Current Night Sky

MANITOBA SKIES – February 2019

Contributed by Austin Valentin, Science Communicator

For centuries, humanity has been curious about the universe around us. We ask questions about the planets in and outside of our solar system. We ask questions about the possibility of life on planets other than Earth. We try to conceptualize how large the universe is, and many of us look up to the stars in wonder. We use the stars to make pictures, create legends, and even navigate the sky. However, with modern technology we often overlook the ancient methods of looking at the sky and understanding nature for practical reasons; navigation, farming, telling the time, and even using a calendar are all things that used to be done by just looking up!

The full moon through a 10″ telescope.         [Image credit: Scott D. Young]

The Moon

Perhaps one of the most fascinating objects up in the sky is our Moon. Since before recorded history, humanity has had a fascination with the Moon. What was this bright object in our skies, and what did it mean to us here on Earth?

In 1609, Galileo Galilee built his first telescope and pointed it at the Moon, and what he saw changed science. He saw a world covered in craters, scratches, mountains, and valleys. Even though Galileo’s findings certainly had an immeasurable impact on science, people had already been looking to the Moon for centuries. People used the Moon to make their lives easier; we learned that the Earth takes just over 365 days to make one full circle around the Sun and in those 365 days, the Moon will make approximately 13 rotations around the Earth; but why is that important?

People once watched the Moon and the Sun in the sky to know what time it was, what season it was, and what they could accomplish based on that knowledge, such as when to plant their crops and what season they were in. Some people even gave names to the Moon and Sun based on how they interpreted them at certain times of the year. Once per month, the Moon and the Earth will be aligned in such a way that no shadow from the Earth will be cast on the Moon; we call this a Full Moon. Some Aboriginal communities referred to the Full Moon in February, as the Snow Moon, as it was the time of year with the coldest temperatures and the most snow. Sometimes the Full Moon in February was referred to as the Hunger Moon, as resources at this time of year were the scarcest, due to the cold temperatures and snow covered land.

In modern times, science have provided us with wonderful technology that helps us tell the time; what year and season it is so that we do not have to watch the sky for this information. However, it is important to remember that once humans relied solely on nature for our everyday tasks, and amidst these modern times of reliance on technology and climate change, that we always understand that “nature does not need humans, but humans need nature” ~Harrison Ford.

February Sky Events

February 4 – New Moon

The Moon will be on the same side of the Earth as the Sun and will not be visible to us. Even though this sounds disappointing, it is a wonderful opportunity to break out the binoculars or telescopes (and maybe a hot beverage). A New Moon is a great time of the month to stargaze, as the Sun’s light reflecting off the Moon will not block our view of the dimmer night sky objects. Check out the planet Mars this night; it will appear even brighter, and more red than usual! The planet Mars will be visible in the South-Western sky every night in the month of February.

February 19 – Full Moon & “supermoon”

Unlike the New Moon on February 4th, on February 19th the Moon will be on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun, making the full side of the Moon visible to us. This Full Moon will also be the second of three “supermoons” of the year, where the Moon will appear slightly larger and brighter as it makes its closest approach to Earth in its orbit. However, this effect is only a few percent, and most people can’t actually tell the difference between a “super” moon and a regular one. Bottom line: the Moon is always “super” to look at!

February 27 – Mercury at its Greatest Elongation

            For those of you who love to break out your telescopes and observe our neighbouring planets, February 27th might be your lucky night. The planet Mercury will be at its greatest eastern elongation from the Sun on February 27th. This means that the planet will reach its highest point in our evening sky, making it the easiest to view just above the western horizon. Mercury will begin to appear in the western evening sky on February 16th, and will no longer be visible from Manitoba by March 3rd.