February 2023 Stargazing Guide
Greetings Junior Scientists, Scientists and Citizens of this great big weird, wild, wonderful world in which we live. As always I'm your humble science communicator, the great Orbax, coming to you from the Department of Physics at the University of Guelph and I'd like to welcome you to our February 2023 Star Gazing Guide.
[Music] Crisp winter skies can hold hope and wonder for the year to come, along with an incredible view of the celestial dance in which we're all taking part. This month we gain another hour of daylight, going from 10 hours to 11, as sunrise takes place half an hour earlier and sunset shifts back by half an hour. This gives us 13 hours to gaze up into the darkness searching for beauty and discovery. This month we get an opportunity to track a rare green comet, spot three vibrant planets... and investigate the bear moon. All this and more we just take some time... to look up...
Let's start our guide this month with the planets. Suspiciously absent from our skies this month is Saturn. In conjunction with the sun on February 16th Saturn won't be visible at all this month. Venus, Mars and Jupiter however will all be visible in the night sky. The Planet of Robots will be high in the Southern sky and very close to the Moon by the month's end. Jupiter will be sitting low on the western horizon, dropping lower and lower throughout the month eventually meeting up with Venus as it rises above the Western horizon with the two appearing almost side by side on the 28th. February's full Moon is on the fifth and is known as the Snow Moon or the Hunger Moon by settlers. The former mirrors the Mi'kmaw reference the Snow Blinding Moon, Apuknajit, while the latter mirrors the Cree of North America's reference to Kisipisim, the Great Moon. A time when the animals remain hidden away and the traps are empty. The Anishinaabe refer to the February full moon as the Bear Moon or Makwa Giizis and corresponds to the time of year when bear cubs are born. It is also the basis of the Groundhog Day tradition where the mother bear rises from her slumber shakes off the mud she's accumulated and based on her response the Anishinaabeg people forecast whether spring will arrive early or winter will continue.
So what's a comet?
Often referred to as cosmic snowballs, comets are comprised of frozen gases, rocks and dust. When they get close to the sun they heat up and as a result dust and gas stream away from the comet forming a glowing tail that stretches away from the Sun for millions of kilometers. This particular comet is about a kilometer in diameter and composed of dicarbon molecules and cyanogens that glow green when exposed to the energy of our sun.
Now our celestial friend goes by the name of C/2022 E3 (ZTF). While this may seem like a random string of letters and numbers let's pull it apart piece by piece. Comets are split into two groups: short period comets have a period of less than 200 years and long period comets have a period over 200 years. C indicates this comet is over 200 years in periodicity. It's actually suspected to have an orbit of 50 000 years. That means last time it was seen on Earth was in the Upper Paleolithic Age when homo sapiens were replacing neanderthals.
2022 E3 means it was spotted in 2022 at the beginning of March and was the third object discovered during that period of time at which point it was as far away from the Sun as Jupiter is. As a matter of fact it was discovered at the Zwicky Transient Facility in California, and that's where we get the last piece of the puzzle. The ZTF.
Now for most of January our comet was a morning object. In mid-January it was in Bootes and by January 28th it moved to Ursa Minor. The comet will be the closest to Earth and therefore its brightest at 10:20 PM EST on February 1st when it appears in the constellation
Camelopardalis the Giraffe. In the North!
Comets are notoriously unpredictable but it MAY be bright enough to see with the unaided eye at this point. Definitely visible with binoculars. C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will still be visible throughout February as it moves West. On the 11th and 12th will be incredibly close to Mars, both of which appear in the constellation Taurus. By February 15th we'll pass very near the bright star Aldebaran and eventually disappear from our skies in early March.
While it stays cold and dark this month enjoy the last days of winter as next month brings the Vernal Equinox and the start of springtime. Make a point to get outside, gaze into depths that lie beyond the edge of our skies, and take some time... to look up...
See you next month and don't forget to have a science-tastic day!
Special thanks to Royal City Science's own planetary geochemist Dr Glynis Perrett for her help preparing our Star Gazing Guide and the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.