The night sky in February 2024
For a great map of the night sky visit BinocularSky – Home and look for the newsletter tab. It has excellent maps and details of what is visible with binoculars and small telescopes
February is our shortest month, 29 days this year. A lunar month is known as a synodic month.
We add an extra day to keep our modern calendar in line with 365 solar days.
The Romans considered that the winter had no months! But in 713 BC January & February were added at the end of the year. Why was the end of the year made as January & February? The Roman year began with the Spring Equinox in March.
It was Julius Caesar who instigate the calendar reform to regulate the calendar, He made a year 6 x 30 days and 6 x 31 days. But this still put the Solar year out of step with the Lunar, so a month of 29 days was made, February. However it was still out of step, and so Emperor Augustine who brought in the 28 day February with a 29 day February every 3 years, our leap year.
The month that became August (Sextilis) was originally 30 days, so to honour Augustus in 8AD the senate took a day from February which was then 29 days so that it made a 31 day August to equal July (named after Julius Caesar) which was 31. It wasn’t only the Romans who reformed calendars, the Chinese, Egyptians, Babylonians and even the Pope Gregory tried to harmonise the solar calendar with the lunar. Calendars were important for not only the farmers who needed to know when to plant or reap but also for the priests and their ceremonies.
This month’s planets Mercury is still a morning object; it will be 3.2° N of the last sliver of the Moon on the 8th.
Venus is still a bright object at -3.9 mag but now lower. It will be visible from 28th February. Venus is still very bright in the morning sky. As it is easier to see in a small telescope you can often observe the phases as it travels through the night sky.
Both Mercury and Venus are planets nearer to the Sun and inside Earth’s orbit. For this reason, they both have phases similar in shape to the Moon. They are termed inferior planets. The outer planets will always present a full disc as they are outside our orbit. They are termed superior planets. Mars is too near the Sun to be visible, and Jupiter is dimming slightly and will be setting mid to late evening. Saturn will be in the far west and setting during the twilight hours. Uranus will be at +6 magnitude and is in the constellation of Aries. The Moon The Moon starts its new cycle on the 10th February.
That also means that the Chinese Spring Festival or Chinese Lunar New Year will also start on that date. The Chinese fixed their year by the first lunation of the year. Having spent 10 years living in China I have a lot of memories of CNY. This year if you have children born after 10th February they will be Dragon’s. Also if your birthyear is a multiple of 12 years after the 10th February you are a Dragon, a very auspicious sign. None of the Chinese zodiac animals appear in their ancient sky maps. Instead, the Chinese have palaces, gardens, officials, even an Imperial Loo and an Imperial Pooh! Full Moon will be on the 24th February It was also known as the Hunger Moon by North American First nation peoples, also as a Snow Moon because generally February is the coldest month of the year.
Every 19 years the month of February is also a month of no new Moon due to the 29.5 day lunar cycle but not this year. Look up on the 16th February and the Moon will be just past its first quarter shining between the head of Taurus (which is a cluster known as the Hyades and ) and the Pleiades (also known as the Seven Sisters) This will make a beautiful binocular target as it is wide field. The Constellations Orion is still marching across the night sky and is an unmistakeable constellation. The righthand of the three belt stars, Mintaka, is a useful star to locate the celestial equator which lies just above it. Sirius-The Dog Star is the brightest of the actual starts in our night sky and is easily spotted in the southern night sky. The constellation it is in is Canis Major (The Great Dog) below Orion. Sirius lies 8.7 light years away. Another name for it is Alpha Canis Majoris. The Alpha means it is the brightest star in a particular constellation. The use of the Greek alphabet is common for indicating the relative brightness of stars in constellations. The name Sirius is also Greek, derived for a Greek word for scorching. It was also a star which was important to the Egyptians, its appearance marked the rising of the Nile. For Polynesians it was a star important to their Oceanic navigation and for them a summer star. Canis Major was Laelaps to the Greeks, a dog gifted by Zeus to Europa. February is also a good month to see the Milky Way running through the Northern and Western sky. Allow your eyes to adjust to the dark and look up. You should see a faint band of light running through the sky. You are looking at one of the arms of our galaxy, look through a pair of binoculars and a mass of stars will be revealed. One easy constellation to see is Cassiopeia, which forms a W shape with the Milky Way making a background. Nearby and below Cassiopeia is the constellation Perseus. The Double Cluster which lies between Perseus & Cassiopeia makes a beautiful object to observe and image.