Getting up before the crack of dawn to enjoy the morning stars is a lot easier in the winter!
Getting up before the crack of dawn to enjoy the morning stars is a lot easier in the winter! These long nights here in the Northern Hemisphere might be cold (very cold), depending on where you live, but the good news is that there’s more opportunity to enjoy the heavens above.
Through this week, be sure to see the planets Jupiter and Mars in the pre-dawn sky, facing south-southeast. They are astonishingly close on January 6 and again on January 7, only a third degree apart. To visualize this, the apparent width of the Full Moon is about one half degree.
A good time to look is between 6 and 7 a.m., Standard Time.
If you missed it, keep watching as the planets will still make a nice pair, as speedier Mars slips further from more distant Jupiter. It’s easy to tell which is which. Jupiter is brilliant (magnitude - 1.8) and white. Mars is dimmer (magnitude +1.5) and reddish.
On the mornings of January 10-11-12, watch as the thinning crescent Moon glides past the planets. The Moon makes a tight triangle with Mars and Jupiter on the 11th. You can see this with eyes alone, but the view with binoculars will be stunning.
To the right is the third magnitude star Alpha Librae, better known by the wonderful name, Zebenelgenubi. This is a wide double star as seen with binoculars.
While you are looking, scan to the lower left (about 20 degrees) from the planets, for the bright red star Antares. The star is deeper in the coming dawn; if the sky is too bright you may need binoculars.
Too cold to go out? That can be very understandable. Perhaps you are blessed with a window facing south-southeast, with a view clear from trees, buildings, etc. Of course, have the lights off in the room. Bundling up well, if you venture out, notice at this hour, the bright orange star Arcturus, very high in the south, bright blue-white Vega rising in the east; the Big Dipper high in the north but starting to dip down; and the bright pair of Pollux and Castor, the “heads of Gemini”, sinking low in the west.
You are taking in the spring evening skies, a full three months early!
Back to Mars and Jupiter. Although they may look close to one another, that’s only a matter of perspective! Taking their average distances from the Sun, these planets, on average, are at closest, 342 million miles apart! Between their respective orbits is a vast collection of asteroids, where the majority of them dwell, keeping their own orbits around the Sun.
Venus and Saturn are currently hidden in the glare of the Sun. Mercury is coming into view low in the southeast before dawn, to the lower left of Antares. You will need a low southeast horizon to see Mercury. It’s best to use binoculars due to the brightening light of dawn.
Did you see the bright Full Moon on January 1st? This was a so-called “Super Moon” when the Moon happens to be near its closest point to the Earth at the time of full phase. This makes the Full Moon a bit more bright than normal. Another occurs on January 31st, when the Full Moon also happens to enter the Earth’s shadow. The resulting total lunar eclipse, a spectacular sight, will be well seen in the morning hours for much of the country, but alas, not for the East (where I live). Let me know how it looks if you see it!
Having two full moons in the same month is also rare; the second one is called the “Blue Moon” although interestingly, it isn’t blue at all and during the eclipse the Moon will turn a shade of red!
Guess what DOESN’T happen in February 2018? There’s no Full Moon at all!
Meanwhile, Last Quarter Moon is on January 8.
Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.