This evening three celestial objects form an impressive tight grouping: Venus, Mars and the Moon. On Friday they are all in a group, and on Saturday the Moon moves on but Venus and Mars are even more closely aligned in a conjunction. All you need is a clear western horizon and the rest will take care of itself.
Jupiter has taken its place as the dominant object in the night sky, outshining everything else around it for the coming months. It just reached 'opposition' as it has its closest approach to the Earth for the next year. At opposition, Jupiter and the Earth and Sun are in a straight line, and Jupiter is visible for the entire night, rising in the east as the Sun sets in the west, towering high overhead during the night, and setting in the west just as dawn breaks.
Details of Jupiter
The disk of Jupiter is at its maximum visible size, a clear ball with dominant cloudtops in backyard telescopes, with the four moons visible every night in an interplay that changes hourly. It's one of my favorite telescope objects because there is so much richness and visual beauty in the sight of this giant planet with its equatorial bands shining through.
Take a moment to appreciate the King of the Night Sky, currently passing through Leo the Lion. Jupiter's orbit takes it around the Sun in 12 of Earth's years, so each year we see it move to the next zodiac sign (Cancer in 2014, Leo in 2015, and Virgo in 2016).
Had a good show with Renee, Irish Greg and No Name at KFOG. The Morning Show is always a lot of fun, with twists and turns along the way. We talked about Astronomy apps, Aliens, Star Parties, Orion, Comet Lovejoy, Pluto and New Horizons, and more. Click here to listen.
Wednesday January 21st, a very slender young Moon and Venus form a compact group immediately after sunset. You'll need binoculars to spot this grouping, as the thin crescent Moon will be easily lost in the glare of the sunset sky, but bright Venus should be easier to spot. There's something magic about the sight of the thin crescent Moon, just barely glowing as a small bit of its illuminated side is visible to us, and that small light has to be seen through the glowing atmosphere with the refracted sunlight still filtering through it.
In San Francisco, the Sun sets around 5:20 pm so the view here should be accurate for 6:00 pm. You'll need a clear horizon due west to see this. Best of luck and happy viewing!
If you miss the view on Wednesday, look again on Thursday as the Moon sweeps past Mars.
The evening sky features a close encounter with the two inner planets, Venus and Mercury. When two celestial objects align, the visual effect is usually quite brilliant. Venus is 100s of times brighter than smaller and more distant Mercury, but nonetheless the two make an impressive pair this weekend. You'll need a clear view to the south-west just after sunset. Binoculars will make it faster and easier to locate the pair. The two planets will remain in close proximity for several days. And next week, the old Moon and Saturn will also have a close encounter. There's always much to see in the sky.
Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy has arrived in the night sky for viewers in the Northern Hemisphere, and in the coming days promises to be a fine sight especially through binoculars or a telescope, shimmering in green light with a slight tail. The comet is on a trajectory around the Sun and will pass nearest to Earth on January 7th, but given the geometry of its path, it will be ideally placed for viewing over the next few weeks as it rises high into the southern sky and as the Moon moves from Full to Waning phase. The finder chart, courtesy of Sky & Telescope, shows the daily movement of the comet across the backdrop of stars.
Path of Comet Lovejoy
I had good success finding it on January 1st despite the glow of the Waxing Moon, and look forward to tracking it down as soon as the moonlight begins to fade in a week. Stay tuned for updates.
I enjoy the occasional science hoax, and the resurgence of the "Zero G Day" hoax brings a smile to my face. It is a claim that on January 4th, 2015 at 9:47 PST, gravity on Earth will be momentarily diminished due to an alignment of Pluto and Jupiter. There is just enough science in the claim to make many believe it could be true, but in fact it's far from the truth, just a fun prank started by the astronomer Patrick Moore years ago. Nonetheless, if thousands of people jump at that moment, we can test out the theory that the Earth might move if everyone jumped at once, a scientific idea explored well by the science video series from Vsauce.
The lunar month starts with the slim crescent Moon glowing in the western sky, sweeping past the bright orange beacon of Mars and the faint stars of Capricornus. Venus is just starting to appear in the west after sunset, so if you have a clear view of the western horizon, look for it shortly after sunset. It will soon be higher and easier to spot as 2014 comes to an end.
In 2005 I began writing a column for the San Francisco Waldorf School newsletter called "The Urban Astronomer." I started this blog in 2007 as a place to archive my articles and to offer additional insights on the night sky - even if you live in a big city. In 2008 I became an occasional guest on the KFOG Morning Show, and more recently on KALW and KGO. Archived shows are posted on the blog. I conduct private star parties for special events and corporate events. Contact me for details.