore is “combust.” It refers to a celestial body whose close proximity to the Sun in the sky makes it impossible to observe. When a planet is at or near solar conjunction (meaning, it’s on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth) , we could also say it is combust. As it turns out, during this ten-day interval, four of the five naked-eye planets can be considered combust. From our Earthly perspective, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn are situated on the far side of the Sun, while Mercury is positioned between us and the Sun.

In fact, like ships passing in the night, Venus will have a very close encounter with Saturn on February 6th and with Jupiter on February 11th. Not to be left out, Mercury will join Venus and Jupiter on the 13th, with the three planets crowding into a tight circle less than 5° wide. Normally, we would encourage everyone to get outside and see these eye-catching spectacles, but because they’ll occur very close to the Sun, they’ll go unseen. After all, as mentioned above, all four planets are combust!

February 3Midpoint of Winter at 4:49 p.m. This is the midpoint of astronomical winter—we’re at the exact midway point between the December winter solstice and the March vernal (spring) equinox. Winter is the shortest of the four seasons, lasting 88.99 days. It is shortest because at this time of year, the Earth is at its closest point in its orbit to the Sun. So when an object is closest to the Sun (known as perihelion), it moves fastest in its orbit; gravity insists upon that. Conversely, we are farthest from the Sun in early July, so we are moving slowest in our orbit. This is why summer is the longest season, lasting just over 93 days.

February 4—Last Quarter Moon at 12:37 p.m. In this phase, the Moon appears as a half Moon due to being part-way in direct sunlight; the illuminated part is decreasing and we’re heading toward the new Moon phase (notice each of these phases all happen in roughly 7 day increments!).

Illustration of all the moon or lunar phases.
Don’t forget to check our Moon Phase Calendar

February 8—Mercury goes through inferior conjunction (passing between Earth and the Sun). It then moves out into the morning sky, possibly becoming visible during the final week of February, very low in the east-southeast, joining Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter also emerging from the glare of the rising Sun.

February 8th and 9th—Head outside and look east/southeast, about 20 minutes before sunrise, to see the tiny waxing crescent Moon. Binoculars may help. It will be very faint. If you capture it with your camera, be sure to share with us on our Facebook page!

February 11 – New Moon at 2:06 p.m. In this phase, the Moon is not illuminated by direct sunlight and is completely invisible to the naked eye.

February 14 – Here’s an idea to do with your Valentine: try to spot Jupiter before sunrise—this “might” be the morning to get your first morning view of the planet. Since the beginning of the month, it’s been too near the Sun to be detected, but this morning, it begins to emerge into view very low near the east-southeast horizon, at least a half-hour before sunrise. This King of Planets glows at magnitude -2.0. If you can find it, then use binoculars to try to spot Saturn, glowing with only 1/11 of Jupiter’s luster, about 6½° to Jupiter’s upper right.

February 18 – Mars, the lone planet during February that is easily visible, will be in view until after midnight. Crossing from Aries into Taurus on the 23rd, this planet slowly fades in magnitude from +0.5 to +0.9. In a telescope, it will be disappointing. Its apparent diameter shrinks as Earth continues to pull ahead of it in orbit. But it is still worth watching if you have a telescope that shows any detail. If you can’t see anything else on Mars, at least its gibbous shape should be apparent.

The planet’s disk is 89% sunlit with the bright limb facing toward the Sun (celestial west). The Moon, on the other hand, is so close to Earth that it appears only 43% lit when seen in this same part of the sky, as will be the case this evening when it passes less than 4° below Mars. But because Mars lies much farther from Earth and the Sun, its deviation from fullness is not as great.

February 19 – First Quarter Moon at 1:47 p.m. In this phase, the Moon looks like a half-Moon—one-half of it is illuminated by direct sunlight and is waxing, on its way to becoming a full Moon.

February 21 – Jupiter and Saturn still lie very low to the east-southeast horizon within a half hour of sunrise and are now joined by a third planet, speedy Mercury, shining a bit dimmer than Saturn at magnitude +0.8. Jupiter and Saturn are separated by 7°, while Mercury, shining above both planets is about 5° from Jupiter and 4° from Saturn. You probably are going to need binoculars to sight Saturn and Mercury, as the background of the bright twilight sky may preclude a naked-eye sighting.

February 27Full Moon at 3:17 a.m. In this phase, the visible Moon is fully illuminated by direct sunlight. Though the Moon is only technically in this phase for a few seconds, it is considered “full” for the entire day and even appears full for three days. February’s full Moon is traditionally known as the Snow Moon but it’s also known as the Hunger Moon. Check out how it got its names in our short video:

The February Moon always shines not far from Regulus in Leo, a spring constellation whose early-evening appearance this month signals that warmer weather is on the way.!

February 28 – The triangle formed by Jupiter, Mercury, and Saturn now appears more stretched out compared to previous mornings, but is a little easier to see against a somewhat darker sky. Look low to the east-southeast horizon beginning 45 minutes before sunup. Mercury has brightened noticeably over the past week to magnitude +0.3, while Saturn has dimmed slightly to magnitude +0.7. In the evening sky, you’ll notice that Mars is now about 3° of the famous star cluster, the Pleiades. It will be even closer to it on March 4th.

By Farmers’ Almanac Astronomer Joe Rao. This calendar is adapted from “Skylog,” a regular feature appearing in Natural History magazine written by Mr. Rao since 1995. 

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James Giedraitis

I’m writing a children’s story about a race in space. The race (refereed by the Dog Star) passes by Orion’s belt, loops around a crescent moon, and heads 180 degrees back to where it started. Is there a resource that can help me get the lay of the sky on a crescent moon night in February 2022? I want to be at least in the ballpark in describing sky features that may come into play in the race course. Thanks.

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