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.

A Rare Unicorn Meteor Outburst Could Be Visible for Less Than an Hour on Thursday

joegolby/iStock via Getty Images
joegolby/iStock via Getty Images

Your chances of seeing a unicorn this week are slim, but if you look up on Thursday night, you may see something that's almost as extraordinary. As Sky & Telescope reports, the upcoming Alpha Monocerotid meteor shower could produce a meteor outburst, which means there could be multiple shooting stars per second streaming from the unicorn constellation.

What is a unicorn meteor shower?

There's nothing particularly magical about the Alpha Monocerotids. They appear to originate near the star Procyon, which is next to the constellation Monoceros, the Greek name for unicorn.

The shower is known for occasionally packing a dense flurry of activity into a brief viewing window. The meteors appear between November 15 through the 25th of each year, and peak around the 22nd. Several times a century, the shower treats sky gazers to an "outburst" of shooting stars that lasts less than an hour.

Such an outburst is predicted for 2019. According to astronomers Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen, the Earth is on track to pass through a thick portion of the tail of the unknown comet that provides debris for the shower. The conditions are almost the same as they were in 1995, when the Alpha Monocerotids lit up the sky at a rate of 400 meteors per hour, which is approaching meteor storm levels. For that reason, the scientists are expecting shooting stars to appear in the same numbers this time around.

How to see the meteor outburst

Timing is crucial if you want to catch the Alpha Monocerotids, even more than with regular meteor showers. The outburst is expected to start at 11:15 p.m. EST and last just 15 to 40 minutes. Luckily, the sun will be fully set by then and the crescent moon won't rise until after 2 a.m, creating optimal viewing conditions for the eastern half of the country. The shooting stars are fast—traveling at 40 miles per second—and they come at random. Don't be surprised to wait a minute between meteors during some parts of the outburst and less than a second at others.

[h/t Sky & Telescope]

The Leonid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend—Here's the Best Way to Watch It

mdesigner125/iStock via Getty Images
mdesigner125/iStock via Getty Images

We're nearing the end of 2019, but there are still a few astronomical events to catch before the year is s out. This Sunday—November 17—the Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak. Here's everything you need to know before viewing the spectacle.

What is the Leonid meteor shower?

Like all meteor showers, the Leonids are caused by meteoroids from outer space burning up on their descent toward Earth. These particular shooting stars come from the rocky tail of Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. Each November, debris from the comet pummels the Earth's atmosphere, causing meteors to light up the sky at rates that can exceed 1000 per hour.

The Leonids won't reach that frequency this year. According to EarthSky, the meteors would peak at a rate of around 10 to 15 per hour in a dark, moonless sky. But because the moon will be bright this weekend, sky-gazers will likely see less of them, with only the brightest shooting stars shining through.

How to See the Leonids

For your best chance of spotting the Leonids, look up the night of Sunday, November 17 and early in the morning of Monday, November 18. The shower reaches its peak after midnight. The moon will be in its waning gibbous phase at that time, so even with clear skies, viewing conditions won't be ideal. But there are ways to increase your chances of seeing as many meteors as possible. Try finding a large object to stand under—such as a tree or building—that will block your view of the moon. If you don't see anything right away, be patient: The more time you give your eyes to adjust to the darkness, the more likely you are to spot a shooting star.

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