Skywatcher's Guide: February and March 2024

Stars and Constellations

In February, the center of the Milky Way is well below the horizon, but there is still a good portion of our galaxy we can see streaking high across the sky. The fall sky is still prominent in the west.  The "W" of Cassiopeia is high in the northwest. In the absence of the Big Dipper (part of our spring sky) Cassiopeia can be used to locate the north star: The top (open side) of the "W" faces to the north, so in that direction look for a star about the same brightness as the main stars in Casssiopeia, and that will most likely be Polaris.  The Big Dipper is beginning to come up again, but it is likely to be hidden behind trees and mountains along the horizon.  Next, the Great Square of Pegasus is getting low in the west.  Andromeda is just above that, with Perseus even higher, nearly in the middle of the sky.  Finally, the winter sky is now getting very high in the east.  Taurus the bull with the bright star Aldebaran is very high (near Perseus) along with the Pleiades (aka the seven sisters or Subaru) star cluster.  Auriga the charioteer with the bright star Capella is very high as well, slightly more to the northeast.  Gemini the twins is just below that in the east, and Canis Minor (the little dog) with the bright star Procyon is just below.  Orion the hunter is up in the southeast, with his easily recognizable belt, and Canis Major (the big dog) is just below.

In March, the winter portion of the Milky Way continues to streak across the sky.  The fall constellations are now getting low in the west, with Pegasus now partly below the horizon.  The winter constellations are now in the middle of the sky, and some of the spring constellations are beginning to come up.  Leo the lion is just above the horizon in the east, and the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) is now up in the northeast.

Interesting Stars Visible in February and March (from 7-10 pm)

Name / Designation Apparent Magnitude
(lower = brighter)
Sirius -1.44 8.6  
Arcturus -0.05 36.7  
Capella 0.08 42  
Rigel 0.18 770  
Procyon 0.4 11  
Betelgeuse 0.45 427  
Aldeberan 0.87 65  
Spica 0.98 262  
Pollux 1.16 38  
Markab 1.25 140  
Regulus 1.36 77 means "Little King"
Castor 1.58 52  
Polaris 1.97 431  
Alpheratz or Sirrah 2.07 97  
Mirach 2.07 199  
Algol 2.09 93 variable star
Denebola 2.14 36.2  
Almak 2.1 / 5.0 & 6.3 355  triple star system w/ 64 yr orbit
Eta Cassiopeiae 3.5 / 7.4 19 480 yr orbit

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Solar System

Mercury will be visible before sunrise in early February but is passing behind the Sun at the end of the month.  It will re-emerge in the evening sky in mid-March.

Venus is visible before sunrise throughout February and March, rising a little later each morning.

Mars will be visible before sunrise throughout February and March, coming up only slightly earlier each morning.

Jupiter begins the night high in the sky in early February and gradually moves more to the west each evening.

Saturn may be visible after sunset in early February but is passing behind the Sun at the end of the month.  It will re-emerge in the morning sky in late March.

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Jupiter Great Red Spot Transits in February and March (from 7-10 pm)

Note: The GRS is visible on the disk of Jupiter for 50 minutes before and after meridian transit time.

02/01/24 09:39 PM
02/04/24 07:10 PM
02/06/24 08:49 PM
02/11/24 07:58 PM
02/13/24 09:38 PM
02/16/24 07:08 PM
02/18/24 08:47 PM
02/23/24 07:57 PM
02/25/24 09:37 PM
02/28/24 07:08 PM
03/01/24 08:47 PM
03/06/24 07:57 PM
03/08/24 09:36 PM
03/11/24 07:07 PM
03/13/24 08:46 PM
03/18/24 07:57 PM
03/23/24 07:07 PM
03/25/24 08:46 PM
03/30/24 07:56 PM

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Calendar of Night Sky Events

Date Event
02/02/24 Last Quarter Moon.
02/09/24 New Moon.
02/16/24 First Quarter Moon.
02/22/24 Appulse of Venus and Mars. — Separated by 0.7°.
02/24/24 Full Moon.
02/28/24 Mercury at superior conjunction. — Passing behind the Sun.
02/28/24 Appulse of Mercury and Saturn. — Separated by 0.2°.
02/28/24 Saturn at conjunction. — Passing behind the Sun.
03/03/24 Last Quarter Moon.
03/08/24 Appulse of Mercury and Neptune. — Separated by 0.4°.
03/10/24 New Moon.
03/16/24 First Quarter Moon.
03/17/24 Neptune at conjunction. — Passing behind the Sun.
03/19/24 Earth at northward equinox. — Beginning of our Spring.
03/21/24 Appulse of Venus and Saturn. — Separated by 0.3°.
03/24/24 Mercury at greatest eastern elongation. — Visible after sunset.
03/25/24 Full Moon and Penumbral Lunar Eclipse. — Visible from Tucson.

