In The Sky This Month – February 2010

This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of February 2010. Mars is at its closest and brightest at the beginning of the month. Though it will quickly fade it will remain the dominant planetary body in the evening sky this month.

Note: If anyone has pictures or observations of these objects/events and want to share them, send me a comment and I’ll post them on the blog.

Planets

Venus – Venus is starting its slow climb higher in the evening sky. For the entire month, Venus will only be visible for ~20 minutes after sunset at the start of the month and ~50 minutes after sunset at the end of February. As a result, you will need a clear view of the southwest horizon to see it. Venus will be much higher and easier to see over the next few months. For northern observers, it will be highest in June. The best time for southern observers will be August.

Feb 14 - Moon passes 5° from Venus
Feb 17 - Venus and Jupiter within 0.5° of each other

Jupiter – This month is the last month to see Jupiter in the evening sky. At magnitude -2.0, the King of the Planets is very low in the southwest sky after dusk. By the end of the month it is pretty much invisible to all observers. Observers with a clear SW horizon can watch Jupiter, Venus and the Moon put on a nice show during the middle of the month.

Feb 15 - Moon passes 5° from Jupiter
Feb 17 - Jupiter and Venus within 0.5° of each other

Mars – Mars was at opposition (the point opposite the Sun in the sky) on January 29. Opposition means Mars is closest to Earth and at its brightest. It also means it is visible nearly all night long, rising in east in the early evening, at its highest around midnight, and setting in the west around dawn.

This month the Earth and Mars are slowly moving away from each other. As a result, Mars will quickly fade from magnitude -1.3 to -0.6. Still it will be a brilliant red beacon in the ENE sky right after sundown outshining all but the brightest stars. Note that unlike the stars which twinkle, Mars shines with an unwavering red glow.

Feb 26 - Moon passes close (5°) to Mars

Saturn – Saturn is easy to observe during the morning hours and is sufficiently high enough to be observed in the eastern sky by midnight. Located in Virgo, the planets will appear as bright as a magnitude +0.7 star. Telescope users should note that Saturn’s rings are still close to edge-on.

Feb 2 - Moon and Saturn within 8° of each other

Mercury – Mercury is in the morning sky this month. Northern observers will be able to spot it early in the month as it quickly falls back into the twilight glow. In the south, Mercury starts the month nearly as high as it can get and it should remain visible (with increasing difficulty) for the remainder of the month.

Feb 12 - Moon passes 2° from Mercury

Meteors

February hosts one of the better annual showers of the year in the Quadrantids. Unfortunately this year’s display will be wrecked by bright moonlight. The background rate of meteors crashes in January.  The year is usually split in 2 with January through June having low rates with few major showers while July through December (really through the 1st week of January) have high rates with many major showers.

Sporadic Meteors

Sporadic meteors are not part of any known meteor shower. They represent the background flux of meteors. Except for the few days per year when a major shower is active, most meteors that are observed are Sporadics. This is especially true for meteors observed during the evening. During January, 8-10 or so Sporadic meteors can be observed per hour from a dark moonless sky.

Major Meteor Showers

No major showers this month.

Minor Meteor Showers

Minor showers produce so few meteors that they are hard to notice above the background of regular meteors. Starting this month, info on most of the minor showers will be provided on a weekly basis by Robert Lunsford’s Meteor Activity Outlook.

Additional information on these showers and other minor showers not included here can be found at the following sites: Wayne Hally’s and Mark Davis’s NAMN Notes, and the International Meteor Organization’s 2008 Meteor Shower Calendar.

Comets

Naked Eye Comets (V < 6.0)

None

Binocular Comets (V = 6.0 – 8.0)

None

Small Telescope Comets (V = 8.0 – 10.0)

Comet 81P/Wild 2

Comet Wild 2 is a short-period Jupiter-family comet on a 6.4 year orbit. In 1974 a close approach to Jupiter placed the comet on its current orbit which allows (relatively) close approaches to the Sun and Earth. Swiss professional astronomer Paul Wild found the comet photographically on its first close perihelion in 1978. During its last perihelion passage it was the target of the NASA Stardust spacecraft which flew through its coma, collected cometary dust, and returned the dust to Earth. Though Wild 2 has become bright enough to be seen in small backyard telescopes before, this year’s apparition will be its best since discovery. Not till 2042 will it come closer, and even then only marginally so.

