January offers a parade of planets across the night sky that will please both night owls and early risers. As a bonus, the waning moon is not only pointing the way to some of these planets, but is also improving the view of a comet that recently arrived on the celestial scene.
Midwinter is ruled by the constellation Orion,
which rises at sunset and is visible all night long. To the upper right
of Orion in the early evening is Taurus,
marked by the bright star Aldebran, and further on is the Pleiades
During the first week of January, Comet Machholz, C/2004 Q2, will be
passing to the right (or west) of Aldebaran and the Pleiades. Early in
the week, the horns of Taurus, including Aldebaran and the loose star
cluster the Hyades, point toward Machholz. The comet and the two
clusters will resemble a right triangle. The comet already can be
easily viewed in binoculars from a moderately dark city location.
On January 7 and 8, Machholz will be just 2 degrees (four
moon-widths) from the Pleiades. It's not known yet whether they comet
will be visible to the naked eye, but this weekend will be its most
likely opportunity because of its brightness and the nearly moonless
conditions. The comet should be visible into the early morning hours.
First time comet watchers should be aware that real comets are not like
the literary blazing cometwith a long tail that streaks across the
sky.Their motion is apparent from night to night, but in a single
viewing session, a comet will appear stationary. Comets are small,
often resembling nebulas, and the tail of the comet may or may not be
visible to the casual observer.
The first of the night's planets, Saturn, rises about 6:30 PM. It is in
to the left of Orion. Gemini is identified by the two head stars of
the twins Castor and Pollux. Saturn is situated below them, making it
appear as though the twins have become triplets. A couple of hours
later, follow the arc of the two stars and Saturn on the right to
bright stars Procyon (in Canis Minor) and Sirius (in Canis Major, at
the feet of Orion.)
At 6:00 AM, Saturn will still be visible in the west. Directly to the
south, Jupiter is near Spica, the bright star that marks the tailbone
Low in the southeast, Scorpius, with its red heartstar Antares, is
rising, accompanied by three planets. Mars is above Antares. Both
objects have an orangish color, the source of the name Antares, which
means rival of Mars.
Low in the southeast, the two inner planets, Venus and Mercury, will be
visible about 45 minutes before sunrise, if you have a clear view of
the horizon. Venus is much brighter than pinkish Mercury, and the two
planets are only about one degree (two moon widths) apart.
To be sure that you are looking in the right spot, look for the
crescent moon near Jupiter on the 4th and 5th, near Mars and Antares on
the 7th, and to the right of Venus and Mercury on the 8th.
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