Astronomers have long suspected there may still be an unknown planet lurking in the far reaches of the Solar System. Now two California Institute of Technology astronomers, Michael Brown and Konstantin Batygin, have offered indirect proof that such a planet exists. They have studied the orbits of six small bodies and found that the orbits of all six loop outward in the same quadrant of the solar system and all tilt in the same direction. The odds of this happening by chance is 1:15,000. They believe the bodies are influenced by a planet roughly the size of Neptune that occupies an orbit so far from the Sun that its year would be about 20,000 Earth years long. The hunt for the planet is now on although some skeptics such as Dr. Ellen Stafan of NASA are awaiting telescopic evidence to back the claim.

Focus on the planets

The planetary alignment that started in mid-January continues into February with the naked-eye planets spread out across the predawn sky, the first such alignment since 2005. Looking to the south Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter form an ascending line from left to right.

Mercury rises in the southeast about three-quarters of an hour before sunrise and stays with its brilliant neighbor Venus all month. Mercury slides in the glow of dawn as February ends.

Venus rises in the southeast well before first light as the month opens and can be used to help spot the other planets.

Mars rises shortly after midnight on Feb. 1, and is high in the south at dawn just to the lower right of the Moon. Viewers will need a powerful telescope and good conditions to see even a prominent feature as the north polar ice cap.

Jupiter rises around 9:00 p.m. as February opens but shortly after sunset as the month ends. Telescopes will reveal the planet’s surface features and the largest of the major moons, Ganymede, puts on a show during the night of Feb. 16-17 as it follows its shadow across the face of the planet.

Saturn rises in the south about an hour before sunrise as February opens just to the upper left of the star Antares. Saturn’s rings are well-positioned for viewing all month.

Uranus is a dim blue-green disk in Pisces while Neptune is in Aquarius but is essentially lost to view all month.

February events

1: Sunrise, 6:55 a.m.; sunset, 4:43 p.m. Mars is just to the lower right of the Moon before dawn. This is Candlemas or Groundhog Day, marking the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox.

6: In the southeast before dawn, the crescent Moon, Mercury and Venus form a tight triangle.

8: New moon, 9:40 a.m.

11: The moon is at perigee, or nearest approach to Earth.

15: First quarter moon, 2:46 a.m.

17: The sun enters Aquarius on the ecliptic.

18: The sun enters the astrological sign of Pisces although, astronomically, has just entered Aquarius.

22: Full moon, 1:20 p.m. The full moon of February is called the Snow Moon, Hunger Moon and occasionally the Wolf Moon.

27: The moon is at apogee, or farthest distance from the Earth.

29: Leap Day is added to February in a year divisible by four, so 2016 is 366 days long. Sunrise, 6:15 a.m.; sunset, 5:22 p.m.

Send astronomical queries to Clair Wood at cgmewood@aol.com or care of the Bangor Daily News, Features Desk, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor, Maine 04402.