Jan 30, 2019
by Tre Gibbs
Mars, the Roman God of War, has been gracing our early evening skies for quite a while now. Slowly but surely, this steady beacon of pale reddish light has been making its way westward and will eventually disappear into the glare of the setting sun - but not this month. Early in February, Mars appears as an average to bright “star” high in the south southwest just after sunset. By month’s end however, this same beacon will be slightly less brilliant and will appear further west just after sunset, although still pretty high in the sky. The reason for this? All the planets travel around the Sun at different speeds - the closer you are to such a gravitational beast, the faster your orbit will be around it. Earth’s orbit around the Sun is faster than Mars’ orbit around the Sun, since Earth’s orbit is closer to the Sun than Mars’. Earth caught up to — and passed — Mars back in July of 2018. As Earth continues to speed away from the red planet, it not only appears to drift more and more westward each night/week/month, but it appears to get dimmer too. Mars is just one planet further out from the Sun than Earth, so it’s moving too — just not quite as fast as we are moving.
There’s another pair of planets that will be moving toward and passing each other this month, although you will have a couple of challenges to overcome in order to view this slow moving show. From our perspective down here on Earth, Saturn has recently made its way from behind the Sun. As Earth continues its relatively speedy journey around our nearest star, Saturn, too, will appear to move further and further west. To see Saturn this month, you’ll need to 1) have a clear, unobstructed view of the southeastern horizon and 2) you’ll have to get up prior to sunrise. Venus and Saturn are both heading towards each other. Venus is heading eastward towards the Sun’s glare and Saturn looks as if it’s heading westward, because of Earth’s faster orbit around the sun. On the morning of February 18th, the two will appear very close together as they pass each other. Look very low in the southeast for this. I have trouble with huge hills and tall redwoods, so for some, objects that low can be difficult to spot.
This month’s full moon is the Full Snow Moon - or, as some ancient tribes called it, the Full Hunger Moon. Usually the heaviest snows fall in February which, for ancient people, made hunting very difficult. This full moon happens on February 19th at 7:55 am - which means you won’t see it when it precisely becomes full. The full moon is full, because it’s opposite the Sun in the sky, so the full moon rises in the east just as the Sun is setting in the west. But don’t fret…the moon will appear to be full the evening before on the 18th on the evening of the 19th and the evening after on ther 20th. By the next night you can usually notice a tiny sliver of it missing…
The moon also pairs up with the planets each month! On February 9th, look for the waxing crescent moon approaching Mars (just below and to the right of it) and then the next night, notice how it has slipped past Mars, now below and to the left of the red planet. Then the moon heads eastward towards the “early morning” planets. Just prior to sunrise on the 27th, look for the waning crescent moon above - and almost touching - Jupiter. Then the very next morning, February 28th, notice how the moon has continued its eastward journey and is now between both Jupiter and Saturn! Everything’s in motion. Gotta love it….
That’s it for this month! Next month we welcome the return of Spring with The Vernal Equinox.
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