Big Apple Sky Calendar: February 2023

Dramatic highlights from the skies above Earth by intrepid astronomer Joe Patterson.
The astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto here shown with his homemade 9-inch telescope, c. 1930.Popular Science Monthly, June 1930 Issue.

In the 1990s, astronomy professor Joe Patterson wrote and illustrated a seasonal newsletter, in the style of an old-fashioned paper zine, of astronomical highlights visible from New York City. His affable style mixed wit and history with astronomy for a completely charming, largely undiscovered cult classic: Big Apple Astronomy. For Broadcast, Joe shares current monthly issues of Big Apple Sky Calendar, the guide to sky viewing that used to conclude the seasonal newsletter. Steal a few moments of reprieve from the city’s mayhem to take in these sights. As Oscar Wilde said, “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

—Janna Levin, editor-in-chief

February 1

Sunrise 7:06 am EST

Sunset 5:13 pm EST

February 1-2

These are the two good February nights to look for overflights of New York City by the International Space Station (ISS). On the night of February 1st, the ISS flies over NYC from 6:39 to 6:43 pm EST, and appears around magnitude -3.9—just about the brightest thing in the sky. The next night is a repeat performance from 5:50 to 5:56 pm EST. In both cases, look for it first in the west, then passing nearly overhead before disappearing in the eastern sky. If you spot it, you’ll be shocked at how quickly it disappears—high in the northeast sky, as it enters the Earth’s shadow.

February 2

This is one of the “cross-quarter days,” midway between the solstice and the equinox (the others are Mayday, Lammas, and All Saints’ Day). In the Christian liturgy it’s called Candlemas. But in the U.S. it’s much better known as Groundhog Day, the subject of media hilarity and a really excellent 1993 film of the same name.

February 5

Full Moon at 1:29 pm EST.

February 9

On this night in 1913, people from Saskatchewan to Brazil were witness to the Great Meteoric Procession. Several hundred meteors streamed slowly across the sky, as if in a crude formation, before winking out a full three minutes later, over the mid-Atlantic. This shocked astronomers because the meteors seemed to last ~100 times as long as typical meteors and moved in formation. It also terrified others, who thought it might signify the end of the world. In retrospect, the procession may have been the spiral and breakup of a very small comet or asteroid recently snagged by the Earth’s gravity. There may well be thousands of such objects out there, and perhaps only the vastness of space makes these encounters extremely rare.

A dark oil painting of stars in the sky
"Meteoric Display of February 9, 1913, as seen near High Park," oil painting by Gustav Hahn, Toronto, c. 1913.Via Wikimedia/University of Toronto.

There’s a concept in physics known as “the Roche limit.” If a small object (say the Moon) gets close enough to a massive object (say the Earth) that the Earth’s gravity on the near side of the Moon significantly exceeds that on the Moon’s far side, then the Moon may be ripped into little pieces. But those pieces would continue, more or less, in the orbit they had before the fragmentation. Monsieur Roche worked out the math long ago, and used it to explain the likely origin of Saturn’s rings. This could explain the Meteoric Procession of 1913.

February 12

Abraham Lincoln’s birthday … and also Charles Darwin’s. Same year, too (1809). An excellent day for humanity.

February 15

On this day in 1564, Galileo was born in Pisa. And three short days later in Rome, Michelangelo died. If you’re looking for a precise week to signify the transition from “The Renaissance” to “Modern Science,” look no further.

February 15-28

Starting in mid-February and continuing for ~two weeks, Venus and Jupiter will stage a beautiful show in the western sky during evening twilight. For the first week, Jupiter will be the higher of the two brilliant planets. With each day, Venus will creep slowly higher and Jupiter will sink slowly lower.

February 18

On this night in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh, a young amateur astronomer, found a “star” which moved slightly from night to night … and the orbital solution showed an elliptical orbit out beyond the orbit of Neptune. A ninth planet! It was announced to the world as “Pluto” a few weeks later. But some oddities had already showed up. Its orbit actually takes it inside Neptune’s orbit for 20 years of the 248-year orbit. Pretty weird. And it was six magnitudes fainter than Neptune. Why so faint? Was this alleged new planet practically black?

Two snapshots of the night sky, slightly different
Original plates from Clyde Tombaugh's discovery of Pluto, with white arrows pointing to the moving object.Lowell Observatory Archives.

The 1980s and ’90s brought discoveries of thousands of new members of the solar system. They were all dubbed minor planets or asteroids. The seven biggest, including Pluto, are now called dwarf planets. Discovery never ceases, and nomenclature lags behind it. So if you’re still a ninth-planet holdout for Pluto, it’s not looking good … but neither did the Mets’ chances in 1969.

February 20

Anniversary of John Glenn’s three-orbit flight aboard the U.S. spacecraft Friendship 7 in 1962. This event and its background were colorfully depicted in The Right Stuff—a 1993 movie and 1979 book by Tom Wolfe. Both superb.

February 21-22

On these nights, Venus and Jupiter are still close together, but the waxing crescent Moon now approaches to form a beautiful trio in the southwestern sky around 6:00–6:30 pm. Beautiful! … if you have a clear view low in the southwest.

February 22

Washington’s birthday in 1732. But if you were present in the birthing room, the wall calendar would have read February 11th, 1731. Why? Well, Virginia was an English colony, and the Brits had not yet accepted Pope Gregory’s calendar reform of 1582. (Some people took another few centuries. That’s why Russia’s “October Revolution” is celebrated on November 8th.)

That explains the 11-day discrepancy. The “year” issue seems weirder, by modern reckoning. The English year started on March 25th, the traditional date for the vernal equinox. So all February dates were in the 11th month of 1731, not the second of 1732.

Nowadays, nearly all dates are reckoned in the modern style, regardless of what calendar system prevailed at the time. Plenty of room for argument, if you’re feeling disputatious.

February 27

High in tonight’s evening sky, the Moon approaches Mars from the west, while the Jupiter-Venus conjunction continues low in the southwestern sky.

February 28

Sunrise 6:32 am EST

Sunset  5:46 pm EST ♦

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