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 won't want to miss. Here's hoping for clear skies!
Happy Cross-Quarter Day! (Feb. 2)
Feb. 2 marks the halfway point between winter and the start of spring. (Photo: Quinn Dombrowski [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)
Feb. 2, celebrated in the United States as Groundhog Day, is also an astronomical holiday marking the approximate midway point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. These so-called cross-quarter days (Halloween on Oct. 31 is another) have been observed by pagans for centuries, with the Feb. 2 holiday marking a time for purification and spring cleaning for the year ahead.
The rise of the super Snow Moon (Feb. 9)
February's full moon is nicknamed the Snow Moon. (Photo: Mikael Wiman [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr)
February's full moon, nicknamed the Snow Moon in honor of the snowiest month of the year in the U.S., will reach peak fullness at 2:34 a.m. EST on the morning of Feb. 9.
As mentioned in our 2020 roundup, February's moon will be the first of four supermoons for 2020 –– with the others occurring on March 9, April 8 and May 7. A supermoon occurs when the moon is both full and at its closest approach to Earth (perigee) for a given monthly orbit. On average, supermoons appear roughly 16% larger than a standard full moon.
Evening rocket launch for the Mid-Atlantic (Feb. 9)
The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket, with the Cygnus spacecraft onboard, is seen on launch Pad-0A during sunrise on Oct. 26, 2014, at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. (Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center [public domain]/NASA)
If you happen to be in New York City or anywhere else along the Mid-Atlantic on the evening of Feb. 9, you might just witness a rocket launch. NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia, will launch an Antares rocket at 5:39 p.m. EST, weather-permitting. The payload will be a Cygnus cargo craft with supplies for the International Space Station (ISS). According to the site Weatherboy, the evening window of the launch should make it visible to millions on the ground.
"The rocket should be visible within a minute of launch across much of eastern Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware," they write. "By 2 minutes, the rocket should become visible from central New Jersey, southeastern Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., central Virginia, and northeastern North Carolina."
The moon upstages Mars (Feb. 18)
The moon and Mars (lower right) as observed in July 2003. (Photo: Marc Van Norden [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)
Just before dawn on Feb. 18, the moon will pass between the Earth and Mars. Known as an occultation, this celestial phenomenon should be visible in most of the U.S. After two hours, Mars will emerge from the other side of the moon.
Welcome the dark of the New Moon (Feb. 23)
The Milky Way stretching over the Lütispitz Mountain in Switzerland. (Photo: Lukas Schlagenhauf [CC BY ND 2.0]/Flickr)
Those looking to take in the celestial beauty of February's night sky will get their best conditions late in the month, with the month's New Moon hitting its peak on Feb. 23. It will likely be freezing cold outside, but these kinds of chilly nights offer the best conditions for clearly taking in the splendor of the universe.
"One reason for the clarity of a winter's night is that cold air cannot hold as much moisture as warm air can," writes Joe Rao of Space.com. "Hence, on many nights in the summer, the warm moisture-laden atmosphere causes the sky to appear hazier."
Zodiacal light (All February)
The zodiacal light is most easily seen just after sunset. (Photo: Y. Beletsky, European Southern Observatory [CC BY 2.0]/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.
Editor's note: This story was originally written in January 2017 and has been updated with new information.