The parade of planets in 2020 will continue into 2021. Saturn and Jupiter vanished in the glow of the setting Sun in January, but the two giants reappear in the morning sky in the second half of February.
During the last mornings of February, you’ll be able to spot Jupiter and Saturn, with Mercury in the middle, very low on the east-southeastern horizon, 30 minutes before sunrise. Binoculars will help you locate them more easily in dawn’s early light.
But the real action takes place in the evenings this month. On February 18, the Moon will point us to the location of Mars in the sky. The thick seven-day crescent, almost at first quarter, will hang to the lower left of the Red Planet, which itself lies beneath the beautiful bluish star cluster known as the Pleiades.
By sheer coincidence, February 18 also marks an important date in the history of the exploration of the Solar System. In fact, that’s the day on which the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is scheduled to reach its destination. Perseverance is expected to make its final maneuvers and touch down gently on the Red Planet at approximately 3:30 p.m. on February 18. As soon as the rover lands, the NASA team will perform technical checks, after which Quebecer Farah Alibay and her team will take the reins and spend the next two years exploring the huge Jezero Crater on the Martian surface. Note that February 7 marks the start of spring in the northern hemisphere of Mars, where this crater is located—perfect timing for the arrival of Perseverance.
The Moon continues its trek across the celestial sphere and on the evening of February 19, the first quarter Moon will lie between the Hyades (to its left) and the Pleiades (to its right), in the constellation Taurus. This is a great opportunity to observe these two open star clusters, which are easy to spot with the naked eye and provide a truly spectacular view through binoculars or a small telescope.
Now turn your gaze to the left of the Hyades, where you’ll come across one of the most magical groups of stars out there: the beautiful constellation Orion, easily recognized by the famous row of three bright stars in its Belt. Beneath Orion’s Belt lies a hazy patch of light: the famous Great Orion Nebula (Messier 42), a nursery for stars that will eventually give rise to other planetary systems. Despite the frosty evenings, February is the best time to observe this enormous cloud of gas and dust through a small telescope. Amateur astronomers with larger instruments will marvel at the complex swirls of the Orion nebula, but even a simple camera will reveal many hidden secrets.