The bright moon moves into late-night skies this week, offering backyard observers some early-evening opportunities to hunt down celestial sights ranging from a fading supernova to a giant asteroid.
Last-chance supernova. For Monday, February 17, and the rest of the week, the exploding star SN 2014J will be visible in darker skies in the early evening, thanks to the moon rising late at night. The supernova illuminates the 12-million-light-years-distant Cigar Galaxy.
Reports indicate that the extragalactic supernova peaked over a week ago at 10.4 magnitude. It has since steadily dropped in brightness. As of February 16 it has dimmed to 11th magnitude, which still puts it well within the reach of small backyard telescopes equipped with mirrors of at least four to six inches. Observers using high magnification may notice the supernova’s distinctive orange hue, caused by its light refracting off the surrounding dust that fills its host galaxy.
Check out more details on how to track down SN2014J for yourself here.
Moon visits Spica. On Wednesday, February 19, early-bird sky-watchers get a chance to watch the waning gibbous moon glide past the brilliant blue-white star, Spica. The 263-light-years-distant star in the constellation Virgo, the Maiden, will appear only 3 degrees apart. That is less than the width of your three middle fingers held at arm’s length.
Moon joins Mars. By the next morning, Thursday, February 20, the brilliant moon will have popped over to the other side of Spica and Mars.
Riding alongside Spica, the red planet is easy to spot rising in the northeastern sky around 10 p.m. local time. However, the best views are through a telescope at high magnification just before local dawn, when the planet sits nearly overhead, looking toward the south. While the views of Mars will get better in April, when the distance between our two planets decreases and its planetary disk therefore increases in size, even now some of its surface features are visible.
Luna and Lord of the Rings. Finally, on Friday and Saturday, the near quarter moon snuggles up to Saturn. On both days the stunning cosmic duo will appear only 6 degrees apart, a little more than the width of your fist at arm’s length.
The planet is now dominating the high southern night sky in the Northern Hemisphere (north sky in the Southern Hemisphere) rising after local midnight and reaching its highest altitude in the predawn hours. It’s easily visible in the constellation Libra—you won’t need any optical aids to see it.
The gas giant world shines so brightly in the sky because of its massive size—nine times larger than Earth—and its highly reflective cloud-tops. To the naked eye, the sixth planet from the sun shines with the creamy yellow color of its gaseous atmosphere. (Related: “NASA Probe Spies Giant Hurricane on Saturn.”)
Through small backyard telescopes, Saturn’s rings appear tilted 23 degrees toward Earth, which will make them look particularly impressive. The rings are about 155,343 miles (250,000 kilometers) wide, making the planet and its rings capable of fitting snugly between the Earth and the moon. (Related: “Saturn’s Rings Hit by Meteor Shower.”)
Pallas opposition. One of the largest asteroids, Pallas, will be its brightest in our evening skies on Saturday, February 22. Located some 184 million kilometers from Earth, the giant celestial rock will be at official opposition, when it is opposite in the sky from the sun. The 544-kilometer-wide (338-mile-wide) Pallas is an easy target for binoculars even from light-polluted city suburbs during the second half of February. (See also “Watch Asteroid Take the Bull by the Horns.”)
Shining at 7th magnitude, Pallas is currently gliding across the central region of the constellation Hydra, the Snake, located in the low southeastern evening sky, just underneath the brighter constellation, Leo.
Because many of the stars in the field of view through your binoculars can look the same, the best way to identify an asteroid is by its telltale motion. Sketch the position of about a dozen stars you see. A couple of nights later, observe the same star field once more and make the same sketch. The one “star” that has moved is Pallas.