he first two weeks of February are all about planets. Many University of Saskatchewan students vaguely remember their elementary school science lessons, memorising the nine planets of our solar system — now eight, of course, thanks to Pluto’s demotion to dwarf planet. Seeing them in the sky, however, and realizing that bright “star” is actually an entire world makes the scale of our solar system seem real. Take a look at some easy-to-spot planets this month and think about what’s really behind that spot of light — it will blow your mind, I promise.
There’s a reason that the planet Jupiter, largest in our solar system, was named for the king of the Roman gods. Jupiter rises ever earlier this month until it reigns supreme above the horizon at sunset around Feb. 10, remaining the brightest “star” in the sky all night long. Look east in the early evening to pick Jupiter out, then watch it trace an arc across the sky until morning — once you know how bright it is, you’ll never have trouble recognizing it again.
For an even more jaw-dropping sight, head to the telescope at the U of S Observatory on a Saturday evening for their free public viewing nights and see Jupiter’s striped surface up close. The stripes are actually bands of clouds, some higher in Jupiter’s atmosphere than others due to their density. You may just get to see the famous red spot, too — a giant storm system that could swallow an entire Earth.
Early in the morning on Feb. 7, Mercury, the smallest planet in our system, reaches its greatest western elongation. This term describes the farthest point above our horizon from the Sun that Mercury ever reaches. Because it is closer to the Sun than Earth is, we never see Mercury travel across our whole sky at night — it is only visible close to dawn or dusk, or hidden by daylight entirely. On Feb. 7, though, catch Mercury around due east just above the horizon, noticeable as a piercingly bright, though small, dot while the sky grows light. Mercury is a barren, rocky world of extreme temperatures, sometimes varying from 427 to minus 173 degrees Celsius from day to night — something Saskatonians are sure to sympathize with.