As defined by the rules established in 1582 when the Gregorian calendar was revised, 2016 is a leap year and will have 366 days instead of the usual 365. The extra day appears at the end of February, the 29th to be precise. Here’s hoping for an added clear night for astronomers to contemplate the wonders of the winter sky.
The one and only Jupiter
The planet Jupiter starts the new year like a lion, in the constellation Leo! Its retrograde loop is already underway and will continue until the month of May. The giant planet emerges above the eastern horizon about 8:00 P.M. and remains the only planet visible until Mars rises in the east, among the stars of Libra, around 1:00 A.M.
The Moon is the ideal celestial guide for identifying the two planets. The lunar crescent will appear near Mars on the mornings of February 1 & 29, and a nearly full moon will be next to Jupiter during the night of February 23 to 24. Don’t miss the spectacular rising of Jupiter and the Moon on the evening of the 23rd! Those lucky enough to own a telescope, perhaps recently received as a gift, will have a wonderful opportunity to observe the four Galilean satellites orbiting the gaseous giant. The latter half of the night of February 26 will be exceptional: Two of Jupiter’s moons will cast their shadows on the planet at the same time… a phenomenon that’s always spectacular to see.
Planetary congestion at dawn
For early risers, the hour before sunrise features a very interesting celestial trio: Saturn, Venus and Mercury will be visible in the southeast. Venus, the dazzling Morning Star, dominates the scene with its brightness and helps us spot the other two planets.
Mercury, just to the left of Venus and closer to the horizon, is a lot more discreet; the lunar crescent will sit above the tiny planet on the morning of February 6. By locating Mercury at the beginning of February you’ll be able to spot it during the rest of the month. Most people have never seen Mercury: Now’s your chance! Farther to the right of Venus, and higher in the sky, Saturn will accompany the crescent moon on the mornings of February 3 & 4. It’s a great occasion to point your telescope at the planet and admire its marvellous rings.
Chinese New Year
A tip for travellers: On the night of February 16, the Moon will occult Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus. However, this event will only be visible from eastern Asia and the North Pacific. But if your travels bring you to this part of the world, you might get a chance to witness the event, and experience Chinese New Year!
The traditional Chinese calendar is lunisolar: months follow the cycle of lunar phases, while years sometimes have an thirteenth month to keep in sync with the seasonal cycle. Chinese New Year begins with the second new moon following the winter solstice. By definition, the Chinese year always begins sometime between January 21 and February 20. In 2016, the second new moon occurs on February 8: Happy year of the monkey!