Friday, February 17
Venus appears at its most brilliant today, shining at magnitude –4.8 (magnitude –4.85, to be more precise). That makes it 10 times brighter than the evening sky’s second-brightest object, Jupiter. The inner planet shows up easily in the west-southwest within a half-hour after sunset and grows even more prominent as darkness settles over the landscape. The planet lies among the background stars of Pisces the Fish, a region that stands nearly 30° high an hour after the Sun goes down and doesn’t set until 9 p.m. local time. When viewed through a telescope this evening, Venus appears 40" across and 27 percent illuminated. A week from now, its disk will span 44" and show a 20-percent-lit crescent. Although today marks the planet’s official peak in brightness, it doesn’t dip below magnitude –4.8 until early March.
Jupiter rises around 9:30 p.m. local time and climbs highest in the south about two hours before morning twilight begins. The giant world shines at magnitude –2.3 against the backdrop of central Virgo, some 4° north of that constellation’s brightest star, 1st-magnitude Spica. (The planet passes 4° due north of the star February 23.) Even a small telescope reveals Jupiter’s 41"-diameter disk and four bright moons. The planet also reaches an orbital milestone today. At 2 a.m. EST, Jupiter lies at its farthest point from the Sun during its 12-year orbit, at a distance of 507.2 million miles (816.3 million kilometers).
Saturday, February 18
Last Quarter Moon occurs at 2:33 p.m. EST. Look for it either before dawn this morning (when it lies among the background stars of Libra and looks slightly more than half-lit) or after it rises around 1:30 a.m. local time tomorrow (when it stands near the Scorpius-Ophiuchus border and appears as a fat crescent).
If the Last Quarter Moon looks a little smaller to you today, it may not be your imagination. Our satellite reaches apogee, the farthest point in its orbit around Earth, at 4:14 p.m. EST. It then lies 251,268 miles (404,376 kilometers) from Earth’s center.
Sunday, February 19
This week offers skygazers an excellent chance to see the zodiacal light. From the Northern Hemisphere, late winter and early spring are great times to observe this elusive glow after sunset. It appears slightly fainter than the Milky Way, so you’ll need a clear moonless sky and an observing site located far from the city. Look for the cone-shaped glow, which has a broad base and points nearly straight up from the western horizon, after the last vestiges of twilight have faded away. The Moon stays out of the early evening sky until February 28.