Night sights: Three planets show their beauty in year's first month

Sunday, January 3, 2016

For those who didn't get enough planetary action in the morning sky of 2015, don't fret – the new year starts off right with an amazing morning conjunction of Venus and Saturn.

After spending summer and fall in the predawn sky, mighty Jupiter finally crosses into late evening hours, and is well above the eastern horizon by midnight. At the beginning of the month, seeing Jupiter means staying out late, but by month's end, Jupiter rises around 9:30 p.m. and is well placed for viewing in the eastern sky about an hour later. The largest planet's brightness makes it an easy target against the background stars of Leo the Lion. Look for the backwards question mark that forms the head of the lion.

Venus continues to dominate the predawn sky just as it did during the fall. But this month, Venus is joined by the ringed planet, Saturn.

Venus is the brightest object you will see in the sky except when the moon is around, so like Jupiter, it is easy to spot. Much fainter, Saturn is harder to discern from a star. This month finds Venus and Saturn forming a tight, close conjunction, so this is a great time to catch a glimpse of the solar system's ringed jewel.

At the beginning of the month, both planets are above the eastern horizon by 6 a.m. Brighter Venus rises first, with yellowish Saturn just below. On Jan. 7, the gap between the two planets narrows and a very thin waning crescent moon joins just a little to the left of the two planets. The next day, Jan. 8, the two planets form a very close conjunction. The pairing is close enough to make these two worlds visible in a telescope at the same time at low power.

The magnified view that a telescope provides reveals each planet's distinctive characteristics. For Venus, it's the phases that are similar to the moon. Our earthly view outside Venus' orbit gives us a continuous look at the divide between day and night on this distant world. Saturn shows off it's glorious rings, unrivaled by any other planet and visible even in a small telescope.

The two planets can also be easily viewed together in a pair of binoculars for those without a telescope. But a telescope is needed to yield the details described above. Of course, the view of these planets with the unaided eye on a crisp clear morning will also be a sight to behold.

Brad Nuest is a space science educator at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson. He writes a monthly column for The News. Email: bradn@cosmo.org.