March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Celestial Highlights, January Through Early February 2016

Posted: Thursday, January 14th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller

From March into August 2016, the bright planets, one by one, will enter the evening sky. But now, for a few weeks in January-February, early risers can enjoy all five bright planets before dawn. The waning Moon sweeps past four bright planets Dec. 31-Jan. 7, and past all five bright planets Jan. 27-Feb. 6.

One hour before sunrise, find brilliant Venus in SE, with Saturn nearby to its upper right Jan. 1-8 and lower left thereafter. These two planets are 8° apart on Jan. 1, closing to 5° on Jan. 4. On two spectacular mornings, they’ll appear in the same telescopic field, within 0.7° apart on Jan. 8, and 0.5° on Jan. 9. They’re still within 4° on Jan. 12, widening to 7° on Jan. 15, then to 15° on Jan. 22, and 25° on Jan. 31. Each day, Venus goes E against background stars by just over 1.2°, Saturn by only 0.1°, while Mars goes E about 0.5°. Watch Venus pass 6° N of first-magnitude Antares, heart of the Scorpion, on Jan. 7, and 3° N of Lambda in Sagittarius, the 3rd-mag. star marking the top of the Teapot, on Jan. 28. Steady Saturn is 6.3° to 7.5° from reddish twinkling Antares this month, and stays 6°-9° from that star throughout Saturn’s current apparition, ending when the planet sinks into evening twilight in November 2016.

Bright Jupiter, in SW to WSW an hour before sunup, begins retrograde on Jan. 8 and barely moves against stars this month, but it will shift 10° W in four months, Jan. 8 to May 9. This apparent temporary reversal of Jupiter’s motion is centered on the planet’s opposition and all-night visibility on night of March 7-8, when faster-moving Earth will overtake the giant planet. Mars, in SSE to S in this month’s morning sky, is 6° to 21° E of Spica. On Feb. 1, Mars will pass 1.1° N of 3rd-mag. Alpha Librae. Once Mercury emerges from Sun’s glare in late January, all five naked-eye planets will be on display, in order Me-Ve-Sa-Ma-Ju, in an impressive panorama across the southern morning sky.

See the Summer Triangle in Winter! Dusk: On what date this month will you last see Altair, southernmost star of the Summer Triangle, in evening sky? Dawn: On what date will you first spot Altair in morning? Each year around Jan. 15-16, as Earth follow its orbit around our Sun, the Sun appears to pass 30° south of Altair. That star is then above horizon much longer than the Sun and (along with the other Summer Triangle stars Vega and Deneb, higher and farther north) Altair can be seen at both dusk and dawn for several days. Try it!

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More on morning planets: Jupiter (mag. –2.3 in mid-Jan.) with its big 0.7-arcminute disk, dark cloud belts, and four Galilean satellites, and Saturn (mag. +0.5) with its ring system now tipped 26° from edge-on, are favorites for telescopic viewing. They’re available together mornings in the early months of 2016, and evenings from late spring into summer. (If you’d like to schedule a session for your students when both Jupiter and Saturn are visible in 2016, you may want to consider a predawn viewing in January or February before an evening session in June to August, when sunset will occur quite late.) Bright Venus (mag. –4) in Jan. shrinks to 0.2’ (arcminute) across, while increasing from 77 percent to 85 percent illuminated. (Venus will pass behind the Sun in early June 2016.) Mars (mag. +1.3 to +0.8) starts 2016 as a tiny disk 0.1’ across, 90 percent illuminated. By opposition and closest approach in late May, Mars will triple in apparent size and match Jupiter in brilliance! Mercury brightens from mag. +1.2 to 0.0 at dawn in last ten days of January, and continues to brighten into February.

Saturday Jan. 10, Look for the waxing Moon within an hour after sunset each evening Jan. 10-23.

Thursday, Jan. 14, Mercury at inferior conjunction, as the planet goes between Earth and Sun, while passing north of the solar disk. At its next inferior conjunction, on the morning of May 9, there will be a transit of Mercury across Sun’s disk. During that event, a telescope fitted with a suitable solar filter over the front end will allow viewing of Mercury as a tiny black dot moving across the face of the Sun.

Sun. and Mon., Jan. 17 and 18, Venus-Mars are 45° apart in morning sky.

On Jan. 18, Ve-Sa-Ma-Ju span 90°. Ma-Ju are 45° apart.

