After a stunning month of stargazing in January, what does the short month of February have in store? Below are several moments in the coming days and weeks that you'll absolutely not want to miss. Here's hoping for clear skies!
Comet Encke (All of February)
Comet 2P/Encke will be visible with a good pair of binoculars in the western sky after twilight. The comet, which is completing an orbit of the sun that takes about 3.3 years, will appear in the vicinity of Venus for most of the month and then start to dip lower as it nears perihelion in early March.
Lunar eclipse of the Snow Moon (Feb. 10)
On Feb. 10, the full moon will experience a penumbral eclipse, giving its glowing white surface a distinct shading. According to Alan MacRobert and Kelly Beatty, senior editors at Sky & Telescope magazine, the show will likely begin at a crowd-pleasing time of 6:14 p.m. EST. The moon will exit the Earth's shadow fully at around 9:55 p.m. EST.
This full moon is also known as the Snow Moon, a moniker that dates back to when Native Americans would track the seasons via the phases of the moon. As February is historically the snowiest month of the year, the name checks out. Not surprisingly, this month's full moon is also known as the Hunger Moon, owing to the shortages in foodstuffs that would occur during the harshest weeks of winter.
New Year Comet (Feb. 10-11)
Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova will make its closest approach to Earth on Feb. 11 at a distance of 7.7 million miles. (Photo: Jose Chambo/Via NASA)
In addition to a lunar eclipse, skygazers will also be treated to a viewing of the closest comet in 30 years. At about 10:30 p.m. EST on Feb. 10, Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusáková (more easily known as the New Year Comet) will make its closest approach to Earth, coming within 7.7 million miles and brightening to a predicted magnitude of +6. This is just at the edge of viewing with the naked eye, so pick up some binoculars and look near the constellation Hercules to catch this green-hued visitor.
SpaceX to ISS (Feb. 14)
On Feb. 14, SpaceX will launch a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. The launch is significant because it will mark the first time the company will launch from pad 39A at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The site, originally built for NASA's Apollo missions, will eventually serve as the launch pad for SpaceX's manned missions to Mars.
Annular solar eclipse (Feb. 26)
On Feb. 26, those fortunate enough to find themselves in South America and Africa will experience the eerie beauty of an annular solar eclipse. The difference between this and a total solar eclipse has to do with the distance between the Earth and moon. During an annular eclipse, the moon is further away, giving the appearance of being smaller in the sky and incapable of covering the entire surface of the sun. For this reason, annular eclipses also create a phenomenon known as the "ring of fire."
This is the first of two solar eclipses occurring in 2017, with the more dramatic one set to pass over North America on Aug. 21.
SpaceX EchoStar launch (Feb. 28)
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket prepares to land on a drone ship in the Pacific Ocean after launching 10 satellites into orbit. (Photo: SpaceX/flickr)
Weather permitting, SpaceX will make its second launch of the month on the 28th. Carrying the EchoStar 23 satellite, the launch is notable because it will mark the first time the company has re-flown one of its recovered boosters.
Space X is eager to demonstrate that the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage booster and Merlin engines can be reused, a competitive advantage that will reduce prices and increase its rate of annual launches. In 2017 alone, the company hopes to launch a new rocket every two to three weeks.
Zodiacal light (Late February)
The zodiacal light is best viewed during the spring and fall. (Photo: European Southern Observatory/Flickr)
Best viewed just after sunset, the zodiacal light is a cone-shaped, hazy light that can be seen emanating just over the western horizon. According to EarthSky, this solar system phenomenon is caused by "sunlight reflecting off dust grains that circle the sun in the inner solar system." A 2010 study found that nearly 85 percent of the dust was caused by fragmentation from Jupiter-family comets.
While light pollution makes viewing the zodiacal light something of a challenge, those in darker areas of the world should have a solid shot at viewing this celestial phenomenon.