Hey, Sky Fans! Welcome back! I hope you’re having a great weekend.
Well, where are we? When are we? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.
Let’s see… the last week of January is here already, and February is just about here. You know, February’s a funny month, well, not really “ha ha” funny, but funny nonetheless. It’s short, only 28 days, exactly four weeks. That’s shorter than the length of a lunar cycle, about 29.5 days. This means that February’s the only month that doesn’t have any repeating phases in it. No blue moons, double crescents, ultra-gibbouses or fifth quarters can happen. It’s just too short, and a lot of the moon-phase-spillover spills over into March. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed but the first 28 days of March line up exactly with February’s, except in leap years. This doesn’t really matter for January, but it’s fun to keep in mind, especially when you notice that the moon and evening’s planets won’t meet up at all in February unless you have pristine skies, keen eyes, and a pair of binoculars.
Every other month in Earth’s calendar, though, is longer than the lunar cycle. So, at some point each month, the lunar clock reaches the same time, and a phase repeats. This January is particularly great. At the beginning of the month, our three closest neighbors, the thin crescent moon, Mars, and Venus all got together in the western skies around sunset and put on a gorgeous show for a couple of days just after the new year.
Well, the moon is back on the early evening shift next week. If you ask me, this will be better that it was earlier this month because Venus has quietly been getting brighter as the last couple of weeks have gone by. It’ll be at its brightest for all of 2017 in February, but it’s unmistakably bright this coming week. Mars is dimming, but it’s still bright enough to pick out of the growing dark. What it loses in brightness it makes up for in its gorgeous red-orange glow.
So, head out for some fresh air in the early evening over the next couple of nights to find our three nearest neighbors in space. Tomorrow, Monday, January 30, a thin crescent moon will be low in the sky, below brilliant Venus, with Mars higher and a bit farther toward the south.
On Tuesday, the 31st, the three will make a beautiful nearly equilateral triangle in the southwest’s deepening dusk. For my sky-watching dime, this will be the best night of the three. The moon and two planets will be only about 5 degrees apart, less, even, the width of just two fingers held out at arm’s length. The crescent won’t be as thin as the night before, but the triangle, especially if you catch it along with the evening’s dusky oranges, will be outstanding.
Then, on Wednesday, the 1st, we’ll start February with the moon above Mars, as the two planets lead the charge toward the horizon. After that, the moon moves out, and off into the night.
As an added bonus, if you have a pair of binoculars, the 7th planet from the sun, Uranus, will be in the scene, and the kind folks down at Sky Watch’s art department added it to their highly scientific diagram. Like I say, you’ll need binoculars to see it, though. It’s far, and it’s dim, and most skies are just too full of light to see it otherwise. Uranus and Mars will be inching closer together in the sky over the next few weeks until they’re nearly right on top of each other (while being two billion miles apart) toward the end of February. We’ll talk about that more then.
You may have noticed the days are bright and a bit longer than they were just a few weeks ago, back when lots of us were inviting pine trees into our houses. We’ve already picked up quite a bit of sunlight since then. By mid-February around where I live, we’ll have picked up nearly an hour and a half of daylight since the winter solstice. That extra light always makes these sunset meetings of the moon and setting planets that much more beautiful. I always love seeing them, admiring them, and getting another chance to see the solar system in motion. I hope you’ll take a look.
Clear skies everyone!