Mercury reaches greatest elongation west on February 7th when it's positioned 26 degrees from the Sun. The planet is not well placed for observation at northern temperate locations but from southern latitudes this happens to be the most favourable morning apparition of the year. With an extended period of visibility, the nearest Solar System planet can be seen in the morning skies until the second week of March.
From latitude 35S (approx. equal to Sydney, Cape Town and Santiago) Mercury appears 12 degrees above the eastern horizon, 45 minutes before sunrise on February 1st. At magnitude 0.0 it should be relatively easy to spot. If you're having trouble finding the planet binoculars do greatly assist, as does brilliant Venus a good placed marker just above Mercury. For the rest of the month, the planet remains well placed for observation. During February its brightness increases from magnitude 0.0 to -0.3.
From northern temperate latitudes Mercury can also be seen for a short while around the time of greatest elongation. However, it's always low down and at best just a few degrees above the horizon.
On February 6th, the very thin waning crescent Moon passes 4 degrees north of Mercury and Venus.
The latest morning apparition of Venus is now fast coming to an end from mid-northern temperate latitudes. From such locations our inner planetary neighbour remains a brilliant object at the start of the month, rising 90 minutes or so before sunrise but by months end it will be difficult to spot against the bright morning twilight sky. Further south the period of visibility is noticeably better with Venus visible throughout February.
As the month progresses the phase of the planet increases from 85% to 91%. Its apparent size stands at about 12 arc seconds. As mentioned previously, Mercury remains close to Venus this month and on February 6th the very thin waning crescent Moon passes 4 degrees north of the pair.
Mars continues to gain in brightness and apparent size as it heads towards opposition in May. The planet is moving direct through Libra and increases from magnitude +0.8 on February 1st to magnitude +0.3 on the last day of the month. Its apparent size increases from 7 to 9 arc seconds.
Mars is currently moving relatively quickly eastwards in relation to the "fixed" background stars. From northern locations the "Red planet" can be seen from around 1am improving by 45 minutes by months end. For those living at tropical and southern latitudes it can be seen two hours earlier than that.
It's now possible to start serious telescopic observations of the famous planet. However, the apparent size remains small compared to Jupiter and Saturn and therefore good seeing, high magnifications and access to at least a medium sized (200mm - 8 inch) scope is needed to tease out surface markings.
On February 1st, the last quarter Moon passes 3 degrees north of Mars. It again passes north of the planet on February 29th, separation 4 degrees. At months end, Mars has moved to within 18 degrees of Saturn.
Jupiter is a brilliant object moving retrograde in southeastern Leo close to the Virgo border. At the start of the month the master planet rises a few hours after sunset but by months end it's visible practically all night as it closes in on a March 8th opposition date. Due to its current declination of a few degrees north of the celestial equator, Jupiter is reasonably well placed for observers worldwide.
The "King of the Planets" brightens from magnitude -2.4 to -2.5 as the month progresses with its apparent size increasing from 42.5 to 44.3 arc seconds. It easily outshines all night-time stars.
A pair of binoculars is all that's required to reveal the planets four largest moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Sometimes all four are visible at once but on occasions satellites are obstructed and hidden from view as they pass behind or in front of Jupiter's disk. Telescopically the planet is a gem. Even small refractors show the main cloud belts with medium or large scopes revealing a wealth of finer detail including smaller belts, ovals, festoons and of course the famous "Red Spot".
The waning gibbous Moon passes 1.7 degrees south of Jupiter on February 24th.
Saturn, mag. +0.6, remains an early morning object moving direct among the stars of Ophiuchus. By months end the planet rises around midnight from southern temperate locations although up to three hours later for those located further north. To the naked eye it appears creamy or off-white in colour.
Located west of Saturn is Mars which moves nearer to the "Ringed planet" as the month progresses. Even closer to Saturn is first magnitude star Antares - often called the "Rival of Mars" due to its striking deep orange/red colour - which is 8 degrees southwest of the planet.
The waning crescent Moon passes 4 degrees north of Saturn on February 3rd.
Uranus, mag. +5.9, remains an early evening binocular object during February, moving slowly direct in Pisces. At the beginning of the month the planet is visible as soon as it's dark towards the west. For those located at mid-northern latitudes Uranus can be seen for some 5 hours on February 1st, reducing to around 3 hours by months end. From southern locations its visibility period is only about half as long.
