Winter Meteors, Valentine's Day Star, and a Black Moon: A Guide to the February Night Sky

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February isn't the most active month of the year for skywatching, but depending on your location, there are definitely a few wonders in the sky worth making time for. From meteor showers to a beating heart in space, here are the best celestial shows to be seen on February nights.

FEBRUARY 7–8: ALPHA CENTAURID METEORS

If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, just after midnight leading into February 8, you might be in for a treat: the Centaurids meteor shower will peak, bringing with it a handful of shooting stars per hour. This isn't a major meteor shower, so if you really want to see the good stuff, you're going to need to find an area of little-to-no light pollution, and give your eyes a good hour to adjust to the darkness. (Turn off your phone; no one is going to call you at that hour anyway, and your smartphone camera isn't going to see a thing.)

The origin of the meteors is a bit of a mystery. We know the meteors are caused by the Earth slamming into the trail of debris left behind by a comet—but we don't know which comet. On the upside, we're well aware that the meteors appear to originate in the constellation Centaurus, which means you can find them in the sky. If you are familiar with the "Southern Cross," the most famous of that hemisphere's constellations (and the only star pattern on the celestial sphere to have merited a Crosby, Stills and Nash song), you can locate Centaurus, which is directly adjacent to the Southern Cross (a.k.a. Crux).

FEBRUARY 14: VALENTINE'S DAY STAR

On the evening of February 14 at 8:00 p.m., take your true love outside and have that lucky someone look south. You will notice on the constellation Orion's shoulder a red star. This is the brightest red star in the night sky visible with the naked eye, and on that day, at that time, it reaches its highest point in the sky. On every other day of the year, we call it Betelgeuse. On this particular day, however, it's the Valentine's Day star. As years go by, it even "pulses" as the red supergiant's atmosphere expands and contracts. The Valentine's Day star was first popularized by public television astronomy staple Jack Horkheimer, who said, "If you want to give your beloved a really big Valentine, well, this is about as big a one as you'll ever find."

FEBRUARY 15: BLACK MOON RISING AND A PARTIAL SOLAR ECLIPSE

January ended with a "blue moon"—that is, a second full moon in a single month—and it was an eclipsed blue moon at that. (To keep things confusing, the blue moon turned red because of the eclipse.) Not to be outdone in matters of hue, February 15 offers a "black moon."

Though the finer points of calendars themselves have been modified with great enthusiasm over the last few millennia, the ancient Sumerians have a fair claim for having established the 12-month year, based on the Moon's phases. The word "month" derives from the word "moon," as a lunar cycle is just over 29.5 days in length. Every once in a while, the month of February comes up short with respect to full moons. That is to say: It doesn't have one. This is one of those years.

What is a black moon? There are two somewhat contradictory definitions. One says it's only new moon in a month that also lacks a full moon. That would be the case here. By that metric, February is the only month that can host a black moon, as the others all have too many days. But another definition of a black moon says it's the second new moon in a month. And by that measure, February is the only month that can't have a black moon, because it has too few days. Go figure.

So what will you see in the sky on February 15? Not much of the black moon itself. But if you have a clear, cloudless night, a black moon makes stargazing even easier, because the reflected light of the Sun is shining on the side of the Moon facing away from the Earth. There's less light to interfere with your view.

If you are one of our avid readers in Antarctica, I have some very good news: on that same day, February 15, you will be able to put on your NASA-approved eclipse glasses and check out a partial solar eclipse. The very southernmost parts of South America will be able to enjoy the show as well, so Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, and southern Brazil should start making plans now. Maximum eclipse will occur at 20:51:29 UTC, at which point the Moon will reduce the Sun to a giant Cheshire Cat grin.

How to See the Full Sturgeon Moon on Thursday

Brook Mitchell, Stringer/Getty Images
Brook Mitchell, Stringer/Getty Images

The full moon of every month has a special nickname. Some—like September's harvest moon, December's cold moon, and May's flower moon—have obvious connections to their seasons, while other names are harder to decode. August's sturgeon moon is an example of the latter. It may not be the prettiest lunar title in The Old Farmer's Almanac, but that doesn't mean the event itself on August 15, 2019 won't be a spectacular sight to behold.

What is a Full Sturgeon Moon?

The first (and normally the only) full moon that occurs in August is called a sturgeon moon. The name may have originated with Native American tribes living around the Great Lakes in the Midwest and Lake Champlain in New England. These bodies of water contain lake sturgeon, a species of freshwater fish that grows up to 6.5 feet in length and can live 55 years or longer. August's full moon was dubbed the sturgeon moon to reflect its harvesting season. This full moon is sometimes called the green corn moon, the grain moon, and the blackberry moon for similar reasons.

When to See the Full Sturgeon Moon

On Thursday, August 15, the full sturgeon moon will be highly visible around sunrise and sunset. The satellite will be 99.9 percent illuminated by the sun when it sets Thursday morning at 5:57 a.m EDT—just nine minutes before dawn. On the West Coast, the setting moon will coincide perfectly with the rising sun at 6:15 a.m. PDT.

If you aren't interested in getting out of bed early to catch the sturgeon moon, wait until Thursday evening to look to the horizon. Twenty-seven minutes after sunset, the full moon will rise on the East Coast at 8:21 p.m. EDT. On the West Coast it rises at 8:10 p.m. PDT, 30 minutes after the sun sets.

The moon generally looks bigger and brighter when it's near the horizon, so twilight and dawn are ideal times to catch the spectacle. But it's worth taking another peek at the sky closer to midnight Thursday night; the Perseid meteor shower is currently active, and though the light of the moon may wash them out, you're most likely to spot a shooting star in the late night and early morning hours.

A Full Harvest Moon Is Coming in September

suerob/iStock via Getty Images
suerob/iStock via Getty Images

The Old Farmer's Almanac lists a special name for every month's full moon, from January's wolf moon to December's cold moon. Even if you're just a casual astronomy fan, you've likely heard the name of September's full moon. The harvest moon is the full moon that falls closest to the fall equinox, and it's associated with festivals celebrating the arrival of autumn. Here's what you need to know before catching the event this year.

What is a harvest moon?

You may have heard that the harvest moon is special because it appears larger and darker in the night sky. This may be true depending on what time of night you look at it, but these features are not unique to the harvest moon.

Throughout the year, the moon rises on average 50 minutes later each night than it did the night before. This window shrinks in the days surrounding the fall equinox. In mid-latitudes, the moon will rise over the horizon only 25 minutes to 30 minutes later night after night. This means the moonrise will occur around sunset several evenings in a row.

So what does this mean for the harvest moon? If you're already watching the sunset and you catch the moonrise at the same time, it will appear bigger than usual thanks to something called the moon illusion. It may also take on an orange-y hue because you're gazing at it through the thick filter of the Earth's atmosphere, which absorbs blue light and projects red light. So if you've only seen the full harvest moon around sunset, you may think it always looks especially big and orange, while in reality, any full moon will look that way when it's just above the horizon.

When to See the Harvest Moon

This year, the harvest moon will be visible the night of Saturday, September 14—about a week before the fall equinox on September 23. The moon will reach its fullest state at 12:33 a.m. ET—but if you're still convinced it's not a true harvest moon without that pumpkin-orange color, you can look for it at moonrise at 7:33 p.m. on September 13.

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