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Deep Sky

The winter Milky Way is now prominent in the sky.  There are many spectacular deep sky objects we can see now.  Starting with open clusters, we first have the Pleiades (Seven Sisters, M45) nearly in the middle of the sky.  Next to that, the Hyades cluster (C41) makes up the face of Taurus the bull.  Also nearby, the constellation of Auriga contains M36, M37, and M38, which are visible with binoculars.  We also have Perseus's Double Cluster (C14) still fairly high in the northwest, and the Beehive (Praesepe, M44) up in the east.

This is not a good time of year to see globular clusters, as most of them are concentrated in the summer sky.  The brightest one we can see now is M79 below Orion in Lepus the hare, but it is nearly 8th magnitude.

For nebulae, we have the spectacular Orion Nebula (M42) now prominent in the south. This is the closest star-forming region to our solar system.  We also have some good planetary nebulae, which come from dying stars.  The Blue Snowball (C22) in Andromeda is towards the west, the Eskimo (C39) in Gemini is high in the east, and the Owl (M97) in Ursa Major is low in the northeast.

And now the galaxies:  Our neighbor the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is now heading towards the west and is visible on dark nights with the naked eye.  Also nearby is the Triangulum Galaxy (M33), visible with binoculars.  In Ursa Major to the northeast we have Bode's Galaxy (M81) and the Cigar Galaxy (M82), close enough to be seen together in a low-power telescope.

Interesting Deep Sky Objects to Observe during February and March (from 7-10 pm)

Designation Name Apparent Magnitude Apparent Size Distance
Messier 45 Pleiades 1.6 110' 440 open cluster
Messier 31 Andromeda Galaxy 3.4 3° x 1° 2,900,000 spiral galaxy
Messier 44 Beehive Cluster 3.7 95' 577 open cluster
Messier 42 Orion Nebula 4 85' x 60' 1400-1600 diffuse nebula
Messier 33 Triangulum Galaxy 5.7 67' x 42' 3,000,000 spiral galaxy
Messier 3 (in Canes Venatici) 6.2 18' 34,000 globular cluster
Messier 81 Bode's Galaxy 8.5 21' 1,200,000 spiral galaxy
NGC 3242 Ghost of Jupiter 8.6 25" 1400 planetary nebula
Messier 82 Cigar Galaxy 9.5 14' 1,200,000 galaxy

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Frequently Asked Questions

What's happening in space in 2024?

Oops! I discovered that my FAQ from last issue didn't get published correctly (It was a repeat of a year ago), so I'll post it in this issue.

Probably the most exciting astronomical event this year is the solar eclipse happening in April. (learn more here!) It's a total eclipse in certain areas of the globe, but from Tucson we'll see 70% of the Sun's area covered. The next time we'll see this much coverage from Tucson is 2045, so you won't want to miss this one!

We also have a couple lunar eclipses this year, one in March and one in September.  The March one is penumbral but almost partial, and the September one is just barely partial.  So they're not as spectacular as a total lunar eclipse, but they're not bad to look at.

For meteor showers, our best will either be the Eta Aquariids in May or the Perseids in August.  The Eta Aquariids are a little smaller shower, but they will have a little better Moon phase for viewing.  All the other showers of the year will have unfavorable Moon phase, making it hard to see any but the very brightest meteors.

We also have some exciting spacecraft launches to look forward to this year (dates subject to change).  Several lunar missions: Peregrine in January (sadly failed), IM-1 Odysseus in February, Chang'e 6 in May, IM-2 by June, Blue Ghost by September, Griffin in November, RESILIENCE by December, and Harmony 1, Ardoride, DearMoon, and IM-3 at other undetermined dates.  Interplanetary missions: Odin going to an asteroid by March, ESCAPADE and Mangalyaan 2 going to Mars in August and September, Hera going to asteroid Didymos and Europa Clipper going to Jupiter both in October, and Shukrayaan-1 and Venus Life Finder both going to Venus in December.  And some space observatories: XPoSat X-ray detectors and Einstein X-ray telescope both in January, BurstCube gamma ray detector in March, SunRISE solar particle detector, EZIE magnetosphere investigator, GRBBeta gamma ray detector, and SVOM gamma ray telescope all in June, PROBA-3 solar telescope in September, WSF-M 1 particle detector in October, Xuntian optical telescope by December, and SPARCS ultraviolet telescope at an undetermined date.  Plus one more worth mentioning: Polaris Dawn private crewed orbiter in April which hopes to accomplish a new highest-apogee record and the first commercial spacewalk.

Finally, we also have a few notable anniversaries this year:  the 25th anniversary of Stardust, the first (and still only) comet sample return mission, the 25th anniversary of Chandra, a significant X-ray telescope, the 50th anniversary of Mariner 10, the first Mercury flyby, the 75th anniversary of Albert II's flight, the first primate and first mammal in space, and the 100th anniversary of Edwin Hubble's discovery that M31 is a galaxy, not a nebula.

A lot of things to look forward to this year, so keep your eyes on the skies!

If you have any questions you'd like me to answer in the next issue of SWG, please let me know.  I'm also happy to take suggestions or comments, and also pictures if you'd like to send them.  Happy viewing!

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Date of publication: 2024