LINE UP OF PLANETS IN FEBRUARY NIGHT SKIES OVER TANZANIA
For the past few weeks and for several weeks to come the dawn skies have been exciting people all over the world with a unique opportunity to view all the five visible planets at the same time. They are stringed out across the sky like a necklace starting in the west with Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus and Mercury near the east horizon. The most interesting time to view these planets is when the Moon comes close to each of the planet so that you can use it to identify the planet by being able to distinguish it from the other stars nearby. The most confusing planet will Mars, which is seen as a red point but nearby there is also another bright red start the red-giant Antares in the neck of the constellation of Scorpio. Saturn is also difficult to distinguish since it is not very bright and can be confused with nearby stars so you can confirm it when the Moon is close to it.
You can also use the normal way of distinguishing stars from planets by looking at how they shine. Planets shine with a steady light while stars twinkle because their light is deflected slightly back and forth by the refraction in the turbulent atmosphere. So sometimes we see its light when it enters the eyes and sometimes we do not, which we describe as twinkling. Planets on the other hand are tiny discs so if light from one part of their tiny disk does not enter the eye, then light from another part of the disk can enter, hence planets shine with steady light.
Jupiter is seen close to the Moon in the dawn skies before sunrise of 24 February. In fact, from the evening of the night of 23rd, the pair will be seen close together, with the almost full Moon will rising in the east from 7:30 pm, followed closely 15 minutes later by the very bright planet Jupiter. The pair will be separated by 5-degree angle in the sky which is about 10 Moon widths apart. As the night progresses the two objects will slowly edge closer together, and 12 hours later, by next morning before sunrise, Jupiter will be only two degrees away from the Moon, which is on about 4 Moon widths apart. It is remarkable that you are able to can see the slow shift of the Moon in its orbit in just one night of observation.
In the dawn skies, the five planets are lined up in the East-West direction. This happens because our planets in our Solar System orbit the Sun in that flat plane and Moon orbits the Earth in that same flat plane. Hence when we look up at the planets from Earth at this time in the dawn skies from east to west at the five visible planets we are actually looking in the direction of the flat plane of our Solar System.
Next in line after Jupiter is Mars. The Moon will be close to the planet on February 29 (note that this is leap year!). The next day on March 1, the Moon will have shifted to the other side of Mars but it will confuse since it will also be close to another red star, the red giant Antares. Try to distinguish the planet Mars from the star Antares by the way they twinkle.
Close to Mars is the ringed planet Saturn. The Moon will be close to Saturn on March 1 and by the next day the Moon will be on the other side of Saturn but much farther away. The next planet is Venus but it is much closer to the horizon. It always remains close to the horizon near the Sun because it is an inner planet. That is, its orbit around the Sun is inside that of Earth. The Moon will be quite close to the extremely bright morning star Venus on March 7 and by the next day it will be close to Mercury which is even closer to the horizon. It can be much of a challenge to see Mercury because it is a tiny planet that does not shine much and also it is within the atmospheric glow from the rising Sun. See the whole sky picture for all the dates for the Moon close to each planet.
Three years ago on February 15, an asteroid struck the skies over a small Russian town of Chelyabinsk causing much damage to property. The more than 10,000 ton asteroid was witnessed by millions through social media after it was captured live. The social media is now talking about a meteor strike in early March from an asteroid that is currently predicted to pass perhaps as close as 10,000 km from Earth. But NASA has determined that it is unlikely to hit Earth.
The Milky Way cuts across the sky through the middle from south-south-east to north-north-west. The constellations that are within the path of the Milky Way are CANIS MAJOR with its brightest star Sirius, ORION with its numerous nebulae, TAURUS with its star clusters, the Hyades and the Plaeiades, PERSUS with it famous Andromaeda galaxy, and finally the W shaped CASSIOPEIA in the north. A new addition this month is the FALSE CROSS, an asterism that closely resembles the SOUTHERN CROSS but whose long diagonal does not point south. Locate it after 9 p.m. as it rises in the southeast. LEO (the lion) raises its head in the east at 8 p.m. and should be easily recognizable by 9:30 p.m.
Five of the top ten brightest stars can be recognized using the star map: the brightest star is Sirius, followed by Canopus the second brightest star that can be seen towards the south. Rigel is in ORION , Procyon is to the east, Achernar will be setting in the west and Betelgeuse is in ORION. After 10 p.m. they will be joined by Alpha- and Beta-Centauri the brightest stars rising below the SOUTHERN CROSS which will be visible for the whole night until it sets in the west at dawn.
The International Space Station (ISS) will pass across our early night skies on Friday February 26 rising from the northwest horizon from 7:30 pm and will cross the sky as a slowly moving bright object for about six minutes until it goes below the southeast horizon.