Saturday, February 1, 2020

February 2020 Astronomy Report

Lepus California Observatory Monthly Astronomical Report 
February 2020 Astronomy Report

February is a quiet month for major astronomical events but there is still plenty to see in the sky this month. The first of a chain of supermoons this year appears on the 9th, and a small comet is quietly gliding through the constellation of Perseus. Also, Mercury will make itself available for prime-time viewing this month. Here is your astronomy report for the month of February 2020.

On the Earth
There are no major events that are taking place close to home soil. Meteor showers for the month are limited to the Alpha Centaurids and the Gamma Normids, both being very minor showers with hourly rates at the zenith less than 10 per hour. The next major shower will be the Lyrids in April.
Observers in the extreme northern latitudes might get a chance to see some aurora activity as a minor stream of solar wind is buffeting the upper atmosphere.

In the Solar System
The first supermoon of the year will occur on February 9th. This supermoon is also the first of a chain of four that is set to occur February through April this year. A supermoon is a full moon that occurs at or around the same time as its perigee, the moon’s closest point to the Earth. A supermoon will appear a little bigger and a little brighter compared to a normal full moon.

A day after the supermoon, Mercury will be at greatest eastern elongation on February 10th. Greatest elongation is the best time to observe the first planet as it is the highest above the horizon at this time. Look to the west just after sunset to spot Mercury shimmering in the twilight. Even in a telescope Mercury is too small to show much detail, but it is possible to discern phases just like with Venus.
Speaking of Venus, now is also a good time to view Earth’s twin. Venus is unmistakable in in the evening sky as it blazes at magnitude -4. When it comes to apparent magnitude, lower is brighter. The limiting magnitude for naked eye visibility under dark skies is around 6 to 6.5 magnitude. The brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, has a magnitude of -1.4. The full moon is around magnitude +13 and the Sun is -26. In a telescope, Venus will show different phases similar to moon phases that we are familiar with. Right now the current phase looks similar to a first quarter moon. Over the following weeks as Venus moves in its orbit it will begin taking on characteristics of a crescent.
Moving silently through the constellation of Perseus is comet C/2017 T2 PanSTARRS. This comet appears small and dim at +9.3 magnitude. You will need a telescope to see it visually, but a long exposure photograph will pull in out of the sky. At the time of this report, the comet was near the Double Cluster. This comet is expected to reach a maximum brightness of +8 sometime in spring.

The author's image of the Double Cluster and C/2017 T2 PanSTARRs (fuzzy spot in top center of photograph)
In the Milky Way
Keep an eye on the constellation of Orion, specifically the red supergiant star Betelgeuse. Since late 2019, this star has begun to noticeably drop in magnitude, from +0.5 down to around +1.5. This could be an early sign that the star is close to going supernova. Betelgeuse is at the end of its stellar lifecycle and has expended most of its nuclear fuel. Once that fuel has run out, nuclear fusion ceases and the star will collapse onto itself and rebound in a massive explosion called a supernova. A stellar remnant, most likely a neutron star, is all that will remain. This explosion will be seen from Earth and shine so bright that it will be visible in daylight. At 650 light years away, the explosion won’t harm the Earth, but it would be an amazing show. Just don’t get your hopes up, scientists are pretty sure the star won’t explode any time soon. And even if it exploded tomorrow, we won’t know about it for 650 years.

Lunar phases:
First Quarter: Feb 1
Full: Feb 9
Third Quarter: Feb 15
New: Feb 23

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