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Sunday 26 February 2017  •   30 Ash Moon 2017

Viewing the night sky in Ash Moon 2017

28 January - 26 February 2017

Map of night sky at full moon: 11 February, 00:33 UTC
Northern hemisphere perspective, aligned on the ecliptic. Morning sky to the left, evening to the right.

night sky map for Ash Moon 2017

Venus becomes brighter and brighter in the evening sky, as it moves closer to Earth on its journey around this side of the sun. This brightest of planets also necessarily draws gradually closer to the sunset. Mars, now moving towards the far side of the sun, is nearby in the evening sky as seen from Earth, though a lot fainter. On the evening of 31 Jan, the crescent moon is near both Venus and Mars. Venus draws a little closer to Mars until 2 Feb, when it starts moving towards the sunset faster than Mars, and draws away once more from the red planet. On 26 Feb, Mars passes half a degree north of Uranus. Pan south with your binoculars or telescope from the red planet to find the ice giant. Then have a look at Venus, and see it as a crescent, just three light minutes from Earth. Jupiter rises in the late evening and shines very brightly in Virgo for the rest of the night. It easily outshines the nearby bright star Spica. On 6 Feb, Jupiter starts heading back westwards through the stars, as the Earth “overtakes” it. The moon passes north of Jupiter on 15 Feb. As seen from Paris, London, Cardiff and Truro, the moon just grazes south of the bright red star Aldebaran at around 22:25 on 5 Feb. From Nantes in Brittany, the moon occults Aldebaran from 23:10 to 23:43 (22:10 to 22:43 UTC). Saturn rises three hours or so before the sun. The old crescent moon is nearby on 21 Feb. It crosses from Ophiuchus into Sagittarius on 23 Feb.

At full moon, on the night 10/11 Feb, there is a penumbral eclipse of the moon. This happens when no part of the moon falls wholly into shadow, but some areas experience a partial eclipse of the sun, and you may be able to see how it darkens the lunar surface.
The eclipse starts at 22:34 on 10 Feb and ends 02:53 on 11 Feb (UTC), but is hard to see except towards maximum eclipse at 00:44, when there will be quite a bit of darkening at the moon’s northern limb. It is visible in most of world, except Australia and almost all of the Pacific, though best seen in Europe, Africa, Western Asia, and the east of the Americas.

At dark moon on 26 Feb, there is an annular eclipse of the sun visible from South America and Africa. An annular eclipse is when the moon is relatively far from the observer, and appears smaller than the sun; a ring of sunlight can be seen all round it. The annular eclipse is visible in Puerto Aysén in the Aysén province of Chile at 10:36 (13:36 UTC), and 80km N of Comodoro Rivadavia in the Chubut province of Argentina at 10:42 (13:42 UTC). It crosses the South Atlantic, and reaches the coast of Angola, in the north of Namibe province at 17:26 (16:26 UTC); see it then Just south of Huambo in Angola at 17:29 (16:29 UTC), in the Parque Nacional de Cameia of eastern Angola at 17:31 (16:31 UTC), and just across into the border area of Congo and Zambia before sunset. A partial eclipse of the sun is visible from much of South America (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, southern Peru, all but the far north of Bolivia, Brazil south and east of the Amazon) and South and West Africa (south and east from the Casamance in Sénégal as far east as a line down through the middle of Chad, CAR, DR Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and all of South Africa), as well as most of Antactica. In Buenos Aires, 66% of the sun covered at 10:53 (13:53 UTC); in Cape Town, 41% of the sun covered at 18:00 (16:00 UTC).

The month ahead: Alder Moon 2017

27 February - 27 March 2017

Map of night sky at full moon: 12 March, 14:54 UTC
Northern hemisphere perspective, aligned on the ecliptic. Morning sky to the left, evening to the right.

night sky map for Alder Moon 2017

Venus looks startlingly bright in the evening twilight as it moves round to Earth’s side of the sun. If you have good binoculars or a telescope, look to see Venus’ crescent shape. Mars is nearby, but much fainter, and hard to see in the twilight. On 1 Mar, the equally crescent moon is to the south of Venus and Mars. Mars is not a crescent, as its orbit is outside that of Earth’s and it is in fact over towards the far side of the sun. As usual, we see it looking pretty much full. Towards the end of the month, Venus disappears into the sunset, and passes the sun on 25 March. It will emerge next month into the dawn.

Jupiter rises mid-evening, and shines very brightly for the rest of the night in the constellation Virgo, its brightness increasing, its brightness increasing from magnitude minus 2.32 to minus 2.44 during the month, as its distance from Earth decreases. The moon passes to its north on 14 Mar.

Saturn rises in the early hours, and can be seen in the SE morning sky in the constellation Sagittarius. The waning half moon is near on 20 Mar.

The early evening sky at this time of year is particularly rich in stars, with the glorious constellations of Orion and Taurus pretty much visible from all parts of the Earth, and the richness of the plane of our galaxy, the Milky Way, runs between them and Gemini, with its bright stars Castor and Pollux. Scan the Milky Way with a pair of binoculars for an endless view of starfields. Follow the belt of Orion to find the very bright and relatively near star Sirius. The next brightest star, Canopus, south of Sirius, is actually 10,000 times as bright as the sun, and is the monster of this part of our galaxy, but it is a very long way away. You can see it if you are south of 37°N.

South of 29°N, you can see Alpha Centauri in the morning sky. At 29°N, it makes a brief appearance in the southern sky just before dawn. Proxima Centauri, our current nearest star other than our sun, is likely to be in very slow orbit of the double star Alpha Centauri. You’d need a good telescope to see it, and even that wouldn’t show you its apparently Earth-like planet, Proxima b, which may well be the destination of probes sent from Earth in the decades to come.

William Morris
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