What are some skywatching highlights in February 2021? Find Mars all month after sunset, especially on the night of NASA's planned rover landing, Feb. 18. Then watch the Moon glide across the Winter Circle before it pays a visit to the bright stars of the constellation Gemini.
What's Up for February? This month we follow the Moon to three different points of interest in the winter sky.
First up, excitement about the Red Planet is building as NASA prepares to land its latest rover there, called Perseverance, on February 18th. You'll find Mars high in the west after sunset all month long. It should be visible all evening, setting around, or soon after, midnight local time.
On the night of NASA's planned Mars landing, you'll find the half-full Moon right next to the Red Planet. So go out and have a look with your own eyes – especially if you were one of the nearly 11 million people whose names traveled to Mars with Perseverance, etched into one of three microchips.
Staying with the Moon in February, it next drifts through part of the sky that contains a familiar pattern of stars, also called an asterism. This is the Winter Circle, or Winter Hexagon – a ring of six bright stars that spans a very wide region of the sky.
The Winter Circle contains two other special groupings of stars: the constellation Orion, and another wintertime asterism, the Winter Triangle, made of the bright stars Sirius, Betelgeuse, and Procyon. Like their counterpart, the Summer Triangle, the Winter Circle and Winter Triangle are signposts of the season. In the Northern Hemisphere, you'll see them rising in the east early in the evening during the time of long, cold nights, and setting in the west earlier and earlier as the season turns to spring. Watch on February 20th through the 22nd, as the Moon moves across the Winter Circle, growing a bit fuller each evening.
Finally, the Moon continues on its journey, visiting the twins of Gemini. Unlike asterisms, Gemini is one of the 88 official constellations used by astronomers to help them describe the locations of objects in the sky. The two bright stars Castor and Pollux form the heads of the inseparable twins from Roman and Greek mythology for which the constellation is named.
On February evenings, Gemini is located high overhead in the south. On the 23rd the Moon is here, just below Pollux.
NASA also has a history with Gemini, as it was the name of the human spaceflight program in the 1960s that tested technology and capabilities in preparation for the Apollo missions to the Moon. But while the constellation is pronounced "JEM-in-eye," not everyone knows the name of the NASA program was usually pronounced "JEM-ih-knee" within the space agency. However you want to pronounce it is fine. Just make sure you go out and catch the Moon's visit with Gemini on the 23rd.
Here are the phases of the Moon for February. You can catch up on all of NASA's missions to explore the solar system and beyond at nasa.gov. I'm Preston Dyches from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and that's What's Up for this month.