This year Wild 2 will reach perihelion on February 22 at 1.60 AU and closest approach to Earth will occur on April 5 at 0.67 AU. Though the comet will only reach a brightness of magnitude ~9.2 to 9.5 in March, it will remain brighter than magnitude 10.0 from January through May.

Currently the comet is around magnitude 9.5 to 10.0 and should be around magnitude 10.0 or even brighter by the end of the month. At mid-month the comet is located in Virgo (not far from Saturn) at a distance of 1.60 AU from the Sun and 1.86 AU from Earth.

A finder chart for Comet Siding Spring can be found at Comet Chasing and Aktuelle Kometen (in German).

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Comet C/2007 Q3 (Siding Spring)

This long-period comet was first seen on 2007 August 25 by Donna Barton of the Siding Spring Survey in Australia. This past Oct. 7th the comet reached a rather distant perihelion at 2.25 AU from the Sun. Unfortunately, the comet and Earth are located on opposite sides of the Sun so the comet is rather far from Earth. Still the comet is observable in the early morning hours as a slowly fading ~9.5 to 10.5 magnitude comet in Bootes. At mid-month the comet is 2.69 AU from the Sun and 2.21 AU from Earth.

A finder chart for Comet Siding Spring can be found at Comet Chasing and Aktuelle Kometen (in German).

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 9.0)

(4) Vesta

Though not as large as Ceres, Vesta is more reflective making it the brightest asteroid in the Main Belt. Vesta is peculiar in that it appears to have evidence of volcanism on its surface. Similar to the Moon, Vesta may be covered with large expanses of frozen lava flows. It is classified as a V-type asteroid and is the only large asteroid with this classification. Many of the smaller V-type asteroids are chips of Vesta blasted off it by past asteroid and comet impacts. Vesta is similar in size to Pallas with dimensions of 347x336x275 miles or 578×560×458 km. Vesta will also be visited by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft which will arrive in 2010.

Vesta starts the month at magnitude 6.4 and brightens to a maximum of 6.1 at opposition on Feb 18. By the end of the month, it has already started to fade at magnitude 6.2. Sixth magnitude is close to the brightest Vesta can get and is easy for binocular observers. If you are lucky enough to be located in a very dark rural site you may even be able to see Vesta by naked eye among the stars of Leo.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Vesta from Heavens Above.

About Carl Hergenrother
I am a professional astronomer specializing in the study of comets, asteroids and meteors. This blog will focus on my professional and amateur work in this field

18 Responses to In The Sky This Month – February 2010

  1. Venkatachalam says:

    I saw a comet , ( visual treat to watch ) in the morning after sunrise, ( probably within 10 minutes of sunrise), from Chennai ( lat 13 N , lon 80 E). Can you send info about this particular comet). The comet was near to the Sun, slightly southwards. I took video with my camcorder.

  2. Venkatachalam says:

    Feb 2, 2010, I saw a comet , ( visual treat to watch ) in the morning after sunrise, ( probably within 10 minutes of sunrise), from Chennai ( lat 13 N , lon 80 E). Can you send info about this particular comet). The comet was near to the Sun, slightly southwards. I took video with my camcorder.

  3. Annie D. says:

    Last night, Feb. 3, 2010 at 7:55 p.m. I saw a fireball fallind south-southwest of Chico California. It lasted about 3 seconds and was quite large and bright. I’m assuming it was a meteor. My neighbor also saw it. Any news on this?

    • Jason says:

      I saw something that sounds very familiar to your description. A very bright and red dot was rising straight up at around 11:50 pm on Feb 19 2011. As I and my friends were driving we saw the object in the sky rise for a few seconds and then disappear. Very strange.

  4. cindy m says:

    last night,feb 3,2010 at about 7:40 p.m. I saw what looked to be a comet with a very large tail traveling east to west just south of fresno ca. I called a local tv station and was told I was the second person to report it. Today, no tv stations have any reports of or knowledge of any comet or meteor including the station i spoke with last night! HELP…Im not crazy lol anyone have any info?