On February 12th, the thin waxing crescent Moon passes 2 degrees south of Uranus.
Neptune reaches solar conjunction on February 29th. The most distant of the 8 planets is positioned inconveniently close to the Sun and therefore not suitably placed for observation this month.
Solar System Data Table February 2016
|Date||Right Ascension||Declination||Apparent Magnitude||Apparent Size||Illum. (%)||Distance from Earth (AU)||Constellation|
|Sun||5th Feb 2016||21h 11m 22.8s||-16d 13m 19.9s||-26.8||32.4'||100||0.986||Capricornus|
|Sun||15th Feb 2016||21h 51m 05.8s||-13d 01m 01.2s||-26.8||32.4'||100||0.988||Capricornus|
|Sun||25th Feb 2016||22h 29m 34.5s||-09d 27m 40.1s||-26.8||32.3'||100||0.990||Aquarius|
|Mercury||5th Feb 2016||19h 25m 41.4s||-20d 54m 49.8s||-0.1||07.0"||58||0.818||Sagittarius|
|Mercury||15th Feb 2016||20h 13m 50.3s||-20d 25m 23.8s||-0.1||06.0"||73||0.667||Capricornus|
|Mercury||25th Feb 2016||21h 11m 47.9s||-17d 53m 56.1s||-0.2||05.5"||83||0.761||Capricornus|
|Venus||5th Feb 2016||19h 03m 46.0s||-22d 08m 14.7s||-3.9||12.2"||86||1.371||Sagittarius|
|Venus||15th Feb 2016||19h 56m 33.3s||-20d 44m 37.7s||-3.9||11.7"||88||1.422||Sagittarius|
|Venus||25th Feb 2016||20h 48m 04.0s||-18d 19m 59.6s||-3.9||11.4"||90||1.470||Capricornus|
|Mars||5th Feb 2016||14h 58m 41.3s||-15d 25m 55.7s||0.8||07.0"||90||1.331||Libra|
|Mars||15th Feb 2016||15h 17m 31.5s||-16d 44m 55.6s||0.6||07.6"||90||1.229||Libra|
|Mars||25th Feb 2016||15h 35m 11.9s||-17d 53m 08.9s||0.4||08.3"||90||1.127||Libra|
|Jupiter||5th Feb 2016||11h 32m 03.7s||04d 32m 10.4s||-2.4||42.9"||100||4.597||Leo|
|Jupiter||15th Feb 2016||11h 28m 33.3s||04d 56m 55.9s||-2.4||43.7"||100||4.515||Leo|
|Jupiter||25th Feb 2016||11h 24m 18.9s||05d 25m 46.2s||-2.5||44.2"||100||4.461||Leo|
|Saturn||5th Feb 2016||16h 52m 21.1s||-20d 51m 07.3s||0.6||15.9"||100||10.453||Ophiuchus|
|Saturn||15th Feb 2016||16h 55m 18.3s||-20d 54m 54.1s||0.6||16.1"||100||10.301||Ophiuchus|
|Saturn||25th Feb 2016||16h 57m 40.0s||-20d 57m 27.8s||0.6||16.4"||100||10.140||Ophiuchus|
|Uranus||5th Feb 2016||01h 03m 46.2s||06d 07m 35.0s||5.9||03.5"||100||20.421||Pisces|
|Uranus||15th Feb 2016||01h 05m 07.8s||06d 16m 18.0s||5.9||03.4"||100||20.565||Pisces|
|Uranus||25th Feb 2016||01h 06m 43.1s||06d 26m 22.0s||5.9||03.4"||100||20.692||Pisces|
|Neptune||5th Feb 2016||22h 41m 17.4s||-09d 09m 25.7s||8.0||02.2"||100||30.864||Aquarius|
|Neptune||15th Feb 2016||22h 42m 39.5s||-09d 01m 14.7s||8.0||02.2"||100||30.919||Aquarius|
|Neptune||25th Feb 2016||22h 44m 04.2s||-08d 52m 49.1s||8.0||02.2"||100||30.946||Aquarius|