Tues. Jan. 19: Moon’s leading dark edge, invisible in daylight, occults or covers Aldebaran, eye of Taurus the Bull, around sunset in California. Trailing bright edge of Moon uncovers star in early evening. Times of star’s disappearance and reappearance for Palm Springs, 5:06 p.m. and 6:16 p.m. PST; in the Bay Area, around 5:04 a.m. and 6:15 p.m. Use a telescope to watch the star disappear and reappear. Once the star reappears, check at various times during the evening and watch the Moon pull away from the star. Look again on Wednesday and Thursday evenings.

Sat. Jan. 23, one hour before sunrise
Moon and five naked-eye planets span 170°. Including bright zodiacal stars, in order of increasing distance W of Sun, we have: Mercury low in ESE; Venus in SE; Saturn with Antares 7° to its lower right; Mars in S; Spica in SSW; Jupiter and Regulus in SW to W; and nearly Full Moon low in WNW. This morning, Venus is midway between Mercury and Saturn, 16° from each. Also, find the “Twins”, Pollux and Castor, 12°-16° upper right of Moon. Mercury gets brighter and easier to see daily, and climbs highest in morning twilight around Feb. 1.

Abrams Planetarium A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $11. http://www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/SkyCalendar/Index.html

Click image for a larger view. Abrams Planetarium
A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $11.

During Jan. 23-Feb. 7 in morning sky, watch the waning Moon go east against the zodiacal backdrop, posing near Regulus on Jan. 25 and 26, near Jupiter on Jan. 27 and 28, and just 4° north of Spica on Jan. 30. Mercury comes within 10° lower left of Venus on Jan. 28, and 7.5° on Jan. 31, when Moon, just over half full, appears about 10° upper right of Mars.

In early February, the Moon continues eastward, passing four more planets, while Mercury and Venus draw closer to each other. On Feb. 1, Mars appears within 3° lower right of the Moon, now just past Last Quarter phase and just under half full. An hour before sunrise on Feb. 1, five bright planets, Mercury-Venus-Saturn-Mars-Jupiter, in order from ESE to WSW, span 115°.

Mercury appears within 7° lower left of Venus during all of February, but both sink lower in twilight as that month progresses. They appear within 5° of each other during Feb. 6-21, and appear closest to each other, 4.0° apart, on Feb. 13. This approach without passing is called a quasi-conjunction, because neither planet overtakes the other. (As seen from Earth, the planets never share the same “x-coordinate”, either right ascension or celestial longitude, this time around.)

On Feb. 3, Saturn appears 4° below the Moon. Antares appears 9° lower right of the lunar crescent and 8° lower right of Saturn.

On Feb. 5, Venus appears within 9° to Moon’s lower left.

On Feb. 6, look for Mercury within 5° lower left of Venus and 3° lower right of a thin crescent Moon, only 5 percent full and just over 2 days before New. This morning the five naked-eye planets span an angle of 120° across our sky, one-third of the way around the circle of the zodiac.

On the morning of Feb. 7, Spaceship Earth is carrying us toward the planet Mars. Our faster-moving home planet will overtake the red planet in late May. Watch about 40-45 minutes before sunrise this morning for a last, very thin old crescent Moon, about 2 percent full, just risen in the east-southeast, about 17° lower left of Venus and 13° lower left of Mercury. New Moon, invisible near the Sun, occurs on Feb. 8 at 6:39 a.m. PST.

During Feb. 9-22, track the waxing Moon in the evening sky, within an hour after sunset. Another occultation of Aldebaran will take place just before moonset on the night of Feb. 15-16, shortly after 1:00 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 16.

Resources:

Illustrations of events mentioned above appear in Sky Calendar. A sample diagram showing the five naked-eye planets on morning of January 25 is included with this article. To subscribe, visit www.abramsplanetarium.org/skycalendar/.

January 2016 Morning Twilight Map

January 2016 Evening Twilight Map

An activity, Modeling seasonal visibility of stars and visibility of the planets, to help students investigate visibility of bright planets and first magnitude stars, is available at the CSTA website. As stars and planets come and go in morning and evening skies and display beautiful pairings and groupings, students can model these changes and explain their observations with the aid of items provided: Two planet orbit charts, Mercury through Mars and Mercury through Saturn; a table of data for plotting planets on orbit charts (.docx file); and a and a sheet with questions on star and planet visibility in 2015-2016 (.docx).

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs.

 Robert D. Miller, who provided the twilight charts and the planet orbit charts, did graduate work in Planetarium Science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy.

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.

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