  5. Angela says:

    On Wed, feb.3, 2010 at approx. 7:30pm I saw what appeared to be a huge ball of light falling from the sky over the San Fernando Valley from east to west. I was driving north-bound on the Hollywood Fwy thru North Hollywood and I thought it was a shooting star at first, but it was much larger, vey brilliant– the extra long tail that looked flaming also made me think it was a plane crashing since it looked to be flying towards the Burbank Airport. It finally burned out very low after approx. 10 seconds. Many people called the tv stations but still no confirmed news.Can anyone tell me what it was? Ive never seen anything like it!

  6. museumsteve says:

    I am in the UK. This evening at 7.30pm (GMT) I went outside to smoke, I always tend to glance to the sky in the hope of seeing something and this evening a saw something which is much much bigger than the usual ‘shooting star’ it had a very long trail which I could clearly see was burning up behind it. I would say it’s the first time I have ever seen anything like this so clearly and it must have lasted a good few seconds. We’re in the Hampshire, South East England. I’m still on a bit of a buzz, it really reminded me of a movie.

  7. princess says:

    last night we saw that unusually large falling star also with a long blaze of light behind it. We were even wondering if it were something other than that because as it got closer to crashing it broke apart with similarity to an explosion. It was about 330am in Temecula, CA when we witnessed it!

  8. princess says:

    Oh, and we wondered why it wasn’t nary a mention of it online, or on the news.. =(

  9. kylie says:

    Last night (thur 11.02.2010 )i saw a large flash in the sky i was much bigger than i have ever seen before it made a shooting star look like a dot in the sky.My god it was fantastic i have never seen something so bright and beautiful ever before i was running around screaming to my family did you see that did you see that,i live in a suburb in brisbane queensland and saw it around 10 pm all my family could do was laugh and say mum it was proberly a plane ha ha i dont think so

    • kylie says:

      If anyone else saw this could you please let me now thanks a bunch

    • carol says:

      hi kylie, i too live in brisbane and saw the same flash in the sky from my lounge room on thursday night. it really was amazing at how long it hung in the sky for. any idea what it was?

    • Matt says:

      I’ve seen something similar three times, always in the general vicinity of Sirius. It’s normally like a camera flash goes off and lights up a good portion of the sky, but I just saw it again (looking directly at it when it happened for the first time) about 5 minutes ago and decided to do a google search. It’s dusk now in Santa Fe, NM, so the flash didn’t light up the whole sky, but was probably one or two finger widths in diameter, lasted about 1/4 of a second or so, and was about two finger widths up and to the right of Sirius. I watched for awhile to see any evidence of a plane or anything, but saw nothing. Very interesting phenomenon. I wonder what it is…

    • Matt says:

      After a bit more googling, I’ve found one possible explanation: “Iridium flashes” are bright “flashes” (or “flares”) caused by sunlight glinting off of the Iridium Satellites. (More info by googling “iridium flash” or search youtube for videos). These seem to last far longer than the flashes (like camera flashes) I’ve seen, but it would make sense that these satellites could also create shorter flashes. Can anyone confirm that, or offer another explanation?

    • Hey I live in Alaska between Nome and Russia on St. Lawrence Island (I’m closer to Russia than mainland Alaska itself) and at approximately 11:00 at night, I saw a really large flash in the northern sky. The light proceeded to get bigger and eventually completely disappeared. It stayed in one spot and was a large flash, like a camera. The only other person that saw it was my mother who was drunk

  10. I live in Talco, Texas. We had a heavy snow fall all day and night long which is uncommon for us. Around 9:15 pm myself and my two children say 2 very bright pinkish orange flashes of light. With the snow on the ground and the heavy snow that was falling at the time, it lit up the entire sky.

  11. Johanne says:

    On the night of the 28 th we saw 2 red lights traveling from north to south at the same speed. We live in eastern Ontario in between Ottawa and Montréal. My neighbour called me at around 10:30pm to let us know what she was seing at the same time we were already looking at it. Please give me info if possible. thanks

  12. Vinod Kumar says:

    Hi this is Vinod from (Tamilnadu) India. I saw a circle shape light behind the cloud now(02-apirl-2010 . time- 10.10Pm). It is moving forward and reverse with in a minute. I don’t know what is that. It appeared in the sky for around 20 minutes. And it disappeared after 20 minutes that is at 10.30Pm.I saw the light moving in top of my head, And also my friend in another area saw the same light in the sky in top of his head. So it is somthing that rotates in the sky. If some one find that what is that pls let me know through my email(vinodkumar1082@gmail.com) ./

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