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Planets aplenty adorn February nights

At dusk during the first three weeks of February, you may see a string of four planets, visible to the naked eye, spanning the sky. The first is Mercury, low in the west-southwest. Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn span an arc of 75 degrees on the first and less than 60 degrees after the 14th. Jupiter is the brightest and Mars is the reddest. The planets' arc is called the ecliptic; it's the orbital path all the planets take around the sun.

Mercury is easy to spot, low in the west-southwest at dusk. It is just to the right of the thin crescent moon on the sixth and it's highest above the horizon on the 14th. Mercury is the innermost planet, and the quickest. It looks much like our moon and will be half-phase on the 14th.

Mars can be found to Mercury's upper left, where it will pair nicely to the right of the crescent moon during the early evening of the 8th. Mars is too small and far away to see clearly with a telescope, and it is slowly making its way toward the glare of the sun.

Jupiter is high in the west at dusk and is the brightest "star" in this part of the sky. The bands on its surface and four major moons are easily seen with a small telescope. Notice the moon is near Jupiter on the 10th.

Saturn is higher in the sky than Jupiter at dusk and easily the only "bright star" in this region of the sky. The rings are tilted toward us at 20 degrees and offer a spectacular sight through a telescope.

At the start of the month, brilliant Venus will rise two hours before the sun in the southeast. One half-hour before sunrise, Venus will be very close to the crescent moon on the 2nd. Be very careful not to look at the sun. By month's end, our "morning star" will move much closer to the light of the sun and rise only an hour before the sun. Venus is the fifth and last planet you can see you can see this month with the naked eye.

February sky calendar

FEB. 1: Crescent moon is to the upper right of brilliant Venus before sunrise.

FEB. 2: The crescent moon is very close to Venus at dawn.

FEB. 5: The new moon.

FEB. 6: Low to the west-southwest, Mercury is just to the right of a thin crescent moon at dusk.

FEB. 8: Mars is to the right of the crescent moon at dusk.

FEB. 10: The moon is below Jupiter at dusk.

FEB. 11: Now the moon is below Saturn at dusk.

FEB. 12: The first-quarter moon. The Science Center of Pinellas County celebrates Black History Month with telescope viewing and other events starting at 6:30 p.m.

FEB. 14: Mercury is at its greatest angular distance (elongation) from the sun in the west-southwest after sunset.

FEB. 15: Mercury and Mars are closest together (18 degrees) at dusk. Galileo was born in 1564.

FEB. 16: Mercury is closest (perigee) to the Earth, 226,485 miles.

FEB. 17: Clyde Tombaugh discovers Pluto in 1930.

FEB. 19: The full moon of February is called the Snow or Wolf Moon. Nicholas Copernicus was born in 1473. Look to the west before sunrise to see the star Regulus, to the left of the full moon.

FEB. 20: Notice Saturn, Jupiter and Mars move closer together until they span fewer than 10 degrees at the end of March.

FEB. 26: The last quarter moon.

FEB. 28: The moon is at an apogee of 251, 415 miles from Earth.

Daryl L. Schrader is an astronomy and mathematics instructor at St. Petersburg Junior College and teaches astronomy at the University of South Florida.

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